Shattering the Kalu myth

Michael Jeh, courtesy of ESPN cricinfo, at

Web Editor: Just yesterday I heard Tony Greig refer to “little Kalu” in striking admiration of his aggresive batting style, while Michael Slater referred to his explosive century at the SSC in his first Test Match against Australia when he took young Shane Warne apart. Thus,  this essay is pertinent; but note my caveats on missing dimensions in the ADDENDUM at end. Also see the comments in the original site.

 Pic from Getty

Nostalgia can indeed be a seductive mistress, can she not?  Watching Sri Lanka dismantling the Australian bowling attack in Sydney tonight, I heard Tony Greig waxing lyrical about the feats of Romesh Kaluwitharana in the 1996 World Cup. Greig’s insinuation was that Kalu’s breathtaking innings at the top of the order in that tournament were the catalyst for the new style of opening in ODIs. It is easy to be fooled into thinking that Kalu set the world alight and got Sri Lanka off to some amazing starts, but my distant memory forced me to check the facts.

Truth is, Kalu actually had a pretty average World Cup as a batsman. His scores, listed here as runs/balls faced, were: 0/1, 26/16, 33/18, 8/3, 0/1, 6/13.

They certainly weren’t slow starts but, apart from the 33 against Kenya, his contributions could hardly be considered significant. It’s easy to remember him as that explosive little stick of dynamite but if you actually look at his scores during that season, even leading into the World Cup, the numbers tell a very different story.

It seems the Kalu legend was born in the Benson & Hedges Series in Australia, a few months before that World Cup. He made three half-centuries in that series, but when you actually look at those games his strike-rate was not that high. Not as high as the legend suggests anyway. Here are his runs/balls faced stats: 8/21, 0/4, 8/14, 0/1, 77/75, 20/27, 50/54, 74/68, 13/9, 0/1.

Even the three significant scores he made were virtually at a run-a-ball, a far cry from the sort of strike-rates that we are now accustomed to in the modern game. Admittedly, in that era, the boundaries were long and the cricket bats not that powerful, but I still maintain that the Kaluwitharana myth has grown despite the reality.

Don’t get me wrong, I loved watching him bat. I’m not knocking the bloke. My point is that despite the hype and awe that his name evokes, the truth is that he wasn’t quite the “excitement machine” that Michael Slater described him as when he was responding to Tony Greig’s comments about Kalu. In 102 ODIs, his strike-rate was 77.70 and his average was 22.20.

It’s almost the reverse of the point I made about Jacques Kallis in my piece a few weeks ago. Kallis is one of those cricketers whose numbers are phenomenal but he never quite gets the international acclaim. He averages 45.55 at a strike-rate of 72.96 in his long ODI career. Yet we’d never describe him as an excitement machine.

Even Slater himself, fondly remembered as a swashbuckling strokeplayer, had an ODI average of 24.07 with a strike-rate of 60.40. Mark Taylor, stodgy in comparison to Slater, had a strike-rate of 59.46. Wonder why it is that we seem to remember players in different ways, despite the facts suggesting that there wasn’t much to separate them really?

Let’s think of someone like David Warner, a thrashing machine if ever there was one. He averages 20.07 in ODIs with a strike rate of 78.71. I expected his strike-rate to be much higher than that I must confess. Perhaps the true test will be at the end of his career when he has had time to carve out some consistency; but for a bloke who strikes at 142.00 in Twenty20 internationals, he just can’t seem to get close to that in the 50-over format, despite having four more Powerplay overs at his disposal. Curious….

I’d love to hear your contributions to this debate. Can you think of any cricketers who have a reputation that doesn’t quite match the cold hard facts? Kalu is certainly one such player; his reputation seems to have been forged on the back of his stunning Test match debut against Australia. I remember Allan Border describing that innings to me; he seemed to suggest that for those few hours that Kalu unleashed his magic the Aussies were wondering if this was the next Don Bradman, such was his amazing strokeplay. What a shame he didn’t repeat that again in his short and ‘explosive’ career. There we go again with adjectives that don’t quite fit reality!

WEB EDITOR: While wholly endorsing the contention in the last sentence of this review, I emphasise here that statistics can also mislead or rather provide only a partial picture at times. Let me take Kaluwitharana’s two striking ODI engagements in 1995/96 seriatim, deploying here a vivid picture of the events that are firmly implanted in my mind [for reasons obvious].

ONE: Sri Lanka was not expected to make the finals of the Benson & Hedges tri-series that also involved the West Indies. That they did was due their victories in the last two matches of the League. Note Michael Jeh’s figures for Kalu’s statistics in these two games: 50/54, 74/68. That Sri Lanka won both games was partly due to the lightening quick starts engineered by Kalu and Sanath. This was heightened by the shock effect of their assault on Glenn McGrath, Australia’s leading bowler. In assessing this impact one should also not be misled by the increased scoring rates today, rates that are assisted by improved bat-technology and the experience of T20 cricket.

TWO:  Kalu’s batting scores during the World Cup on the sub-continent were quite poor, as Jeh points out; but his one coruscating innings had a critical and match-winning impact on their march to the finals [though obviously aided substantially by the achievements of other players, the team as a whole and the behind-the-scenes work of Whatmore and Kontouris.**

This impact was at the Group stage when Sri Lanka faced India at the Feroz Shah Stadium in Delhi. India batted first and scored 271 runs for 3 wkts in their 50 overs –a solid score. But what happened then? Kaluwitharana and Jayasuriya blazed 53 runs in a few overs to shell-shock India and Sri Lanka reached 272 runs for the loss of four wickets in the 49th over. Manoj Prabhkar was taken apart in that first spell and one could say that he never recovered after that –his career ended more or less.

More to the point, there was a disastrous flow-on effect upon India. When they faced Sri Lanka again in the semi-finals at Eden Gardens, Kolkata, they decided that it would be best to chase a total. This decision, in my surmise, was directed by their failure in stemming the Sri Lankan batsmen at Delhi. So they opted to field [replicating the course adopted by Sri Lanka at Delhi]. They did not read their own pitch. The wicket turned out to be a batsman’s nightmare that evening and dream for spin bowlers. Facing 251 runs India were 120 for 8 wickets when the crowd erupted against their own and forced an abandonment of play. Sri Lanka waltzed into the finals.

** See Michael Roberts & Alfred James, Crosscurrents. Sri Lanka and Australia at Cricket, Sydney: Walla Walla Press

1 Comment

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One response to “Shattering the Kalu myth

  1. sanjeewa karunatilake

    this Jeh guy may’ve been doing his studies or in his mothers rack with his tiny pants when Kalu played those memorable ODI innings in MCG and Perth.Read first day report of first test at Perth in 1995 for find who is Kalu. Or watch Youtube videos uploaded by roblinda2.I assumed this Jeh guy didn’t even watch the 96 World Cup.If it so he’ve no rights to be a journalist who criticize a Sri Lankan cricketer in that era. Because 95-96 era is the heart of the Sri Lankan cricket.If some one didn’t witness cricket in that era,He will utterly fail to understand what is the impact SL had in the world cricket.Let forever be a stats journalist.Stats say little man….Check what say who saw they play or play against.Some day you will question who is Sobers.To find the answer for that meet Chappelli..

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