Aubrey Kuruppu in the Sunday Times, 17 July 2016
Largely unwept and unsung, the Asgiriya Stadium has passed into obscurity as a Test centre. Starting with the Test against Greg Chappell’s Australians in April 1983, up to the Test against England in December 2007, 22 matches have been played there. The ground has a certain quaintness and old world charm about it. However, it had to yield place to modernity. Australia’s 514-4 included big hundreds from Wessels (142) and Hookes (143 not out). Half-centuries from Yallop and Chappell (98 and 66) also helped in this marathon exercise at the world’s 54th Test venue. The combined spin of DS and Gunaratne eked out 1 for 206 in 61 overs.
Ranatunga (90) and Mendis (74) helped Sri Lanka save face. Bruce Yardley who later on coached our National team, took 5-88, previewing his poacher turned gamekeeper role. To gasps in the crowd, Lillee measured out his run and disposed of a couple of top-order batters. Sidath Wettimuny exhibited some of his felicitous drives on his way to 96. Left arm spinner turned the knife in the wound to capture 5-66. What stood out like a sore thumb was the selectorial blunder in playing two right arm leg spinners (D.S. de Silva and debutant Roshan Gunaratne) against an Aussie top six that contained five left-handers. No off-spinner was included. So Mendis was forced to use Madugalle, in the team primarily as a batsman.
The late Guy de Alwis gave an outstanding performance behind the stumps, not conceding a single bye during the mammoth 514-4. The Sri Lanka-New Zealand test in March 1984 was an interesting one. Sixty-one runs separated the teams after the first innings, but then the Kiwis, led by one of their best and most successful skippers, Geoff Howarth, began to pull away. Howarth himself produced the goods, scoring 62 and 60, as the visitors won by 165 runs. Ranatunga was the only Sri Lankan to exceed 50 in the match. His 51 out of a total of 97 was especially courageous. That master operator Richard Hadlee (4-35 and 4-8) did most of the damage. While Stephen Brock polished off the locals with a 5-28. The crowd did not take kindly to this abject humiliation and capitulation. It was reported that the team took a detour to Colombo to avoid possible ugly scenes. All that is a different story.
Sri Lanka had achieved her first Test victory at the P. Sara Stadium, achieving that dream after just three-and-a-half years in the Big League. Naturally, all of Kandy was agog with excitement and expectation when the third Test began at Asgiriya a week later. A fabulous Indian lineup was kept down to 249. Vengsarkar’s 62 was the highest, while Gavaskar and Sri Kanth made 40s. Saliya Ahangama (5-52) came up trumps.
Mendis made 53 in a woeful Sri Lankan reply of 198. Maninder Singh bowled best, but missed a five-for. Mohinder Amarnath (116 not out), Shastri 81 and 40s from Srikanth and Azharuddin led to Kapil Dev’s declaration at 325-5. The target of 377 looked very distant indeed when the local team started off poorly.
However, Duleep Mendis (124) and Roy Dias (106)- the forerunners of a latter day Jayawardena and Sangakkara!- were involved in a superb partnership that emptied Kandy town with folk flocking to the venue. Eventually, Sri Lanka put up the shutters, finishing on 307-7, 70 runs short.
1999 saw the big breakthrough when Sri Lanka beat mighty Australia by 6 wickets. Vaas bowled a superb opening spell, while Ponting and Aravinda de Silva excelled with the bat in both innings. But that horrible on-field collision between Captain Steve Waugh and pacie Jason Gillesple, took the spotlight away from Sri Lanka’s win. Both ended in hospital and the visitors were reduced to 9 batsmen in the second innings.
The 2004 Asgiriya Test against the Aussies was part of a 3-0 clean sweep by them. After Muralitharan and, for a change, Nuwan Zoysa had combined to wreck Ponting’s team for 120, the local team engineered a lead of 91. That was when Adam Gilchrist (144) and Damien Martyn (161) took charge and propelled the Aussies to 442, and a lead of 351. Jayasuriya’s 131 formed the core of Sri Lanka’s pursuit of victory. Dilshan made 43, but Chaminda Vaas’ rush of blood when on 45, led to defeat by 27 runs in an enthralling contest. With victory a distinct possibility, Vaas cleaved a Warne leg-break into the waiting hands of Langer at deep midwicket. Muralitharan with 9 wickets, and Warne with 10, gave special performances. And so to the last ever Test at Asgiriya in December 2007. In a sense, fittingly, England was involved. Sangakkara took centre stage in Sri Lanka’s meager 188, with a fine knock of 92.
Panesar and Hoggard claimed 4 each. The elegant Ian Bell ensured that England took a lead of 93. The local team ran riot in the second essay, amassing 442-8. Inevitably, Sangakkara with 152, set the pace. He was not alone, as Jayasuriya 78, Van Dort 49 and Jayawardena 65 came up with knocks of substance. A target of 350 proved too much for the visitors who ended up on 261, 88 runs short. Bell’s excellence (74 following his earlier 83) stood out, while stumper Matt Prior made a rather muscular 63 in a futile effort. The failures of the mercurial Kevin Pietersen (31 and 18) could have been one of the reasons for the defeat. Finally, a brief word or two on one of the briefest Test matches in history. In 1993, Asgiriya hosted the opening match of a 3-Test series against the Indians. Sri Lanka were 24-3 (it should have been 5, with some luck for the Indians!) after 54 minutes when the match was called off for the day, and never resumed thereafter.
EDITORIAL NOTE: Teaching at Peradeniya University as I was in the period 1966-75 I have seen several international matches at Asgiriya (and one or two at Peradeniya). So it carried fond memories.
Ir also has the great advantage of being central. But that is about it. It is burdened with manifest disadvantages. It happens to be the Trinity College home ground and a playground for all manner of college sports. Its maintenance would not be in SLC hands. Moreover, set as it is on a hillside it cannot house substantial stadiums or even bunds. Trees with hora watchers seeing the matches for free may be picturesque … BUT do not bring in CASH. Cash matters these days … Gone are the days when we can sing “Suranganita Malu Gennaaavaaa” and “Hayi Hoi Babiaachige Bisikal Eka,” and “Island in the Sun”. So, yes, we are now off to Argentina!
That is, to Pallekelay, Rangiri and Sooriyawewa.
ALSO SEE = Roberts: “Social History within Cricket,” 18 July 2016, https://thuppahi.wordpress.com/2016/07/18/social-history-within-cricket/