By Michael Roberts | April 14, 2015
Russel Arnold was one of Sri Lanka's best ODI players. © AFP PHOTO
During the course of the World Cup 2015 watchers were occasionally served up statistical tables of leading run-scores in the history of World Cup or ODI cricket. Sri Lankan fans would have been especially attentive to those featuring Kumar Sangakkara's stellar career and record breaking levels. On one such occasion I was intrigued to see Russel Arnold's statistics appear at the tail-end of an august list of names.
Primed by Arnold's appearance as a TV commentator and his impeccable performance in this role, I proceeded to do some research on the topic and began with a statistical picture of a comparative kind that is quite revelatory. This picture raises issues about media-hype and our very own memory banks.
It would be fair to say that the batsmen stars in the ODI memory store of Sri Lankan cricket enthusiasts over the last 20 years are Aravinda de Silva, Sanath Jayasuriya and Arjuna Ranatunga from the older cohort and Sangakkara, Mahela Jayawardene and Tillakaratne Dilshan from the present over-30s layer. So it is that the Wikipedia entry on the Sri Lankan national team runs thus:
Sri Lanka's national cricket team achieved considerable success beginning in the 1990s, rising from underdog status to winning the Cricket World Cup in 1996. Since then, the team has continued to be a force in international cricket. The Sri Lankan cricket team reached the finals of the 2007 and 2011 Cricket World Cups consecutively. But they ended up being runners up in both those occasions. The batting of Sanath Jayasuriya, Aravinda de Silva, Mahela Jayawardene, Kumar Sangakkara and Tillakaratne Dilshan backed up by the bowling of Muttiah Muralitharan, Chaminda Vaas, Lasith Malinga and Ajantha Mendis, among many other talented cricketers, has underpinned the successes of Sri Lankan cricket in the last two decades.
Cricketing oldies who watched ODI matches in the 1990s and the early 2000s may also dwell occasionally on batsmen Asanka Gurusinha, Roshan Mahanama, Romesh Kaluwitharana and Hashan Tilakaratne because of their role in some coruscating matches in the 1990s and particularly their participation in the team performances that secured the World Cup in 1996.
Thus, I conjecture that Arnold (as well as Marvan Atapattu) would rarely figure in their retrospective thoughts on the giants among the batting group. So, he is a forgotten star in Sri Lanka's ODI firmament. Statistical comparisons serve as the first step in my journey of recovery. They are revelatory.
As a hors d'oeuvre, let me indicate that in the ODI averages for Sri Lanka Arnold's 35.26 is more or less on par with Arjuna Ranatunga and fifth behind Sangakkara (41.96), Dilshan, Atapattu and Ranatunga. It therefore falls into the 30-40 range like Dilshan, Atapattu, Ranatunga, de Silva, Jayasuriya and Jayawardene. Thus his ODI average is better than, say, Jayasuriya's. In ODI strike-rate for Sri Lanka at 72.5 he is eighth in my selective pool and falls within the 70-80 range — a level below the heights reached by Jayasuriya (91.27), Dilshan (86.14) and de Silva (81.13), but well above Gurusinha (60.92) and Tillakaratne (57.56).
Such comparisons must be subject to caveats that recognise the different scales of run-making in the last four-five years (2010-15) because of significant changes in the rules governing balls and field placements, as well as the technological improvements in bats. I provide the full statistical picture as a table before venturing upon clarifications and qualifications.
|A de Silva||296||30||9,284||145||34.90||81.13|
Table sorted by year of birth
The table provides a generalised numerical picture. Before refining the analysis, we will profit from a comparison with the statistics for two of Australia's best middle-order batsmen covering the 1990s and 2000s respectively, namely, Michael Bevan and Michael Hussey — both easily outdoing the Sri Lankan lot in their averages.
Since averages serve as one line of comparative evaluation, it is critical for us to take note of the weight of not out innings in the process. This feature in its turn is more pronounced among middle-order batsmen who, not infrequently, come in towards the end of an innings and perhaps even help secure a victory. Arnold's proportion of not outs in ODIs matches is similar (roughly) to that of Hussey's and is by far the largest proportion among the Sri Lankans. Though Ranatunga has more, namely, 47 not outs, he had 255 ODI innings to 155 for Arnold.
Refining our comparative analysis, therefore, requires attentiveness to the specialist role and difficulties of those who enter the field quite late in the innings on a substantial number of occasions. At such moments, they do not have the time to build an innings. They serve as 'finishers' and their risk taking is greater. However, on other occasions, they may walk in after an early order collapse and have to shore up the innings in ways that may bear on their strike-rates.
His successful media career has fast overshadowed his cricket feats. © Island Cricket
Not many will be aware that Arnold was an opening batsman at St. Peter's College, Colombo and made his mark in Under-19 international cricket — on a tour of England in 1992 — in this role. He scored 242 runs at an average of 48.40 in three Tests in England at this level. However, the prospects of entry into the Sri Lankan side were restricted because of the presence of experienced and competent batsmen in the existing line-up: Mahanama, Jayasuriya, Gurusinha, de Silva, Ranatunga, Tillakaratne and, more controversially, Sanjeewa Ranatunga.
Though Gurusinha left the island for Melbourne circa 1996/97, Arnold did not get an opportunity to show his wares as opener until the Pakistan tour of Sri Lanka in 1997. He however was in competition with the technically correct Atapattu (older by three years). Grapevine gossip suggests that he also had to face the prejudices of some Ananda-Nalanda figures in team and/or cricket board circles.
It was not until the Sri Lankan team's debacle during the World Cup in England in 1999, when a squad that was picked by Arjuna Ranatunga failed miserably, that the doors opened. The English disaster enabled the Chandrika Kumaratunga government to sideline the BCCSL board commanded by Thilanga Sumathipala and insert an interim committee headed by Rienzi Wijeytilleke.
This opened the door for Arnold, but at this stage he had to compete with Atapattu and Avishka Gunawardene, as well as the mercurial Kaluwitharana, for the opening slot alongside the new captain Jayasuriya. Given Atapattu's technical competence and right-hand stance, it is not surprising that the selectors usually fixed on a left-right opening combination of violence: (Jayasuriya) combined with right-handed steadiness (Atapattu).
While Arnold was slotted in at No. 3 on a few occasions at either Test or ODI games, the possibility of fitting in as No. 3 was soon closed by the emergence and success of Jayawardene and Sangakkara. Jayawardene's elegance and classiness in batting style and Sangakkara's correctness tended to overshadow Arnold's more laboured methods — however effective they were.
Then, guided perhaps by Dav Whatmore, the various selection committees of the early 2000s chose to shift Arnold into the middle order at 5, 6 or 7, where his coolness under pressure was deemed handy. As S. Skandakumar (a perceptive observer of the cricket scene) indicated to me, "Tony Greig was one of the first to acknowledge [Arnold's] grit and leadership qualities … he was cool and confident until they started messing around with his place in the batting order."
Likewise, a local writer assessed his capacities thus: "He was the ideal man for a crisis. On many an occasion, when Sri Lanka's top order batsmen failed, the rangy left hand bat came to the rescue of the team"
Arnold's middle-order position in ODI matches was sustained in the mid-2000s when Tom Moody was coach.
"Russel was considered a good finisher, we tried to mould him into a Bevan like finisher for Sri Lanka; he had all the characteristics and skills of a player that was calm under pressure, plus had the ability to find the boundary when required," Moody recalled in a recent conversation.
"ODI cricket back then, the role of your middle order was one of the keys to your success, hence the importance of players like Russel in your top seven."
Arnold's cricketing nous on this issue came through in a recent conversation: he indicated that, at No. 6 or 7, he considered his initial task was to nudge the singles, so that the set top-order batsmen would gain the strike; and when he had got his eye in and was joined by lower-order batsmen, his task was to accumulate runs while nursing and/or encouraging them. He added that he could hit fours when required. By way of illustration, in the first ODI against England on a difficult pitch at Dambulla in early 2001, Arnold walked in at 58 for 4 with Atapattu at the crease and accumulated 39 runs (not out) in 83 balls to join Atapattu and shepherd the team to 144 for 5 in 40 overs, thereby surmounting England's low total of 143. In summary, one could say that Arnold was a team man to the core.
It is in this middle-order role that Arnold played an important part in Sri Lanka's ODI contests in the 2000s, especially in Australia in early 2006 and then in lesser note during the World Cup in the Caribbean in 2007. Sri Lanka outplayed South Africa to reach the ODI finals in Australia, but was comprehensively beaten by the home team under Ponting at Sydney and Brisbane after defeating them at Adelaide. Arnold batted at No. 5 (not 6 or 7) in the best-of-three finals and scored 24, 64 not out and 76. In fact, he ended the Australian tour with a total of 312 runs in 10 innings and an average of 53.50.
He complemented this batting role with useful part-time bowling interventions as an off-spinner on the one hand and competent fielding on the other. It was Arnold who ran out Darren Lehmann in one ODI match in Brisbane with a direct hit, inducing Lehmann to yell "black c***s" as he passed the Sri Lankan dressing room. It was Arnold who dismissed Mathew Hayden and Adam Gilchrist before they took off in murderous flight during Sri Lanka's first encounter with the eventual champions at St George's ground during the 2007 World Cup.
It is an opinion shared by Nirgunan Tiruchelvam who, writing in early 2006 after Arnold's useful showing during a tour of Australia, birched the selection committee headed by Lalith Kaluperuma for their "shoddy treatment" of Arnold and referred to him as "the eternal scapegoat of the selectors". This criticism is preceded by Tiruchelvam's assessment of Arnold's services in Australia: "Despite the pressures of batting at the death, Arnold rose to the occasion. He was proactive in his shot-making and nimble between the stumps. His calm demeanour was a constant asset to the team. Where he was found wanting in that he played too many nudges and adventurous sweep shots, especially in the league matches. This was rectified in the finals where the NCC batsman hit the ball in front of the stumps with the full face of the bat."
Consideration of this charge in relation to his Test career calls for a separate and careful analysis. But the accusation holds good for the shorter version of the game and embraces several lots of selectors, though not all.
So, Arnold's career in both longer and Test and shorter ODI formats has been chequered. What must be emphasised here is the weight of his contribution to Sri Lanka in the shorter form of the game. To end with an ODI average superior to that of de Silva and Jayawardene, and a decent strike-rate of 72.5, is no mean feat. Why did the various clusters of selectors chose him for only 180 ODI matches? Why was he not a certainty, and why was he in and out of the XI, as well as several touring squads? Why is he not etched in our firmament with the other stars?
Any evaluation of these questions requires a multi-factorial analysis, which in turn demands relative weights. The latter is impossible without a minute analysis proceeding in temporal order. So it is a rough set that I present now — with some factors in conjectural form.
At any moment a selection committee is faced with several options for some spots, and the balance of the XI or the touring squad has to be evaluated. When Arnold was at the door as an opening batsman from 1996/97 or thereabouts, that specific door was closed by the option of Jayasuriya and Atapattu as a right-left combination in both ODIs and Test arenas. It is when Arnold had begun to prove his value in the middle-order from 1999 onwards, and such astute observers of the Sri Lankan scene as Tony Greig and Skandakumar recognised this asset, that one can raise questions about selection policy in the 2000s. This requires a series by series analysis — a task not attempted here.
As a general proposition, however, it can be conjectured that some selection panels, or key individuals within these bodies, were either put off by Arnold's batting style (a Tiruchelvam notes in early 2006: "It could be because he is not as attractive a batsman as some of his counterparts. His odd stance has become squarer and more crouched."), or they were inadequately appreciative of the special difficulties of batsmen located at numbers 6 and 7 — in effect displaying a fundamental failure in cricketing acumen. Perhaps they were informed by "pettiness" (Tiruchelvam's term) and possibly directed by prejudices rooted in the Sinhala-Buddhist mindset arising from the 1956 revolution, with its antipathy to the westernised English-speaking elites of that era, or maybe the selectors were informed by the immature considerations of superiors peeved by Arnold's directness of speech and tendency to call a spade a spade.
And, then, last but not least, there was the impact of Sri Lanka's perennial problem: namely, the constant musical chairs in cricket administration, and thus, in the composition of selection committees. A glance at Wikipedia on this topic will reveal 11 — yes ELEVEN — different heads of SLC between 2000 and 2015. The absence of continuity in oversight is manifest, is it not! The marvel is that Sri Lankan cricket teams have been competitive in all three formats of international cricket and secured trophies or reached the finals on several occasions. This is the product, on the one hand, of the enthusiasm and dedication of many coaches and administrators at all levels and, on the other, the boundless commitment and athletic capacities residing in the players who have competed for positions. Arnold has been one such example. He has to be placed among the stars lighting up the night sky of our ODI cricket.
1Avishka Gunawardene and, soon, Jehan Mubarak were also in the running for top-order spots at this stage in the years 1999-2001.
2Arnold generally batted at No. 7, behind Silva and Dilshan though going in at No. 6 on one or two occasions. He had nine outings and compiled 118 runs with one 50, while being not out five times and securing an average of 29.50 with a strike-rate of 81.94. These figures underline the particularities and difficulties of the late middle order role.
3I was among the crowd at the Adelaide contest on February 10, 2006. Sri Lanka batted first and accumulated 274 runs for 8 wkts with Atapattu (53), Sangakkara (83) and Kapugedera (38) leading the way. Australia scored 252 runs, with four batsmen being run out. Dilshan had a hand in all four of these. Though in one of these instances Ponting as non-striker made an astonishing error, Dilshan at backward point revealed cricketing acumen in running like quicksilver to the bowler's end to break the stumps.
4Muttiah Muralitharan had a niggling injury and did not play in that game. In response to my query on this role, Moody's answer runs: "Yes, both Dilshan and Russel were always considered as good alternatives against left handed batsman,… [However,] neither bowled in the 2007 final against Australia." Note that Australia won the game at St. George's, overtaking Sri Lanka's 226 comfortably by three wkts because Ponting and others took up the mantle after the openers were sent back for relatively low scores.
5Skandakumar also notes: "he was cool and confident until they [Selection Committees] started messing around with his place in the batting order….and in that process he began to fail, and his confidence understandably began to wane." However, the move to the middle-order can be deemed a good option." (email, 7 April 2015)
© Island Cricket