Aravinda de Silva - Sri Lanka's perennial entertainer
Aravinda 'Mad Max' de Silva's legacy continues to captivate
By Shehan Karunatilaka | June 20, 2012
Aravinda de Silva was a ferocious striker of the ball. © AFP/SENA VIDANAGAMA
The knock lasted just 63 minutes. It contained no big sixes and broke no records. It was a modest 66 that ended in the 14th over and is remembered as the most important innings by a Sri Lankan – ever.
I wasn’t alive to witness Mahadevan Sathasivam, Ceylon’s batting genius of the 40s, nor born early enough to judge the brilliance of the Tennakoons, the Gunasekeras and the Tisseras of yesteryear. But, I was around to endure Sri Lanka’s formative Test-playing years; to suffer through the batting collapses, to yawn at the assembly-line bowling and to howl at the shabby defeats from the jaws of draws.
Roy Dias may have had better technique, Sanath Jayasuriya may have had more firepower; Mahela Jayawardene more strokes and Kumar Sangakkara better stats. But for long-suffering Sri Lankan fans, the mantle of our greatest batsman belongs to one man.
When Aravinda de Silva made his debut in ‘84, Sri Lanka had won just six ODIs and a grand total of zero Tests. By the time he crooned his swan song with a double ton in 2003, we’d been victorious in 32 Tests, 178 ODIs and a World Cup.
He was there for Lanka’s neglected childhood, awkward adolescence and glorious youth. And there it was, mirrored in his mutation from “Mad Max” of the 80s to master craftsman of the 90s.
If Arjuna Ranatunga gave Sri Lankan cricket its cunning, de Silva gave it its class. Our first truly world-class player; a short man with a big hook, a destroyer of worlds and sometimes of himself.
“If I had a brain, I’d really be dangerous,” he said of his early years, in his eponymous biography. Thank the cricketing gods that he developed an astute one and learned how to use it.
Twin centuries against Imran Khan’s Pakistan announced his arrival in ‘85. He rescued our dignity on many a tour, with memorable knocks in one-sided encounters. Like his brazen 167 against Allan Border’s Aussies and his majestic 267 versus Martin Crowe’s Kiwis. And then, in the ‘96 World Cup final, he conquered the team that would dominate world cricket for the next decade with a measured century.
But the innings I find myself often reminiscing, when Sri Lankan cricket embarrasses itself, which these days is quite frequent, is the semi-final against a super-charged India at Eden Gardens.
The score was 2/2. Our terrifying openers Jayasuriya and Romesh Kaluwitharana were back in the pavilion, removing their pads and shaking their heads. It’s a moment every Lankan fan is familiar with. The start of the perahera or procession of departing batsmen. But not this time. Not on de Silva’s watch.
He credits his father with forcing him to practice mental arithmetic during a run chase. And judging from that innings, he had also brushed up on his physics and his geometry.
He could hold off until the last nanosecond and then nudge, caress or thump the ball to anywhere the opposition was not; bisecting the field at impossible angles while pumping the run-rate up as if it were on steroids.
We all knew de Silva could hook, cut and drive any bowler to any part of any ground. And so did he. But this wasn’t about showing off, it was about getting the job done.
In his youth, he had treated us to too many blistering cameos, premature dismissals and unconsummated 30s. But his innings in Kolkata that day was no uncontrolled explosion. This was calculated slaughter.
66 in 47 balls – Mathematics with a splash of poetry. When he departed, with the score at 85 in 14 overs, a humiliating collapse had been averted and the foundation for a semi-final-winning score laid.
Die-hard Lankan loyalists, the same who spray chat rooms with expletives in defense of Muttiah Muralitharan’s elbow, will claim that he belongs with Sachin Tendulkar and Brian Lara. That he was the forgotten batting genius of the 90s.
A case could be made based on the World Cup, the heroic season with Kent, the many centuries against the Wasims and the Warnes, and the six entries in Wisden’s Top 100 Batting Performances of all time. But that case won’t be made by me.
The fact is, he was far from flawless. Effortless at times, yes. Fearless on occasion, most definitely. But not quite the perfection that he could’ve been.
A soft-spoken, earnest man; de Silva was neither a street fighter like Ranatunga, nor a compulsive grinner like Muralitharan, nor a smooth-talker like Sangakkara. He reserved his charisma for the field, though perhaps not as often as he should have.
While his rotund figure did not attract the scholarly interest that his skipper’s did, he was hardly a skilled athlete. At times he gave the impression that the mental calculator had been switched off and that the arms were swinging without aim.
But for two decades, the sight of his balanced posture and his sliced backlift told cricket fans that magic was possible. That it didn’t matter who held the ball at the other end, if de Silva was on song. He would use every weapon, including the one between his ears, to find the boundary or the stands.
He could wield a bat like a scimitar and lead us to the promised land with balls to spare. And for a tattered nation, short on its heroes, de Silva was willing to stand up at his full 5’3” and become one. Sri Lankan cricket may have proved that it could out-play and out-dazzle the opposition. But with Aravinda de Silva, we showed the world that we could out-think it as well.
Shehan Karunatilaka’s novel Chinaman: The Legend of Pradeep Mathew won the 2012 Commonwealth Book Prize and the DSC Award for South Asian Literature.
This article first appeared on The Cricketer magazine and is republished here with permission from the publisher.
© The Cricketer