Cricket World Cup: Sublime Sanath lifts the spirits

The Crowd Pleaser: Jayasuriya of Sri Lanka; finds the spectacular success of three years ago ready for a rerun

ON A GREY Northampton day, Sanath Jayasuriya is batting in the nets, struggling with his footwork and his timing. He holds the bat absurdly low, his stance is open and crouched. No bowler with any grain of intelligence would drop short, but the prancing young Sri Lankan fast bowler, Suresh Perera, has not quite grasped the position. He is soon wandering off to pick his ball out of the bowling green. Back for more, he is quickly on his travels again, heading for the pristine indoor centre at wide mid- wicket where his leg-stump half-volley has been unceremoniously dispatched. Perera changes his line, pitches on off stump but again too short. A low- slung scything motion and the ball hurtles towards the main pavilion. Perera feels the same sense of desperation that pervaded the England attack at the Oval at the back end of last summer. How do you bowl to this guy?

One of a host of one-day international statistical books dropped through the letter box yesterday. Flick open to a random page. "Fastest Half Centuries": top of the list S T Jayasuriya, 17 balls v Pakistan in Singapore. No matter the suspicious venue or the dubious nature of the tournament, just think about that. A ball under three overs for a 50 against a formidable one-day attack.

He dawdled a bit then, taking a soporific 31 more balls to record the fastest century until Shahid Afridi returned the compliment six months later in Nairobi with a 37-ball hundred. One-day statistics can be particularly meaningless, but not the least remarkable of Jayasuriya's many qualities is his seeming indifference to the type of cricket being played. One- day or five-day, if the ball is there to be hit, hit it, hard and high, if necessary.

As chief revolutionary in Sri Lanka's overturning of the tactical order in the last World Cup, Jayasuriya will forever be remembered as a unique one-day player, but a little matter of 340 against the Indians in Colombo put the little left-hander behind only Lara, Sobers and Hutton in the list of highest individual innings in Test cricket.

With Jayasuriya on 326 not out overnight, 30,000 people turned out the following day to watch their hero beat the record. The pressure proved too much. An off-break from Chauhan bounced a fraction more than anticipated and Ganguly took a simple catch at silly point. Jayasuriya had batted for 799 minutes, without giving a chance, faced 578 balls and hit two sixes and 36 fours. Hardly the fly-by-night cricket of a one-day specialist. Rarely has a double centurion come off the ground looking as disappointed as Jayasuriya at the Oval. "I should have got more, I was playing so well," he says now, shaking his head.

It might hearten Angus Fraser, for one, to know that Jayasuriya himself is as puzzled as many of his victims by the source of his innovation. Fraser was subject to a particularly ferocious assault, including the sort of square-drive-cum-slash which has become Jayasuriya's inelegant but highly effective trademark. "I get great satisfaction from playing some shots, like I was a kid," he says. "But sometimes I watch myself on television later and I can't imagine some of the shots I play and how I play them."

It is pronounced without conceit, with a wonder of the schoolboy who used to play endless games of softball cricket with his friends in the garden of his house in Matara, a fishing town on Sri Lanka's southern tip and the last stop on the coastal railway. His father worked as a sanitary supervisor for Matara Council, his brother played a bit of cricket but gave up to work in the fisheries department. Only Sanath maintained his love of the game, graduating from St Servatius College in Matara to the Sri Lankan Under-19 where Duleep Mendis, manager of the current tour, recalls him scoring a quickfire double-hundred against Pakistan. It is a credit to the Sri Lankan coaching system that no one tried to tinker with his natural flair; one wonders what might have happened to a player of similarly aggressive instincts in the English county game.

"No one ever tried to change the way I approach my game," he says. "Even in the garden when I was much smaller, if there was a ball there to be hit, I hit it. It's my personality, it comes through my cricket. But you can't play every match the same way, you can't go after the bowling all the time either because of the conditions or because the bowlers are bowling brilliantly. Some days I have to get my head down and work for the team and, in a way, that gives me as much satisfaction as going for my strokes."

Jayasuriya was first moved up to open the innings on tour to Australia in 1995-6, scoring his maiden Test century. But it was the World Cup the following season which earned the self-effacing Jayasuriya the undying affection of his people, and most cricketing romanticists.

While England were plodding through a tired old routine, Jayasuriya's early-order hitting, in partnership with Romesh Kaluwitharana, was transforming one-day thinking. When the two teams met in the quarter-final, England tried to counter Sri Lanka's tactics by opening the bowling with the left-arm spin of Richard Illlingworth. Jayasuriya skated to 82 off 44 balls.

Despite failing in the final, Jayasuriya was named the Most Valuable Player of the tournament and earned enough money to have a new house built for himself and his mother on the outskirts of Colombo. He still works as a development manager for the Union Bank in Sri Lanka's capital, which has proved a useful diversion from the relentless international schedule imposed on the newly marketable world champions.

Conditions will be different this time round, of course, and the defending champions will not have the element of surprise on their side. The white Duke ball will probably swing and seam more, the Sri Lankans' own form over the past year has been patchy and Jayasuriya himself has just returned from injury after a ball from Australia's Brendon Julian broke a bone in his right wrist. The scar is still vivid from the operation to insert a plate and screws which kept him out of the game for a month. Not that any adversity will reshape Jayasuriya's natural instincts.

"I always hit the ball if I can, the crowd in Colombo know that, so if I'm a little subdued they know it's for a reason," he says. "I want to win for Sri Lanka, but I like to entertain as well. It could be difficult here. It takes time to adapt to English conditions, but we must play our own cricket, just as we did last time. The first 15 overs we will try to make as many runs as we can."

So the message is unchanged, a health warning to the England bowlers; on Friday, when the world champions begin the defence of their title at Lord's, take your seat early or risk missing one of the great firework- lighters in world cricket.

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