Coming down the track is easy, happens all the time to bowlers. But when done brazenly to wage an assault in that stage of an ODI were conservation of wickets is the key aspect, it signals something completely different.
Confidence- yes. But isn’t it about intent? Who come to your mind when you are reminded of the image of an opening pair springing down the track inside the first 15 overs?
We all have our answers. But none can suffice without some context.
Till the late 90s, opening the batting in limited-overs cricket meant seeing off the new ball with the utmost care and keeping the wickets intact to go hell for leather in the final 10 overs. Even a score of 50 was considered a par score in the first 15 overs with the field restrictions applied. However, that was soon to change as Sri Lanka brought in a new brand of attacking cricket which focused on scoring as many runs as possible while the field restrictions were applied and it was pioneered by their opening pair of Sananth Jayasuriya and Romesh Kaluwitharana.
Sanath Jayasuriya had entered the Sri Lankan team as a left-arm orthodox spinner but his ability to smash the ball earned him a promotion to the top of the order. This move would turn out to be one of the big turning points in the history of Sri Lankan cricket as Jayasuriya ended up becoming one of the most fearsome opening batsmen in world cricket.
Romesh Kaluwitharana too was batting in the middle order where a wicketkeeper usually bats. However, his quick bat-speed and ability to hit the ball a long way made skipper Arjuna Ranatunga promote him as Jayasuriya’s opening partner. This happened just two-three months before the 1996 World Cup, but it turned out to be one of Ranatunga’s finest masterstrokes as a captain.
Kaluwitharana obliged with a fine performance in the 1996 Benson and Hedges World Series. He made scores of 77, 74, and 50 in the World series which helped Sri Lanka win all the three games. While Jayasuriya was struggling in the World Series, Kaluwitharana ensured that Sri Lanka still got decent starts and took full advantage of the field restrictions. This gave Ranatunga an assurance that the duo complemented each other and that the same opening pair can be used in the World Cup that was to follow.
Both Jayasuriya and Kaluwitharana had the license to go after the bowling attack in the first 15 overs and in case there was a failure from the opening partnership, Sri Lanka always had the experienced stalwarts like Ranatunga and Arvinda de Silva to follow who would consolidate their innings. This formula worked wonders for Sri Lanka as they managed scores of 117 against India and 123 against Kenya in the powerplay.
In high-pressure games like the quarterfinal against England and the semifinal against India, they scored 121 and 86 respectively in the powerplay, giving them a great headstart in setting totals and chasing totals. Ranatunga and De Silva stepped up in the final as Sri Lanka shocked everyone and won the World Cup. While Kaluwitharana had a poor World Cup scoring just 73 runs from 6 innings, it was his partner Jayasuriya who made up for it scoring 221 runs at a fantastic strike rate of 131.54.
The duo of Jayasuriya and Kaluwitharana together scored 3230 runs in 105 innings which included 6-century stands. Kaluwitharana changed the definition of a wicketkeeper-batsman in ODI cricket as he highlighted the importance of how a swashbuckling batsman can take advantage of the field restrictions. He played 189 ODIs and scored 3711 runs at an average of just 22 with 2 centuries. Although his numbers aren’t that impressive, they do not do justice to the kind of impact he had on Sri Lankan cricket as a whole.
Jayasuriya managed to become one of the greats of the Sri Lankan game, scoring 13,430 runs in 445 ODIs and showed the world what exactly a pinch hitter was capable of.
After them, there were many other opening partnerships in World cricket that went on to create even bigger records. But one thing that will always remain unchanged is that the duo of Jayasuriya and Kaluwitharana sent shivers down the spine of many bowling attacks in the world and changed the way cricket was played.
We may surely see more productive and statistically hefty ODI commanders from top of the order in the days ahead. But there won’t ever be a pair that thrilled quite like Jayasuriya and Kaluwitharana.
Perhaps that’s the greatest unsung contribution of Sri Lankan cricket to the world stage- isn’t it?