Scyld Berry, courtesy of The Daily Telegraph where the title is “Sri Lanka emerge as rivals to resurgent Australia as leaders in world cricket, albeit belatedly”
Take the opposite of a bow, you gentlemen of the International Cricket Council – for there has never been a woman involved at a high level, let alone now, which may be one of the causes of its inherent failings. Why was cricket in Sri Lanka not encouraged when England and Australia ruled the ICC and the global game, as they did until less than 20 years ago?
Sri Lanka has become a vital force in world cricket. England supporters may think they are the lesser touring side this summer, because they have been granted only two Tests whereas India play five. But maybe Sri Lanka are making a bigger contribution to the sport’s health and growth than India, given its obsession with the IPL – or England.
The dynamism that made West Indies world champions has long since gone out of their cricket. Bangladesh’s record of four Test wins and 68 losses speaks for itself. South Africa have been the leading country in recent years, but until they find their first indigenous black Test batsman they will always hit a ceiling. It will be a pleasant surprise if England are not stuck in mid-table for several years in every format, while Pakistan remain cricket atrophies in exile. No, Sri Lanka are emerging as the main rivals to resurgent Australia.
The finest feature of Sri Lanka’s cricket is how their batsmen combine wristiness and strength as no other batsmen have collectively done before. Sanath Jayasuriya started it, and dominated the 1996 World Cup, having much the same effect as the German cruiser Graf Spee: small; compact; mobile; yet immensely powerful.
In the solitary T20 international at the Oval we saw more of the batting that won the World T20 finals last month. There are plenty more left-handed pocket battleships where Jayasuriya came from. Kusal Perera is in the same image, and Kithuruwan Vithanage, and Thisara Perera, who took the game away from England. And the first two at any rate are not just bruisers: their wristiness enables them to cut and glance behind the wicket as well as drive the ball straight, a subtlety for which England were unable to find the answer.
So the Sri Lankan “brand” consists of not just power-hitting but wristiness too in their batting; highly inventive spin bowling – as inventive as the square-leg umpire will allow; and a mastery of slower balls, led by Lasith Malinga, which is light years beyond England’s ken. All they lack is an outright fast bowler, as Malinga gave up Tests in 2010, and a left-arm replacement for Chaminda Vaas.
So why were all these riches left unearthed for so long by the sport’s governing body? En route to Australia in 1891-2 Dr W.G. Grace played in Colombo and, in a speech, expressed the hope that a combined team of Europeans and native Ceylonese would soon play at Lord’s. Nothing happened.
It is a bit unforgivable really. The Imperial Cricket Conference was founded in 1909, dominated by England and Australia. Until the 1950s the touring teams of both countries regularly stopped in Colombo on the way to an Ashes series, but nobody invested time and money beyond a one-day warm-up.
Cricket had been thriving in Colombo’s schools ever since Christian missionaries founded them. Cricket was the thing; the talent was clearly plentiful. When Gamini Goonesena came to England in the mid-1950s, he took more first-class wickets for Cambridge University than anybody has ever done, 208 at 21 each, with wrist-spin.
One Ceylonese batsman is spoken about with awe to this day, like Ranjitsinhji or Victor Trumper. He was Mahadevan Sathasivam, born in 1915. Clearly he could do things with the bat that none of his contemporaries could, but he had no opportunity: he scored a double-century in one of his 11 first-class games.
The only regular showcase for Sri Lankan talent was the annual first-class fixture against Tamil Nadu. For 30 years, starting in 1952-3, the Gopalan Trophy was contested alternately in Colombo or the Indian state. Sri Lanka won 15 times, Tamil Nadu nine.
When Sri Lanka were granted Test status in 1981, England kept them at arm’s length by playing one-Test series. How were they to learn? Jayasuriya blazed away at Lord’s in the solitary Test of 1991 – 66 off 70 balls – then had nowhere to kick on.
Now this force for good in the world game is unleashed. Most of their batsmen still come from the same Colombo schools that the missionaries founded, because cricket is still so prestigious there, but the Sri Lankan board combs the country for unusual bowlers. Kumar Sangakkara, Sri Lanka’s finest batsman, says you only have to write in for a scout to come and study the talent which you say you possess.
This combination is potent: orthodoxy blended with unorthodoxy, discipline with flair, the coached with the uncoached. Some imagination and enthusiasm would not have come amiss a century ago, but at least we have a treat in store this early summer.