The gentleman who relishes his chance to shine

Aravinda de Silva has filled the shoes of Carl Hooper with aplomb, says David Llewellyn
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The Independent Online
Carl Hooper cast a long shadow at Kent last season. A fistful of first-class hundreds and more than 1,500 Championship runs together with some stunning all-round one-day performances, notably in the Sunday League, made him a difficult act to follow.

At just over 5ft 3in, Sri Lanka's Aravinda de Silva does not exactly walk tall, but he is proving a big signing as Kent's overseas replacement for the 6ft 1in Hooper. The boots may not be the same size, but the impression they leave promises to be as great.

His stated preference is for limited-overs cricket, so he should enjoy Kent's visit to Lord's today for the Benson and Hedges Cup final against Lancashire, but so far it is in the longer game that he is making his mark.

De Silva is threatening to break a few batting records, having already hit six Championship centuries - four of them in his last five innings, including two double centuries in consecutive matches - one more than Hooper managed last season.

The 29-year-old de Silva, who has made 49 Test appearances for Sri Lanka and is hovering around the 40.00 mark with the bat, is beginning to do his stuff in the one-day competitions - with the ball. According to the Kent coach, Daryl Foster, it was de Silva who turned the game with his off spin against Derbyshire last weekend, taking a crucial wicket and helping to contain the batsmen in a high-scoring match. Kent's victory kept them in joint second place in the Sunday League table.

He has already outstripped Hooper in one department. On hearing news of de Silva's signing, some 120 Kent members sent letters to captain Mark Benson criticising his choice. Benson is stoical about it, saying: "When I signed Carl Hooper I got probably 80 letters saying what an idiot I was signing a guy with a terrible Test record. At least a few of those 120 members who complained about the signing of Aravinda have written back saying that maybe my judgement isn't so bad after all. I just wish they all would."

At least one group in Kent is happy - the other players. According to Foster, their overseas star has dovetailed neatly into the dressing-room. "He is a marvellous influence on the Kent boys. I think they all look up to him," Foster said. "Somebody coming in to replace Carl Hooper is stepping into pretty big shoes, but Aravinda has been a superb ambassador for Sri Lankan cricket and not only is he a very fine player, he is also a very fine gentleman. He is a fun-loving guy and he has the best sense of humour of all time. I am absolutely amazed at how well he has fitted in."

The Sri Lankan first caught Foster's eye when he was doing his winter job, coaching Western Australia. "I saw him in the first Test in Brisbane in 1989," he explained. "Sri Lanka had virtually been written off, then Aravinda came in and absolutely destroyed what, at that time, was a reasonable Australian attack. I think he made 170-odd."

In fact it was 167, 100 less than his Test best made against New Zealand a couple of years later. "I thought at that moment," said Foster, "that I was witnessing a very special player in action and I have not changed my opinion one bit since. He has a distinctive style, and I think the young fellows at Kent are learning a lot just from the way Aravinda loves to bat."

De Silva did take a little time to come to terms with English conditions. "He started a bit slowly," admitted Benson, "and probably felt under more pressure when he didn't make runs straight away, but once the sun started shining, he began scoring a lot of runs." De Silva has 1,226 to date for a Championship average of 68, and he has said: "You guarantee me the weather, I will guarantee you the runs."

Wickets have been scarcer for de Silva the bowler, but in the Benson and Hedges Cup he has not conceded that many runs either, and has made telling contributions with his off spin on the way to the final. Benson explained: "He actually bowls pretty well. It's a bit unfortunate this year because we have not really got on many wickets that have turned. If we had, he would have got a lot more wickets.

"I applied the same principles in picking Aravinda that I used when choosing Hooper, namely that if an overseas player bats and bowls then you have another string to your bow. Aravinda gives a bit of balance to the attack, and he bowled very well against Derbyshire. He hasn't yet got a big score in one-day competitions this season, maybe Saturday will put that right."

He nearly did not make it to Lord's though. He was returning from the NatWest Trophy first-round match against Staffordshire at Stone when a traffic cone bounced across the motorway, causing de Silva's driver and team-mate, Min Patel, to swerve. The car bounced off the side of an articulated wagon, and a couple of cricketers came close to being included in the wrong sort of statistics. Fortunately they lived to tell the tale, and Lord's waits to greet a player and a gentleman.