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August 5, 1997


Higher, faster, further...

Harsha Bhogle

Sunil Gavaskar always said he looked forward to the day when someone would break his record for the highest individual score made by an Indian in Test cricket.

He believed that one day an Indian would put up an individual score of 250. "Zimbabwe, New Zealand, Sri Lanka - they all have individual scores higher than any scored by an Indian!"

I can understand the agony. India are sixty five years old in Test cricket. Sri Lanka are a mere sixteen, and Zimbabwe not yet five. Yet, David Houghton, Aravinda da Silva and now Sanath Jayasuriya have scored more in an innings than any Indian did.

And Sri Lanka now hold the most outstanding batting record that a pair of cricketers can ever hope to achieve. These are huge moments for a country that only really discovered itself two and a half years ago in New Zealand by winning an away Test and with it, an away series.

Remarkable as the batting statistics for Jaysuriya and Mahanama are, look at them in the context of what came before, and you realise that the peak they have scaled makes Everest a little evening stroll. Only two Sri Lankans had scored double hundreds in Test cricket before this, and one of those (Brendon Kuruppu) was a man who played very little cricket afterwards. And they have only won five Test matches in their history, so far.

For a side so young, and in Test cricket, so immature, this is inspiring stuff; the kind little boys dream about or manipulate in book cricket through skilful use of bookmarks. Or when they decide to play against themselves and are batsman, bowler and umpire rolled into one. Very handy when you want a big score.

Jayasuriya and Mahanama, though played real cricket - and to me this is a landmark in Sri Lankan cricket that goes way beyond statistics. From the time Sri Lanka played the first World Cup in 1975, they had looked a very exciting one-day side, capable of irritating people but just as adept at throwing it away. That obstacle has long been consigned to museums, and there is little doubt that in sub-continental conditions,they are the best one-day side in the world today. They might struggle a bit on bouncier tracks, but they would have to be in the top three teams anywhere, on any wicket.

But Test cricket? And Sri Lanka? Always a question mark, because among other things they played so little. Remember that they had no home cricket for five years, and that can be a crippling phenomenon for a young country. A combination of poor marketability and snobbishness (gee, I wonder what England are going to say now - I have always maintained that Sri Lanka should invite England for a one-off Test on the ground that the English team is not competitive enough!) meant that overseas invitations weren't exactly being handed around. The resultant inexperience meant that newer cricketers could not draw on what the seniors had seen.

Sri Lankan cricket, especially Test cricket, was caught in the cricketing equivalent of stagflation. They were becalmed - and that is why the tour of New Zealand in early 1995 was so crucial. And now this!

I remember seeing them play in India in early 1994 in a series of three Tests. They were pathetic - not just because they always lost the crucial tosses and had to bat on crumbling turners, but because they seemed to play with hearts the size of undeveloped peas. At Lucknow, for instance, Don Anurasiri was bowling over the wicket and down the leg side on the first afternoon. They looked like a side that would be very happy taking a match into the fifth day and that they might just collapse out of disbelief if they won.

And then in Australia they made a lot of friends, played some stirring cricket, stood as one, shoulder to shoulder, over the Muralitharan affair (I sometimes wonder how much Darrel Hair has contributed to the team spirit in this side) but, as Steve Waugh was quick to remind people, that series had a disastrous scoreline in the end.

Partly as a result of such experiences, especially India 1994, I was very curious to see how Sri Lanka would react to a big Indian total. I knew that victory in the one-day competitions had made them a very confident side but I am not ashamed to say that I have been caught completely off-guard.

When Sri Lanka came out to bat late on the second evening, they didn't look like a side having to overcome a huge total. You almost got the feeling that the Indian total didn't even matter; in fact that it was a minor milestone on a road that was studded with records - the cricketing equavalent of a long diamond necklace.

Not only have Sri Lanka proved now that they can play Test cricket with the temperament of the best in the world, a couple of individuals have made some awesome personal statements. Starting with the man who gives Indian cricket followers more nightmares than Javed Miandad did.

Sanath Jayasuriya! If he could bottle up a bit of India and take it with him all over the world, Sri Lanka would never lose!

You thought, didn't you, that he was another slogger; another monstrous creation of one-day cricket? That he was good enough as long as the bowlers had both hands tied behind their backs? Forget how many Jayasuriya made in this innings - I have been amazed, even dumbstruck, by the manner in which they have been made.

This was an orthodox innings. The head was bent low over the ball, the defence was tight. And the effect of playing short innings was invisible. He could, of course, downplay his innings in the manner that Arjuna Ranatunga did after that fabulous 131 by saying it wasn't made against the best attack. But to bat upwards of twelve hours without once looking disturbed; to score at under 60 runs per 100 balls ( like asking Micheal Schumacher to drive at 60 kmph!) speaks of a very disciplined man, and reveals an excellent cricket brain.

As a result, India have been crushed mentally. Figures on a scoreboard change with time; even the paper on which records are written is turned over - but the scars that such performances leave behind on the minds of bowlers take a very long time to heal. You look at your bowling figures; you strain to remember even one moment that had the batsman in trouble, and you start to ask yourself if this is as good as you really are.

Look at this Indian bowling side (I typed 'Indian attack' first, but feared the sub-editor would ask me to refer to the meaning of the word `attack' before using it to describe the five mainline bowlers we used here) and the stage each of the bowlers finds himself in. Nilesh Kulkarni in his first Test match getting completely overwhelmed; Rajesh Chauhan in a comeback Test going wicketless, and Anil Kumble, desperate to shake off those irritating one-dayers, finds his confidence sinking even lower. And remember, except for Javagal Srinath, this is the best bowling side available in the country.

I read a news snippet that Anshuman Gaekwad is already in Sri Lanka. It is an open secret that he will be the next coach of the Indian side (apparently from October 1). I think he would have already made a small entry into his private diary: dirt tracks, or else disaster!

Unfortunately, we are now the poorest bowling side in the world. We have been the worst fielders for a while now.

But don't tell that to Sanath Jayasuriya and Roshan Mahanama.

Forget which side you are supporting. Just stand up and clap. For what they have done this day, no pair of humans may ever do again.

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