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Sri Lanka’s Napoleon

Arjuna Ranatunga was just 18 when he made his Test debut, in Sri Lanka’s inaugural Test in February 1982. Test cricket’s new boys were beaten comfortably enough by England, the margin being seven wickets, but it could have been worse. On the first morning the home side lost four quick wickets for 34 before the young Ranatunga joined Ranjun Madugalle. Ranatunga, still at school, proceeded to record the fledgling nation’s first Test half-century as he contributed 54 to the stand of 99 that followed. It was not enough to change the course of the game but, as David Frith observed, the innings captured the imagination and ensured that the match would be a contest.

After being virtually ever present after that It was almost two decades, 93 Tests and 269 ODIs later that Ranatunga retired. In Tests he averaged 35 and reached his century four times. His ODI average was just a fraction higher, and also saw him get to three figures on four occasions. These are relatively modest stats, and markedly inferior to those of Ranatunga’s contemporary Aravinda De Silva who also, coincidentally, won 93 Test caps. De Silva scored twenty centuries in averaging 42 over his Test career, but Ranatunga’s legacy to his country’s cricket seems more enduring, not always for the best cricketing reasons, but his name is unlikely to be forgotten.

Like many of the better batsmen the sub-continent has produced Ranatunga was not a tall man, being around 173 centimetres. He had a sound defensive technique to fall back on, but his powerful wrists and forearms, coupled with a good eye, enabled him to score quickly when he wanted to which, in fairness to him, was most of the time. Quite why a man who reached the half century mark as often as 38 times in Tests should have such a poor conversion rate is not entirely clearcut. He did usually bat at six, so shepherding the tail was often on his agenda, and he certainly never gave the impression of being a man who played for his average, but a lack of fitness was often the reason given for his scoring rather fewer runs than he might otherwise have done. Quick singles were anathema to Ranatunga and when, in the 1999 edition of Wisden he was made one of the Five Cricketers of the Year, in a rare moment of levity the good book referred to his then total of 4,595 Test “walks”. It was perhaps a little unkind, but made a serious point, Ranatunga certainly being built for comfort rather than speed. In 1998, at the tail-end of his career, he lost 12 kilos in weight, ironically enough whilst carrying an advertisement on his bat for Sam’s Chicken and Ribs, but even after that he couldn’t be described as svelte.

Ranatunga’s main legacy to Sri Lankan cricket is his captaincy, in making the Test side competitive and taking the 1996 World Cup by the scruff of the neck and bringing the country its famous victory. He also ruffled plenty of feathers, particulary Australian ones, along the way. The first time Ranatunga encountered Australia was in the initial Test between the two countries back in April 1983. As expected Greg Chappell’s side won by an innings, but Ranatunga top-scored with 90 in his side’s first innings, and contributed 32 more, batting throughout with the tail, in the second. On the next occasion the two countries met, at the WACA nearly five years later, the Australian victory margin was even bigger, but this time Ranatunga top-scored in both innings, with 55 and 45. Teammate Roshan Mahanama wrote later that Ranatunga was …. the fiercest of competitors. You could tell that he was unimpressed by the Australian backchat and on the contrary, motivated by it.

Mahanama added He seemed to be a natural as a future captain considering his fearless leadership qualities and the courage he showed in standing up to ungentlemanly cricketers, many of whom resort to foul language as an integral part of their strategy, and by the time the two countries next met, two years later, for a two match series in Australia, Ranatunga was captain. No one expected Sri Lanka to achieve much in what were their first Tests for 14 months. In the event a much more combative side than previously drew the first Test at the ‘Gabba, and came within half an hour of drawing the second too, the first match ever played at the Bellerive Oval in Hobart. There were three visits to the crease for Ranatunga. He did not, in scoring 25, 21 and 38 in those innings, make a major contribution but he batted with grim determination throughout, especially in the rearguard action at Hobart. After the match ended Ranatunga claimed that some racial comments had upset his players, and he described the umpiring as terrible. Alan Border and Bobby Simpson, the Australian skipper and coach respectively, dismissed the claims and their manager Ian McDonald suggested Ranatunga’s men needed to grow up if they were to become a major cricketing nation. The seeds of future discordancy were doubtless sown by those exchanges.

The two teams next met, this time for a three match series, in Sri Lanka in August 1992. Alan Border’s team were the first to travel to Sri Lanka in five years following the bomb blast that marred the 1986/87 visit of New Zealand. The series was won by Australia, just, thanks to a remarkable victory in the first Test. The tourists were rightly put into bat by Ranatunga after he had seen some moisture in the wicket, and his far from menacing pace attack dismissed them for 256 before the end of the first day. Ranatunga himself, Asanka Gurusinha and Romesh Kaluwitherana then scored attacking centuries as Sri Lanka built a lead of 291. The Australians were harder work in the second innings but the hosts’ first Test win in seven years, and only their third ever beckoned when, chasing just 181, they got to 76 without loss, and then 127-2, before their best batsman, Aravinda De Silva, played an unnecessarily expansive shot against Craig McDermott and spinners Greg Matthews and Shane Warne stepped up to the mark to claim victory by 16 runs.

The Sri Lankans were understandably devastated by their achievement in snatching defeat from the jaws of victory after winning each of the first fourteen sessions of a fifteen session Test. Perhaps not surprisingly Ranatunga went on the defensive after that, but his side secured another first innings lead, albeit a slender one, in the second Test. What became a comfortable draw might well have been a series-levelling and morale boosting win had not the Sri Lankans dropped so many catches, particularly Australia’s second innings centurion Dean Jones, who was badly missed before he had even got off the mark. The third Test was drawn as well to leave the Australians 1-0 winners. A young off-spinner with an unusual wristy action debuted in the second Test for the home side, although four wickets at 56.25 each did not suggest that Muttiah Muralidharan was a matchwinner in the making.

Lest I be misunderstood I should stress that it was not just with opponents that Ranatunga could be difficult. He was more than willing to lock horns with his own board if he felt they were in the wrong, and that attitude resulted in his refusal to take part in the six nation Pepsi Austral-Asia Cup in Sharjah that was scheduled for April 1994. The background was that the Sri Lankan Sports Minister insisted that Aravinda De Silva should be left out of the squad on the basis of a perceived lack of fitness, regardless of the fact that he was his country’s leading batsman. Ranatunga was doubtless motivated in large part by his desire to win, but he was also noted for his loyalty to his players, and his view was that if Ari didn’t go then he didn’t either. He very much hoped his teammates would back him, although of the leading players only Murali did – in his own travails that were to follow Murali’s reward was the complete and unswerving support of his captain.

After the Sharjah tournament the captaincy was soon returned to Ranatunga and under him the Sri Lankans went to Australia in 1995/96 to play the side which a few months ago had defeated the West Indies in the Caribbean to finally shift the men in maroon caps from the top-most rung of the ladder of Test playing nations. For the tourists Ranatunga, together with the Sri Lankans first full-time coach, Dav Whatmore, had instilled real self-belief in the squad, and they travelled to Australia fresh from a 2-1 triumph in Pakistan.

In the first of the three Tests that were scheduled, played at the WACA, Sri Lanka lost by an innings. They didn’t bat particularly well after deciding to take first use of the pitch, and although they did much better in their second innings Michael Slater’s blistering double century at the front of an Australian innings that was declared on 617-5 batted them out of the game by the end of the second day. Ranatunga managed innings of 32 and 46. The big defeat apart there were two other incidents in the match that upset the Sri Lankans. First, and relatively insignificant, was the umpires deciding that the advertising logos on the visitors shirts were too large. They were wrong, as was established once the match referee intervened, but the die was cast. Next up were accusations of ball-tampering that were levelled at Ranatunga’s bowlers. These were allegations that were accepted by the Match Referee, New Zealander Graham Dowling, notwithstanding that the umpires had not preserved the ball in question as evidence. The Sri Lankans vigorously denied the allegation, and were subsequently vindicated when it was established that the Kookaburra balls being used were prone to the problem the umpires had noted.

It is understandable that these incidents soured the tour, although they were nothing compared with the events of the Boxing Day Test, when Darrell Hair famously no-balled Murali for throwing. Ranatunga was furious and was instrumental in the team closing ranks in support of their star bowler, although during the game itself he was careful to involve the management, leaving the pitch in order to consult after the first calls were made. Ranatunga was also able to persuade the management, once it was decided Murali would not play again for the rest of the tour, rather than send him home, to allow him to stay with the team. This reassured Murali of the support of his teammates and his country, and also allowed him to undergo the testing that went so far to vindicate his action. The second Test was lost as well, this time by ten wickets. Ranatunga scored a bright 51 in the Sri Lankan first innings and in the follow on was at his obdurate worst, or perhaps best, as he spent over an hour keeping the Australians at bay before he was left stranded, unbeaten on 11, when the last wicket fell.

There were further flashpoints to come in the ODI tournament that followed the second Test. Given that the third country involved were West Indies Sri Lanka did very well to reach the final and having done so, while they lost 2-0 to Australia, they very nearly won as both games were close run affairs, the margins of victory being 18 runs and 8 runs. In the first match Ranatunga scored 31 before being the last man to fall. He then top-scored with 41 in the ultimately unsuccessful pursuit of a reduced target in the second match. There were problems aplenty in these matches the Australians fiercely sledging Ranatunga over repeated requests for a runner, and indeed his initial request for one in the second match of the final was refused. Ian Healy famously pointed out to him that he was not entitled to a runner just because he was fat. In fact Ranatunga was carrying an injury, but felt he had to play in order to lead from the front, and with the ODIs over and the Test series already lost he did miss the third and final Test. It was another Australian win to give the hosts a clean sweep, although the name Ranatunga still caused a few problems for the home side. Arjuna’s replacement was his younger brother Sanjeeva, and he batted for the best part of eight hours in total in scoring 60 and 65.

There aren’t, as far as I can see, any Australians of that era who have very much that is positive to say about Ranatunga. Shane Warne seemed to speak for most of them when he wrote in his 2001 autobiography without question he is the most difficult opponent I have come across. What I disliked was that he seemed to act in ways which were contrary to the spirit of the game, at times pushing the rules to the limits and making life difficult for the umpires. It often appeared that if there was a ruse Ranatunga could play to try and get under our skin he would do so.

The disappointment of the trip to Australia was forgotten a couple of months later after Ranatunga and his team defied all expectations to win the 1996 World Cup. It is true that the refusal of Australia and West Indies to play their group matches in Sri Lanka following an explosion in the offices of the Central Bank of Ceylon that left 80 dead, thus forfeiting those points, was a great help, but that does not alter the fact that Sri Lanks won each of their other three group matches at a canter, and that neither England in the quarter-final, India in the semi-final, nor their ultimate opponents in the final, old friends Australia, extended Ranatunga’s men unduly. They must have been a little concerned in the second game against India when, on an extraordinarily humid day in Calcutta, their first three batsmen scored just two between them, but the middle order, Ranatunga included, took the total to 251 before the Indian innings subsided spectaculary after a reasonable start. In the final the celebrated pinch-hitting tactic failed, with Sanath Jayasuriya and Kaluwitherana scoring just 15 between them, but Aravinda De Silva scored a superb century, and with support from, initially, Gurusinha, and latterly Ranatunga, the Sri Lankans had almost four overs left as they passed their target with just three wickets down. Ranatunga’a average for the tournament was 120.50 and, like the entire nation, he was a very happy man at the end. In fact so distracted was he, and so disinterested in the financial rewards that came his way, that he somehow managed to lose a prizemoney cheque for the equivalent of USD100,000.

That World Cup victory will, inevitably and quite properly, remain the apogee of Ranatunga’s career, but he can have been scarcely less pleased with the outcome of Sri Lanka’s short tour of England in 1998. Despite being robbed by injury of his two best pace bowlers, Chaminda Vaas and Nuwan Zoysa, Ranatunga’s side won the only Test match played by ten wickets and the went on to take the three way ODI tournament that South Africa also competed in. Ranatunga’s captaincy and the 51 he scored in the Test were enough to, as noted, secure his place with the Wisden five on publication in 1999, although his bubble was well and truly burst a couple of months later when Sri Lanka’s campaign in defence of their World Cup title was as forgettable as their previous one had been memorable.

In between that famous win at the Oval and the early World Cup exit there was another controversy for Ranatunga to become embroiled in. Once again in the incident took place in Australia, albeit this time in a game against England rather than against the Australians themselves. The occasion was the Carlton and United ODI series that took place against the backdrop of yet another Ashes defeat for England, and was the last of the 10 ODIs which Ross Emerson umpired. Ranatunga was incensed that Murali should be called for throwing, particularly after the lengths the administrators had gone to to ensure the Sri Lankans would be kept clear of Hair, and he led his side all but off the pitch whilst he consulted his Board, whilst at pains to keep them just inside the boundary in order to ensure there would be no question of a forfeiture.

Once Ranatunga decided to play on the tactic used was to bowl Murali from Emerson’s end, and insist that the umpire stood right up to the stumps thus preventing him from having the view necessary to repeat the action he had taken from square leg. Ranatunga had no right to demand that, as England coach David Lloyd, a former First Class umpire, knew only too well, but he insisted anyway. It probably felt like a storm in a teacup for a while, as England amassed the impressive total of 302-3 and then took two early wickets, but the Sri Lankans got home amidst one of the most ill-tempered innings in ODI history. There was a shocking umpiring decision in Sri Lanka’s favour when the ill-starred Emerson failed to ask for a ruling from the third umpire when centurion Mahela Jayawardene appeared to be run out a couple of yards short of his ground. Batsmen impeded fielders and fielders barged batsman, Darren Gough at one stage making his displeasure with Mahanama known by essaying a headbutt in his general direction. England captain Alec Stewart was picked up by the stump microphone telling Ranatunga Your behaviour today has been appalling for a country captain.

Inevitably there were repercussions and a disciplinary hearing was convened by Match Referee Peter Van Der Merwe after the game. He had not helped the overall situation by questioning the legality of Murali’s action earlier in the series, and the general atmosphere of the tournament was further charged by the general antipathy of large sections of the Australian public and media to the Sri Lankans, particularly in light of the recent publication of a book by Hair which pulled no punches about the incident in 1995.

Prior to the series the Sri Lankans had signed up to the ICC Code of Conduct, and as many as six breaches were put to Ranatunga and most expected a ban to be the outcome. But those in that camp had reckoned without Ranatunga’s determination and committment to the cause, and a legal team was immediately assembled. The lawyers threatened that any ban would result in an immediate application to Court on the basis that such action would be in restraint of trade. In the end a deal was struck whereby Ranatunga admitted some breaches on the basis that the sanction would be a suspended six match ban coupled with a fine of 75% of his match fee.

After the failure in England in the 1999 World Cup Ranatunga, by now 35, lost the captaincy to Sanath Jayasuriya. He was however still part of the side that beat Australia 1-0 in a three match series in Sri Lanka three months later. There weren’t any significant contributions from the new slimmer Ranatunga in that series, but that would not have dampened his delight at finally securing a series victory over his great rivals. A year later a fine 88, out of 169 when chasing 177, almost brought a first series win over South Africa to go with it, but the rubber was drawn. Ranatunga had announced his intention to make the series his swansong in advance, and there was an emotional celebration at the ground as the third Test meandered towards a draw. Fittingly when the curtain came down Ranatunga was at the crease, unbeaten on 28, having just seen Jayawardene to his fourth Test century.

Whatever his opponents may have to say about Ranatunga I have to confess that he is one of my favourite non-English players. It is doubtless as much as anything a sign of the times in which I was brought up that I do not like sledging as a concept, although I am prepared to accept that an element of backchat and gamesmanship is inevitable in top-level sport. Having conceded that much the very concept of what certain Australians proudly describe as mental disintegration, is anathema to me. Ranatunga’s refusal to be bowed by that treatment strikes me as a most admirable quality. I particularly liked Warne’s comment, in 2008 that ….he loved it in the middle when we sledged him, so we tried to keep quiet – but he was so irritating it was hard to keep our mouths shut

I bear in mind too Ranatunga’s role in Murali’s career. The world’s leading Test wicket-taker is one of the most affable men to have played top-class cricket and is by all accounts a sensitive soul as well. After his treatment by Darrell Hair he was, according to teammate Mahanama, ready to give up the game. That he did not do so, and his background was such that he had no pressing need for the money that he could earn from the game, must at least be partly due to the ferocity with which his captain sprang to his defence and that sort of loyalty, in my book, is another admirable character trait that Ranatunga has in spades.

It is certainly the case that Ranatunga was not well-liked amongst his opponents, and Warne has gone as far as to say I have not heard a good word for him from a single international player. That is not however strictly true and in my view the most appropriate summary of Ranatunga comes from former England captain Nasser Hussain, one of the men on England duty in that ill-tempered match in Adelaide in 1999, who wrote in 2004 I couldn’t help but have a grudging respect for Ranatunga. He had made them (Sri Lanka) so much harder to beat and was prepared to use any trick in the book to get what he wanted. There is something I can’t help admiring in that attitude. Certainly Sri Lanka haven’t been so well led since he has gone.

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