Aravinda De Silva: The Pocket Maestro

In Some Cricketers.. by Bill Ricquier

India’s Sachin Tendulkar was always known as The Little Master. At 5’5½” he was certainly shorter than average. His youth may also have played a part in the appellation. But he was not the first to be so named. A cricketing generation earlier, Mumbai’s then finest, Sunil Gavaskar, who also weighed in at 5’5½”, had the same nickname. In fact the first Little Master had been the great Pakistani opener Hanif Mohammad.

Don Bradman, 5’7”, famously remarked that the sight of Tendulkar batting reminded him of himself. Nobody ever nicknamed Bradman The Little Master, though it’s fair to say that the likes of Bill O’Reilly and Jack Fingleton frequently referred to him as “that little b—”.That said, his height was definitely a factor in his supremacy at the crease.

No great batter has been as short as Sri Lanka’s sublime stroke player Aravinda de Silva, 5’3”. Making his Test debut against England at Lord’s in 1984, de Silva was pretty well a fixture in his country’s five-day and one-day sides until the 2003 World Cup. De Silva moved up and down the order a lot in his early years, before settling in at second wicket down but there was never much doubt about his class as a batter. In 1985-86, promoted to number three, he top-scored with 75 in Sri Lanka’s second innings in the second Test against India at the P. Saravannamuttu Stadium, Colombo, helping his side to their first Test victory. He was batting at the end of the third Test in Kandy, helping secure the draw that gave Sri Lanka their first series victory. A month or so later, in Pakistan, he scored two Test hundreds. The first was in the first Test at Faisalabad. Coming in at number seven, he made 122 in 510 minutes, with 17 fours and three sixes, one of which, a hook off Imran Khan, brought up his hundred. The second century, in the third Test at Karachi, was an even better innings. Again promoted to number three in the second innings, he made 105 in 265 minutes, with sixteen fours. It was a very difficult pitch on which to face Imran, off-spinner Tauseef Ahmed, and the great leg -spinner Abdul Qadir. No other Sri Lankan batter made more than 25, and Pakistan won by ten wickets. Back in the dressing-room, according to Nicholas Brookes’ splendid new history of Sri Lankan cricket, An Island’s Eleven, coach Abu Fuard told de Silva, in front of his teammates, that “105 is not enough”.

Perhaps because of this dubious support from the top – he was dropped briefly for the home series against New Zealand in 1986-87 – de Silva was inconsistent, especially at the start of his career. The main reason for his inconsistency, though, was that, again particularly when he was younger and less mature, he loved to attack. His passion, apart from cricket, was fast cars, and as a young man, he took that attitude to the crease. This made him very attractive to watch, but could lead to difficulties.

Like most small men, de Silva was a brilliant cutter and hooker. Like many Asian batters, including his contemporaries Mohammed Azharuddin and Salim Malik, he was an exceptionally wristy player. Much of his run-scoring was based on timing rather than power, although he always used a heavy bat.. He was exceptionally quick on his feet and, at his best, a dazzling stroke-player..

Although he loved to attack, de Silva could certainly play the long game. This was clear from his maiden hundred at Faisalabad referred to earlier. In Sri Lanka’s first Test against Australia, at The ‘Gabba in 1989-90, he made 167 (491 minutes, 361 balls) as the visitors took a first-innings lead. (He made 75 and 72 in the second Test at Hobart – that venue’s first Test – which Sri Lanka lost.) At Wellington’s Basin Reserve in 1990-91, de Silva made 267 in 509 minutes off 380 balls, with forty fours. Sri Lanka, who batted second, secured a first-innings lead of 323, with two days to go but Martin Crowe scored 299 in New Zealand’s second innings which finished on 671 for four. De Silva also made a hundred in the third Test at Auckland; his second-innings 123 included five sixes. All three games were drawn.

When de Silva scored 148 (388 minutes, 297 balls) against India at the P. Sara Stadium in 1993-94 it was his sixth Test century but his first at home. As much as anything else this is a comment on the problems posed for cricket in the island nation by the civil war. Touring Sri Lanka was not a tempting proposition in the second half of the 1980s. As noted earlier, New Zealand toured in 1986-87 but, as Brookes points out, the tour “did more harm than good, ushering in a five-year international drought in Sri Lanka”, after a bomb exploded near The Central Bus Station in Colombo during the final day of the first – and as it happened, last Test.

From 1992 onwards de Silva played much more of his cricket at home. In the end he played 44 of his 93 Tests at home. It must be quite unusual for a top player with a long career to play more away Tests than home ones. He averaged almost 43 overall, which is the mark of a very good player; at home he averaged 52. He scored eleven of his twenty Test hundreds in Sri Lanka. Seven of his Test centuries came in the calendar year 1997.

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In 1992-93 he helped Sri Lanka secure their first Test victory over England by making 80 in their first innings at the Sinhalese Sports Club Ground in Colombo – as always, a one-off Test. At the same ground four years later against Pakistan, de Silva achieved the extremely rare feat of making two not out centuries in a Test, 138 and 103 (in 99 balls). He had scored 168 in his second innings in the previous Test at the R Premadasa Stadium, also in Colombo. Against Bangladesh at the P. Sara Stadium in 2002, he became the fourth man, after Andy Sandham, Bill Ponsford and Seymour Nurse, to score a double century in his final Test.

Like many of the best international players of his time, de Silva had a spell in English county cricket, being Kent’s overseas player in 1995. In first-class cricket he scored 1,781 runs at an average of 59.61; only Mark Ramprakash and Nasser Hussain scored more. That didn’t stop Kent finishing bottom of the County Championship. But they did win the Benson and Hedges Cup, the 55-over tournament played in the first half of the summer with a showpiece final at Lord’s. Kent faced Lancashire in the final and lost by 35 but the outstanding performance in the match was de Silva’s 112, a dazzling effort made off 95 balls. According to Ivo Tenant’s profile of de Silva as one of Wisden’s Five Cricketers of the Year, it was “arguably the finest innings played in England last summer.”

Right from the start of his career there was no doubt about de Silva’s status as a leading player in one-day internationals. In 1984-85 Sri Lanka participated in the Benson and Hedges World Series Cup in Australia, together with the hosts and West Indies. Sri Lanka won only one game, out of ten, but it was the 19 year old de Silva who took them to a six-wicket victory in that game. He made up for running out the veteran Roy Dias by launching an attack on fast bowler Geoff Lawson and finishing with 46 not out. He ended up with over nine thousand runs in ODIs; of the four Sri Lanka S who have scored more, only Tillekeratne Dilshan did so in fewer matches and at a better strike rate.

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But de Silva achieved something which nobody else has done. He scored a match-winning century in the second innings of a Men’s World Cup final. His magnificent 112 against Australia at Lahore in 1996 was one of the great innings of one day cricket. Throughout Sri Lanka’s inspiring progress to the title de Silva had made valuable contributions, often with the ball, through his flattish off breaks. In the semi-final against India he made 66 off 47 balls. In the final he took three wickets and held two catches when Australia batted. But it was his masterclass with the bat that took him to cricketing immortality.

De Silva captained his country in half a dozen Tests but it wasn’t really for him. Brookes makes it clear he lacked Arjuna Ranatunga’s leadership skills: “Docile and mild-mannered, he often took to the cricket field as though he had just woken from a nap.” But he was an engaging and popular character wherever he went. Tenant in his profile quotes the late Graham Cowdrey, de Silva’s Kent teammate: “Ari was an inspiration to me and the whole side felt the same. When he packed his bags he hugged each of us and I have never known a professional sports team so close to tears.”

This article originally appeared in Scoreline magazine.

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