Of Sri Lanka’s many struggles, the one to reacquaint itself with the maverick inside has been most compellingly played out on the cricket field.
Anglophilia accompanied the game’s introduction and establishment on the South Asian island through its prestigious schools and clubs. With it came Victorian morality, norms and notions of how cricket should be played.
As with all post-colonies, the 20th century was spent attempting to navigate, and break with, this colonial tradition while seeking out an indigenous interpretation and response to a game formalised by English values.
A pursuit that reached one of its seminal moments when Sri Lanka won the 1996 Cricket World Cup playing an interpretation of the 50-over game which, at the time, was as revolutionary as it was swashbuckling. Openers Sanath Jayasuriya and Romesh Kaluwitharana slaughtered new-ball attacks and preconceived notions of the openers’ circumspect role in limited-overs cricket, Aravinda de Silva counter-attacked with cavalier authority, Arjuna Ranatunga captained the team with guile and insouciance.
After that victory, the game appeared to become more inclusive on the island and has since experienced the blooming of more singular talents and approaches to cricket: Off-spinner Muttiah Muralitharan’s one-off wizardry, confirmed by his 800 Test wickets, the most by any bowler; Tillakaratne Dilshan’s development of the “Dilscoop”; the relentless pressure and wicket-taking of Rangana Herath, a bowling assassin trapped in the body of a banker…
The only claims to being a maverick that newly installed Sri Lanka Test captain, Dimuth Karunaratne, may make, is that over the past two years — and especially when all have fallen around him — he has remained resolute, calm and consistent in scoring runs. An untraditional, rock-like maverick riposte to what has often been Sri Lankan batting quick-sand.
Studious and hardworking
Last year, the left-hander scored 742 runs in nine Tests at an average of 46.43, the most of any opening batsman in the Test arena. Form which prompted his inclusion in the 2018 ICC Test Team of the Year. He scored an unbeaten 158 in the first innings at Galle during South Africa’s 2018 tour of Sri Lanka, and followed it up with half centuries in his next three innings of the two-Test series, won convincingly by the home team. Before South Africa started their second innings at the Sinhala Sports Club in Colombo, Karunaratne had scored more runs in the series than all the Proteas batsmen combined.
Karunaratne, according to an instructive ESPNcricinfo feature, voraciously consumes statistics and video evidence about his own performances and those of opposition bowlers, while constantly looking to improve his batting. A studious and hardworking influence which may prove vital during Sri Lanka’s two-Test series against South Africa which starts at Kingsmead on 13 February.
For Sri Lanka have suffered humiliating reverses in Test matches since their steamrollering of the Proteas in July last year. In November they lost a home Test series against England, 0-3. Their performances characterised by exasperating batting collapses and some whacked-out reviews. They then proceeded to lose a three-Test series away to New Zealand 1-0, with the final, all-or-nothing match in Christchurch surrendered by 423 runs.
On hard bouncy wickets similar to South Africa’s, the touring Sri Lankans were then routed in Australia, losing the day-night Test match in Brisbane by an innings and 40 runs and the second Test in Canberra by 366 runs. Results which led to captain Dinesh Chandimal being dropped from the Test squad to tour South Africa and Karunaratne’s installation as his successor.
Sri Lanka are in crisis and Karunaratne will have to cajole and coax performances from his potentially devastating batsmen and his greenhorn fast-bowlers. The mercurial Kusal Mendis needs to reassert himself in the middle-order with runs. Vice-captain and wicketkeeper Niroshan Dickwella, one of the most successful schoolboy captains in Sri Lankan history while playing at Kandy’s Trinity College (the alma mater of Kumar Sangakkara), needs to keep his head, and his flash, but lose his immaturity. All the batsmen have to show more backbone than the mollusc impersonations they have performed so far. Karunaratne’s spinners, after one warm-up game in Benoni, will have to adapt quickly to local conditions.
Sri Lanka’s Test side must rebuild, an opportune moment, again, for the Lions to reacquaint themselves with the maverick inside.
There are historical antecedents — political and cricketing — to draw from. The 1848 Matale Rebellion against British rule was the first “peasant revolt” on the island, led by commoners instead of kings and feudal overlords.
Reviled by many, venerated by some, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran, waged a bloody guerrilla war against the Sri Lankan state and was a murderous maverick, but an innovator nonetheless. For almost three decades he, and the Tigers, thumbed their noses at the notion of Sinhala Buddhist “muscularity” and military superiority, marking out and running a separate state with its own army, airforce, navy, tax-gathering systems and judiciary.
‘Greatest batsmen on earth’
While Ranatunga, Murali, Jayasuriya and others are easy, modern-day reference points, it bears remembering one of Sri Lanka’s original cricketing mavericks, Mahadevan Sathasivam. A batsman of such rare quality that after a Ceylon XI had scored 153 all out (with “Satha” scoring 96 of those runs) against a Commonwealth XI in 1950, West Indian captain Frank Worrell, who was in the attack that day, was convinced to include him as the first name on a World XI team-sheet.
Sir Garfield Sobers described the flamboyant “Satha”, who captained a Ceylon XI against Donald Bradman’s Invincibles, as the “greatest batsmen on earth”. But he was also a playboy, a ballroom dancer, someone who liked a pint, and a reluctant fielder who often turned up drunk for matches.
His philandering lifestyle led to his wife, Anandam, pleading in a letter to him to stop “torturing” her with his infidelities: “I will release you from the bond,” she wrote, “because you want something better than me… You want gaiety and variety … Silver Fawn, dancing, playing cards, ‘giving lifts’, drinking, playing mixed games … This I cannot bear.”
A few months later, Sathasivam was remanded in jail and charged with the murder of Anandam. After a lengthy trial — during which the chattering classes of 1950s Colombo appeared convinced that he had done it — Sathasivam was found not guilty.
He emigrated to Malaysia soon afterwards, but remained a playboy prince of a cricketer of fantastical skill to many of that generation.
It is time again for Sri Lanka to reacquaint herself with the maverick inside. For the lions to find their silver fawn. To have the Sobers and Worrells of modern cricket look approvingly at their Test performances. To reaffirm the iconoclasts who have, in the past, reimagined and remoulded the (cricketing) world in a manner fitting of an island of remarkable contradictions.
South African Test Squad:
Faf du Plessis (captain), Hashim Amla, Temba Bavuma, Theunis de Bruyn, Quinton de Kock, Dean Elgar, Zubayr Hamza, Keshav Maharaj, Aiden Markram, Wiaan Mulder, Duanne Olivier, Vernon Philander, Kagiso Rabada and Dale Steyn.
Sri Lanka Test Squad:
Dimuth Karunaratne (captain), Niroshan Dickwella, Lahiru Thirimanne, Kaushal Silva, Kusal Mendis, Kusal Janith Perera, Milinda Siriwardana, Dhananjaya De Silva, Oshada Fernando, Angelo Perera, Suranga Lakmal, Kasun Rajitha, Vishwa Fernando, Chamika Karunaratne, Mohamed Shiraz, Lakshan Sandakan and Lasith Embuldeniya.