Rex Clementine in The Island, 6 December 2014, where the title is “Celebrating 25 years of Aravinda’s greatest knock”
When picking the best knock of former great Aravinda de Silva, people weigh in differently. For the younger generation there are no two words. His unbeaten 107 in the World Cup final is the greatest knock of them all. That’s one reason why still fans rate Aravinda better than Kumar Sangakkara. There are other knocks of Aravinda that are still cherished and highly spoken of. His career best 267 at the Basin Reserve against New Zealand is hard to forget. So is his match winning 152 at The Oval against England. His century in Faisalabad in 1995 to set up a Test win against a formidable Pakistan attack was a classy one too while Duleep Mendis still fondly reminisces Aravinda’s 122 on his 20th birthday where he famously hooked Imran Khan. However, it’s hard to match his knock at the Gabba in 1989. His fabulous 167 against Allan Border’s Australians should be his greatest knock. It was exactly 25 years ago to this week since he came up with that stunning knock.
The Gabba effort was special for many reasons. It was the first century by a Sri Lankan in Australia, but more importantly that was the knock that made Australia and rest of the world to take serious note of Sri Lankan cricket. For Sri Lanka, it took only 14 years since gaining full membership of the ICC to win the World Cup. Similarly, it’s been 14 years since Bangladesh were given ICC status, but still they are struggling. Sri Lanka too would have suffered the fate of Bangladesh if not for the likes of Aravinda de Silva.
Aravinda’s Gabba knock also came against many odds and it would have required a lot of mental strength to come up with an effort of that nature. The Sri Lankans went to Australia with their cricket in turmoil. The board had named Abu Fuard as the Manger and Ranjit Fernando as Assistant Manager. The Sports Ministry objected to these appointments and requested fresh names to be sent. The President of the Board Ian Pieris stepped down and eventually Nisal Senaratne came in as Manager and Anuruddha Pollonovita as Assistant Manager.
It was the fourth tour by a Sri Lankan team to Australia and certainly the longest as the tour stretched for three months. The team played 27 matches on tour, but only six of them were First Class. The Sri Lankan board was clearly dissatisfied with the itinerary when it was first sent to them.
Australia’s host broadcaster Channel Nine was telecasting Commonwealth Games as well and as a result there were some problems with scheduling of matches. This meant that the Sri Lankans had to spend 37 days without any serious cricket. The Sri Lankan board had suggested that they be allowed to make a short tour of New Zealand in that period or to be allowed to return home. But the Australian board declined both suggestions and in the end the tourists had to go all around Australia playing against club teams. Wisden commenting on the episode said, “That the Sri Lankans agreed with such good grace to this schedule, which at times meant three flights a day, was a credit to them.”
The Sri Lankans were hurt when they realized that the Australian board had printed tickets only for the first four days of the Gabba Test Match. The hosts were expecting an early finish to the Test and certainly weren’t hoping the game to go the full distance.
Partly the blame was with the Sri Lankans. They had lost a First Class game to Australian state side Victoria and former Australia greats were questioning how a team that was beaten by an Australian state side was good enough to compete against their national side. These belittling remarks were the kind of motivation Aravinda needed. He knew opportunities for Sri Lankans from Australia, England and West Indies were few and rare and that he had to do the most when opportunities came his way. So he let his bat do to the talking with a knock that won him many admirers and fans in Australia.
Aravinda’s knock not only took the Test the full distance, but helped Sri Lanka earn a draw as well. Thanks to him, Sri Lanka were able to take a first innings lead of 51 runs, a rare phenomenon in the early days in away Test matches. He was named Man of the Match. From thereon, Aravinda de Silva will be a feared man in Australia.
Shane Warne didn’t play that game, but he played against Aravinda for many years after that. Warne published a book on the 50 greatest cricketers he had played with or against and he named Aravinda 19th in the list, above Steve Waugh and Adam Gilchrist. Warne penned these words in his book. “In our team meetings, we would spend more time discussing Aravinda than the other Sri Lankan batsmen, discussing how to bowl at him. But all of that was of no avail as on the next day he would cart our bowlers to all parts of the park. Truly, he was special.”
In that Gabba game, no other frontline Sri Lankan batsmen managed a half-century. Had anyone stayed on with the team’s premier batsman the case could have been different as Aravinda was last man dismissed. He could have gone onto score a double hundred for according to Wisden, ‘his knock was flawless’. Aravinda faced 361 deliveries and hit 17 fours and a hooked six off Carl Rackemann. The Australian attack comprised Jeff Lawson, Merv Hughes, Terry Alderman and Tom Moody. With Ravi Ratnayake, he shared a 144 run stand for the seventh wicket, a record for Sri Lanka until recently.
It’s indeed a pity that in a career that spanned for 20 years, Aravinda just played six Test Matches in Australia and seven Tests in England. West Indies’ attitude towards Sri Lanka was lukewarm as Aravinda played only two Tests in the Caribbean. But things changed drastically after the ICC took a firm control about the scheduling. Players get regular exposure against top teams consistently these days. Aravinda unfortunately played in a wrong era. He has no regrets though. He tells us that the generation before him lost out on much more.