from Island 11 January 2011
“For us, those days the benchmark for batting was Roy Dias, but Ari soon took over. I know there are good players like Sanga and Mahela these days. But for me, the greatest batsman Sri Lanka has produced is Aravinda and no one even comes close to him. Marvan was very close to emulating him, but for me Aravinda still remains the best. We played a lot of school and club cricket against each other as well and he was such an entertainer.” Gura
The batting style of Asanka Gurusinghe wasn’t as flamboyant as some of his flashy teammates, but he was technically accomplished and that made the Sri Lankan management to let him play the anchor role during Sri Lanka’s 1996 campaign. He ended the tournament amassing 307 runs only behind Aravinda de Silva and more importantly, he was involved in four over 100 run partnerships in Sri Lanka’s six games.
Gurusinghe retired prematurely at the age of 30, playing his last game for the country the same year Sri Lanka won the World Cup. He then migrated to Australia where he lives now.‘The Island’ spoke to the left-hander on what made Sri Lanka’s World Cup campaign successful, batting alongside Aravinda de Silva, the team’s conscious efforts to improve fielding and lots more. Here are the excerpts. Rex Clementine
Question: The Sri Lankan team went into the World Cup after a turbulent time in Australia, what was the mood in the camp ahead of the World Cup campaign?
Answer: We were a very motivated team before the 1996 World Cup. We had lot of momentum going our way and lot of things falling in place; say maybe six months prior to the World Cup or even more. The year before the World Cup, we recorded our first Test win away from home in New Zealand. Then in the same year, we beat Pakistan in Pakistan and went on to win the ODI series as well followed by another win in Sharjah. There were many controversies in Australia. We didn’t win there, but we played exceptionally good cricket. Before the World Cup, we realized that we will not get another opportunity like this to make a mark as we didn’t know when the tournament will be played in this region again. So we were excited to make a mark and our main goal was to reach the semi-finals.
Question: Prior to World Cup, was there anything that the team specifically worked on to lift the standards?
Answer: One of our main objectives was to be the best fielding side in the 1996 World Cup. I remember Dav (Whatmore) insisting that if each player saves two runs in a game, we would end up saving 22 runs in a single match and that could easily make the difference in an ODI. The senior group in the team realised that fielding was going to be extremely vital and we worked hard in achieving high fielding standards. We knew batting was our strength. From number three to seven we had guys like Aravinda, Arjuna, Roshan, Hashan and myself and among the five of us we had collectively played over 1000 ODIs. This mind you without taking into account Kalu and Sanath. No other batting line up in the world had that experience. We knew that even if sides posted scores of over 300, we could chase and win anytime. But at the same time, we knew our bowling wasn’t the best. So we tried to make amends by putting up exceptional fielding displays. We worked on all aspects, catching, throwing and direct hits and we knew we could make a difference in the tournament with our fielding.
Question: You had two scores of 80 plus in the 1996 tournament and was it disappointing not to get a hundred?
Answer: Yes, it was disappointing. I had a pretty good chance against Zimbabwe and against Kenya too. But I threw them away. Against Zimbabwe I was run out and against Kenya I was caught at long on. I batted well against England too in the quarter-final, where I got 40 odd and got out after a mistake. Out of the six innings in the World Cup, I was run out thrice. But what matters is winning. I had a lot of faith in our batting. When you have someone like Hashan coming in at number seven, that’s a pretty strong line-up.
Question: Batting at number three you were expected to consolidate the innings. How did you enjoy playing that role?
Answer: I loved it because it was a challenge. If we lost early wickets, I was supposed to bat through the overs and that was our plan. Between Aravinda and me, we had to bat 50 overs and the instructions were such that one of us to remain till the end.
Question: Often when people speak about our World Cup win they remember the feats of Aravinda, Sanath, Kalu and Arjuna, but you don’t get the dues that you deserve. Does that hurt?
Answer: Not at all. The members of the team know the roles we played. I knew I am not as stylish or as flamboyant as Aravinda, Arjuna, or Sanath. I am fine with that and I have absolutely no issues. People inside knew what exactly we all did. It’s just not about the 11 of us who played, but guys like Marvan (Atapattu), Upul (Chandana) and Pushpe (Ravindra Pushpakumara) were terrific too. They all contributed. One of the main reasons for our success was the fantastic team unity we had. We were like brothers.
Question: Talk us through your memories of that semi-final in Calcutta? What was the lead up to the game and atmosphere at Eden Gardens?
Answer: Mentally, we were ready for it more than India. The Indians were totally worried about us being good at chasing and all that stuff. They were looking at our strengths and they failed to look at their strengths. Anyway they don’t do very well under pressure. We knew we were in a better position than them mentally. Eden Gardens was a great atmosphere with over 110,000 spectators. We were completely focused on the job at hand. When you are focused, things like the 110,000 shouting won’t bother you. But there were issues when we were fielding as you don’t hear what the captain was saying. We wanted to actually finish the game off. We wanted to take those last two Indian wickets. There were 110,000 at the ground and another 50,000 or so outside. But finally the Match Referee decided to award the game to us. After the game, it was a big relief that we got to the final that we desperately wanted.
Question: There were several match winning partnerships between you and Aravinda de Silva throughout the tournament, the most memorable one being in the final. How much did you enjoy batting with him?
Answer: We started playing cricket at the same time. For us those days the benchmark for batting was Roy Dias, but Ari soon took over. I know there are good players like Sanga and Mahela these days. But for me, the greatest batsman Sri Lanka has produced is Aravinda and no one even comes close to him. Marvan was very close to emulating him, but for me Aravinda still remains the best. We played a lot of school and club cricket against each other as well and he was such an entertainer.
Question: What are your predictions for the upcoming World Cup?
Answer: I think along with England and India, Sri Lanka are one of the leading contenders. India everyone is saying are the favourites, but the semi-final and final pressure will be too much for them. I am very happy with the side they have picked for the World Cup. Getting Thilan back to the squad is good. When the team was in Australia, although we were winning, I thought the middle order wasn’t strong. We will be chasing big runs in this tournament and I hope they will play Thilan. We also have one of the best bowling attacks. If you compare this side to the ‘96 squad, we didn’t have a good bowling line-up. But one concern is that we haven’t played in Hambantota. We don’t know how the wicket is going to play there. They may play a match against West Indies, but that’s not sufficient. We know what happened in Dambulla, the teams that were batting second always lost there. It looks like Premadasa will be the only venue we will know well. We are not playing the tough sides in some of these new venues and it could be difficult. The sides that are expected to win can do silly things against weaker sides. But having said that, our side is capable of handling these challenges. But I would have preferred had we played at venues that we are familiar with like at SSC.