By Ken Piesse 02/02/03
Sri Lanka are World Cup wildcards, according to farewelling legend Aravinda
de Silva, who is playing his fifth and final World Cup.
As farewells go, it wasn’t a fairytale, but Aravinda de Silva says his heart was pumping and the hair on the back of his neck standing to attention as thousands of fans at the Melbourne Cricket Ground stood and applauded and waved their colourful Sri Lankan flags as he made his way to the dug-out.
It mattered little that he had been caught just metres short of a six-hit which would have given him a half-century. He said it was nice to have made a score-of-sorts at one of the most famous grounds of all in his last Australian appearance. He waved his bat and turned a full circle and waved it again as thousands rose to acknowledge the little master.
Now, he says, Sri Lanka’s focus is squarely on the soon-to-start World Cup - and what’s more they are confident of making the last four. “We are in a group which gives us a fairly decent chance of making it through to the Super Six stage,” Aravinda said in an interview for Foxsports and Inside Cricket.
“If we do perform to the best of our ability I feel once you get through the qualifying period, we have as good a chance as anybody. We are going in with a deal of confidence and we have a chance."
With 8000 one-day runs at a strike-rate of 80-plus, 37-year-old Aravinda can claim to be in Sachin Tendulkar's class as the finest one-day player of them all. This is his fifth and final World Cup as he has announced his retirement and intention to spend more time with family.
“It'll be an emotional World Cup for me,” he says. “I'm very grateful that I have been able to get back into the side for the World Cup. I hope it will go very well for us."
Two Cups ago, Aravinda was the toast of world cricket after making an unbeaten century as Sri Lanka shocked Australia with an emphatic seven wicket victory in the final in Lahore in 1996. It remains the signature moment of his 400 appearances.
“That World Cup final is the one I cherish the most,” he said.
“It brings tears to my eyes just watching it on TV. It's something I'll always remember. "To score 100 not out against the Australians was a dream come true.
“God has given me talent and I'm grateful he did as in a situation like that to come out on top was wonderful for me and for Sri Lankan cricket."
Sri Lanka’s captain Sanath Jayasuriya says it has always been fun batting with Ari, so hard does he hit the ball and so easily does he hit even the fastest of bowlers. When they're both going, it's like watching two thrashing machines, Sanath crashing the ball through gully and point and Ari lifting anything within reach over mid wicket. Aravinda may not be quite as trim as in the old days when he once made seven Test centuries in a calendar year but he still has an eagle eye as he showed on several occasions during the VB Series, most notably in Sydney against the Englishmen in mid-tournament when he made a cultured half century, his wristy flicks to both sides of the wicket a highlight.
Aravinda has also been fulfilling an important containment role with the ball. He says he has loved every minute of every Australian tour - all seven of them. He was also here in early 1996, along with Jayasuriya, representing a Rest of the World XI in a one-day game against Mark Taylor’s returning Australians.
And in one memorable half season with the Prahran club in Melbourne in the late ‘80s he won both the batting and bowling averages and came second in the Jack Ryder Medal for the best and fairest player in Victorian Premier League ranks.
Sri Lanka’s coach Dav Whatmore, one of those most responsible for Aravinda spending a season downunder, said in Aravinda’s very first match, having missed the first fortnight of the season, he top edged a hook and was out for a duck. “I said to him that whatever he did from then on in would have to be better and it was - 600 runs, 20-odd wickets and eight or nine catches later, he left having had an exceptional a streak of form as you could ever see.”
Prahran has had some most distinguished visiting internationals from Duncan Sharpe who captained the club in the early ‘70s, through to Derek Randall, hero of the Centenary Test and Asanka Gurusinha, who played in Sri Lanka’s 1996 World Cup triumph. But Aravinda’s performances were far in advance of them all. Club president Ian Crawford says Prahran would have Ari back tomorrow if they could, but they are also very respectful and understanding of his future plans which involve a complete break from cricket and spending more time with his family.
“He’s still a dynamic player and would be fabulous for us, but he also has commitments back home. If the situation ever changes though and he says he’d like to have some time back in Melbourne, we’ll make sure that it is from October!”
Jayasuriya says talk that the Sri Lankans intended boycotting the Cup over financial matters couldn’t have been more misconstrued. He says the money the team receives is improving and a committed and happy Sri Lankan team will be competing to their utmost in South Africa. He did say, however, that the Cup could be his last as captain. Sri Lanka have under performed of late and until this VB Series, so has he.
At 33, he definitely wants to play on, but must weigh up the responsibility and associated duties against playing purely for fun and bowing out on his terms. “Before going to the World Cup I must think what I am going to do, stepping down or whatever. I haven't decided yet. I'd still like to contribute and think I can and at least for two more years.”
Sanath says the Sri Lankan team is young at heart and an exciting unit on the improve. There is a depth and feeling of comradery which can see the tiny island nation genuinely compete on the world stage... and at both Test and one-day level. He says the team will miss Aravinda as he has been such a fabulous player over two decades. However, the team has some emerging batsmen who can help bolster the top-order as Aravinda has been doing for so many years.
Jayasuriya says the form and fitness of it spin ace Muthiah Muralitharan could well decide if the team can qualify for the Super 6s and then go on from there. Had he been fit to play the whole of the VB Series he has no doubt that Sri Lanka and not England would have played-off.
“Murali gives his 100 per cent all the time. He wants to do well for his country all the time. When Murali is performing we play well... Sri Lankan people love him, Sri Lankan people who live in Australia love him and he always performs for us.”
Before saying goodbye to his fans in Melbourne, Aravinda and Jayasuriya took one last look at the soon-to-be -demolished Member's Stand, built in 1928, and stepped down from the pavilion, just as Hobbs and Sutcliffe and Don Bradman himself used to do decades earlier.
Jayasuriya is likely to be back for the tour, but Ari will be back home in Colombo indulging in well-earned time-off and no doubt following the fortunes as closely as he can.
* Sri Lanka is in negotiations to play two Tests back in northern Australia in October.
Article provided exclusively to Abc of Cricket by Cricket Week.