Every Sri Lankan who is old enough to remember Sri Lanka’s historic triumph in the 1996 World Cup will remember Asanka Gurusinghe [Gurusinha]– ‘The Wall’. Gura, as he was popularly known among his mates and even fans, is the only Sri Lankan to have scored a Test hundred at the MCG. He migrated to Melbourne in 1997 after a fall out with the establishment, barely a year after Sri Lanka had won the World Cup. Graham Ford is a creative coach and with Sri Lanka just about to play the Boxing Day Test match, he will do well to call up Gura for a pep talk for the team on what it takes to do well at Australia’s sporting headquarters. The Island caught up with Gura at his workplace at Oakleigh, Melbourne, and in this candid interview, he opens up talking about his problems with the establishment, and captain Arjuna Ranatunga. He also owns up to the fact that his batting was boring, but states that it did the trick at the end of the day and some advice to the national cricket team who will play a Boxing Day Test after 17 years. Here are the excerpts.
Gura: I am not at all involved with cricket. I played until around 2002 and for the last 10 years, nothing at all. I am into publishing. I work for a company that publishes magazines. We have 14 magazines and about 35 websites. I am the Group Sales Manager.
Question: Sometime back there was some suggestion that you might take up a mentor kind of role with the Sri Lanka’s ‘A’ team?
Gura: There have been a few discussions throughout the last 10 years. I showed some interest as well. But due to certain reasons, I declined all that. I am right now comfortable here. My family is comfortable as well. It’s just not a case of moving over and doing something. I love to do something for Sri Lankan cricket, but it depends on what people want from me and what objectives I want to achieve. I want to be very clear. I don’t want to accept position just for the sake of it.
Question: Let’s talk about cricket. For Sri Lanka to win the World Cup, how crucial was the two month long tour of Australia in 1995?
Gura: Well, it all started in Pakistan in 1995 I would say. We won a Test series in Pakistan and then we went to Sharjah and beat West Indies to win an ODI competition. In Australia, we were beaten 3-0 in that Test series, but that helped us to get a lot of things together. The team was playing like team. We were united. With the chucking incident, the team got much closer. Winning the World Cup helped us in a lot of ways.
Question: Entering the MCG, looking at its magnificent stands and field of play and the surroundings, everyone gets overawed. There’s quite a bit of history as well in that place. What was your preparation like leading up to the Boxing Day Test at MCG in 1995?
Gura: Well, the preparations were similar as any other Test match I played. I had played at the MCG before. I played an ODI in 1987 and before that for Sri Lanka Under-19 I played a game as well. So my experience with the MCG goes a long way. The preparation for a Test match never changes. I was focused and I wanted to do well and I was batting well at that time and I was lucky to end up with a big score.
Question: Talk us through how you got to three figures and what it meant to you?
Gura: Any Test hundred is a good feeling, but getting it against the world’s best bowling attack was something special. They had Craig McDermott, Shane Warne, Paul Reiffel and Glen McGrath. They were the number one team in the world at that time. It was one of the greatest moments in my cricket career. I got to three figures by pulling Reiffel for four. I tried to be very positive in that innings. I was 10 or 12 overnight and when I went to lunch I was on 70. I had scored about 60 runs in the morning session. I was prepared to pull, hook and drive when the ball was there. I said to myself, it’s not a matter of survival, but let’s play the shots. In Australia, if you go with the intention to survive, you will fail. You have to take the game to them.
Gura: A Test hundred is a Test hundred. To me whether it’s the SSC, Colombo Oval or MCG, a Test hundred is a Test hundred. I cherish every moment.
Question: Did the Aussies sledge you?
Gura: Well, it was part and parcel of the game. We did it too. It would be a lie if we say that we didn’t sledge. All of us sledged. But they were better at sledging than us. I didn’t take it personally. After the game we had a drink and it was fine. As long as the players know not to cross the line, that’s what’s important. If it degenerates into racial or personal comments, then that’s not good.
Question: What would be your advice to the Sri Lankan team leading up to the Boxing Day Test?
Gura: Well, to people like Kumar and Mahela I don’t think you have to tell anything to them. They know what it takes to do well. They have handled so much of pressure. I would like to only tell them to be positive. I thought in Hobart they wanted to bat for four sessions and draw the game. I may be completely wrong, I wasn’t involved, but I felt they were negative. That Sri Lankan batting line-up is a superb one. They are shot makers. If you are asking shot makers to go out and defend, then it’s a tough. Guys like Mahela and Sanga, if they get a loose ball, they should put it away. So should Angelo. The guy who can defend well is Thilan. I thought they should have played to their strengths by going for their shots. I saw coach Ford saying that it was a minefield. Come on, our boys have played on worse wickets than that. Some of the Galle wickets are minefields. In Galle, the ball turns from day one. I thought that was a poor comment. Mahela handled the interviews well, I thought. These are all experienced Test players with over 100 Tests and they should have negotiated it. Those days, our main goal was to take the Test to the fifth day. We were just making up the numbers those days and every side was beating us. Our mentality was very negative. I thought they did a little bit of that in Hobart.
Question: Sri Lanka has chosen big names to be their number three. We had Roy Dias, then you and now Kumar Sangakkara. What special qualities should a number three batsmen have?
Gura: Mentally, you have to be strong to start with. You could be out there facing the second ball of the innings or you could be there after a huge partnership. How you handle things mentally is important. For number fours or fives, things are a bit different. They have plenty of time at hand. If you go early, you have to settle the innings and if you go with 100 plus on the scoreboard, then you have to push. That’s why batting at number three is different. The three of whom you mentioned are different players. Roy was a very stylish player and one of my role models. I liked his style of play. He was a great support for me. I don’t think my batting was nice to the eye. It was ugly. But unfortunately, that was my role in the team. Sanga is a world class number three and he can take any attack to cleaners. That shows that despite different styles, if you are mentally strong, you can adapt to bat at number three.
Question: To succeed at number three, did you have to curb your natural instincts?
Gura: When I started playing for Sri Lanka I was very aggressive. The instructions were to take the game to five days and the only way we could have done this was by batting for long. So I thought of what had to be done and came up with a strategy. I decided I was not going to play the cut shot. I never played the cut shot for a while as a result, and hence people started calling me boring.
Question: Who is the toughest bowler you have faced?
Gura: It was Wasim Akram. He was consistently tough. I faced one spell by Curtly Ambrose in Brisbane on a green top and it was tough too. But the hardest was Wasim because with him you never relaxed.
Gura: Well, it’s no secret that Arjuna and I didn’t see eye to eye in the last 12 months. My theory was that when I walked into the ground, I gave 100 percent to the country and my captain. Arjuna was the greatest captain I have played under. That’s not a lie. After the World Cup, I came to Melbourne to play a season of club cricket. I was dropped before that in Sharjah for a couple of games. I don’t want to go into detail. No one was willing to face me in the team and tell what was going on. Not the captain and not the manager, who was Duleep Mendis at that time. They didn’t want to face me eye to eye and say you are dropped. When you are in that mode you get angry. A tour of New Zealand followed in 1997 and they made things difficult for me to go on that tour. They selected me for the tour and said that I had to fly back to Colombo from Melbourne to be there for 24 hours, whereas it’s a three hour flight from Melbourne to Auckland. It didn’t make sense. I couldn’t understand what the problem was. They just wanted to make life difficult for me. That made me say that I was pulling out of the tour and won’t be available. Straight after that, I decided to stop everything and retire because I needed to be happy. Arjuna and I have buried the hatchet. When he came to Melbourne, he stayed with me and when I go to Colombo I go to his place. We have moved on.
Question: How bitter was it?
Gura: Well, I was 30 at that time and I wanted to play the next World Cup in England. It was bitter. I had done so much and we were beginning to reap the harvest of our hard work. After committing yourself to Sri Lankan cricket, to end things that way was sad. But I am happy that I didn’t go back to the team and let them treat me badly and then end my career. I went on my terms. I made the decision rather than waiting for others to make it for me. The blame in no way should be directed at Arjuna. It was the Cricket Board that made things tough for me. They fined me for a press statement that I had made after the Sharjah tour. They didn’t have any proof. I told them if you want to fine me, that’s okay, but conduct an inquiry and then do whatever you want. The Board President called me up in Australia and said the board has made a decision and that I was fined 50 percent of the match fee. He also said, but don’t worry you don’t have to pay the fine, we have found someone to pay the fine. That was a joke. I told them to have an inquiry. I will buy my ticket and come down to Colombo and face the charges. If you suspend me after that, I will accept it, but I am not going to buy whatever the compromise you are coming up with. The board decided that they were imposing a fine without getting my side of the story. That’s the way the board worked at that time and I am not too sure much has changed.
Question: You played a pivotal role for the team throughout the World Cup. But your efforts are hardly mentioned. Does it hurt you?
Gura: I don’t care. At the end, we won a World Cup and full stop. Those who matter, guys like Arjuna, Aravinda and Dav Whatmore know what I did. They have at various times said that I was the unsung hero of the World Cup win. That’s enough for me. As long as my team knows, that’s more than enough for me. Arjuna recently said that I was one of the hardest hitters of the ball that he had seen, but I sacrificed things for the sake of the team. So they know what I have done and they have come out in public and said that and I am fine with that. I don’t care whether others remember me or not.
Question: The public perception is that Gura is a boring batsman? Is he?
Gura: Is it? Let it be so. The game I played was boring for you and perhaps wasn’t appreciated. But that was my job for the team and I don’t care what others have to say about my style. The public don’t decide whether I am in the team or not. If what the public want is for me hit three sixes in an over and then get out and if I get dropped after that, they are not going to stand up to me. I had a job to do for my country and I did that. It doesn’t matter whether I looked cute or not. Job done. End of the story.
Question: Some of the younger players who played with you like Sanath Jayasuriya, Romesh Kaluwitharana and Sanjeewa Ranatunga say that you are a tough man. Is that so?
Gura: I was kind of a disciplinarian. I perhaps wanted the young guys to respect the senior players and the other point was to tell them to concentrate on their cricket. I reminded them they had a job to do for the team and not to go around partying. I think the culture among young players has changed a lot these days. They know they have a job to do. But at the same time, I have taken care of young players and gone to their aid when they had problems. Young players tell me that I was a guy who stood up for them.
Question: Is it true that you spend lot of time with your old colleagues reminiscing about the good old days?
Gura: Absolutely. Straight after we won the World Cup final in Lahore, we got together and had a drink at Ana Punchihewa’s room (Then Board President). After we retired, it has been even better. Aravinda was here last Christmas and we had dinner at our home and Aravinda left home at about 3 in the morning with his wife and kids. Roshan comes often and we catch up and we spend long hours together. When Arjuna comes, or when I go to his place, we hardly sleep. When you are playing, your focus is different and you are on the road all the time and it is only you retire that you have time to catch up and speak of good old times.