“For the next two years, he was constantly in the Sachin Tendulkar-Brian Lara bracket, plating 24 Tests for 2195 runs at an average of 66.5”.
Heywood Broun has rightfully proclaimed that sports do not build human characters; rather it reveals it. Caught up in the midst of a million glaring eyeballs and thrown into the abyss, a sportsman has to rise up against the odds to emerge a fighting hero. In adversities, his aura and his legacy are brought to the fore and when he does step away from the field, it is his reaction in those moments that form for him his epitaph.
Aravinda de Silva from Sri Lanka belonged to that breed of sportsmen who found themselves at the depths more than they found themselves on the pinnacle. Playing for a country like Sri Lanka was always going to be a challenging prospect and soon, the associate nation made a name for itself as a talented side that would give in to losses and lapses of concentration in the direst of situations. They were charming, stylish and loveable – but all so frequently, they were “losers”. Till de Silva’s foray into the camp, the side had recorded just six ODI wins and a Test victory was nowhere near the picture. From the 1984 game against New Zealand in Moratuwa till de Silva’s retirement, Sri Lanka had achieved 178 ODI wins, a memorable World Cup title and 32 Test wins and if these figures do not reveal the lasting impact that de Silva had on the sport in his country, then his importance in high-octane matches surely will.
The polite, soft-spoken and shy performer who was prone to inconsistencies, played a major part of his career with the title of Mad Max. While this name showed his daring approach to batting, it also highlighted the “madness” that struck him when he was in fine nick, which often saw him give his wicket away. He had the urge to dominate and dominate he did – but too infrequently and almost in an unfulfilling manner. He crossed the 50-figure mark on 75 occasions and while that is a stupendous feat, his conversion rate displays his inability to go on and push for the high scores. He just has 11 hundreds to his name and even though he left the field as a cricketer who could have achieved more, his persona still resonates.
By the mid-1990s, flamboyance had given way to substance and below-par performances were replaced by impactful knocks. Kent hired him and his county stint, wherein he bludgeoned sixes wherever he went, especially in the Lord’s final, are a part of folklore. He was much loved and nothing better than Graham Cowdrey’s lines show how the world started embracing de Silva – as an artisan who still had miles to go in his international career. “When he packed his bags, he hugged each of us, and I have never known a professional sports team so close to tears.”
However, the moment that metamorphized his career was undoubtedly the knock that de Silva played in the semi-finals of the 1996 World Cup. Put in to bat first by Mohammad Azharuddin, Sri Lanka were tottering after losing Sanath Jayasuriya and Romesh Kaluwitharana in the first four balls of the innings. Just when the 100,000-strong crowd at Eden Gardens were pumped up at their vociferous best, in emerged de Silva to not only silence the passionate city, but also weave a magic that would leave the Indian side reeling, and the Eden crowd dumb-founded. He batted as if he was in a trance – immune to the crowd’s boisterous yelling and untouched by the deep hole that his team had found themselves in.
He notched up his 50 in 32 deliveries with 11 fours. While Asanka Gurusinha was struggling at the other end, managing just 1 in 16 deliveries, de Silva at the other, was a picture of serene calmness. His strokes were a delight and his concentration, almost monk-like. He was undaunted and unhindered. He was in his zone – almost reliving his childhood dream of being the saviour that guides his team to a World Cup trophy. When he was out dismissed on 66, he had done more than his job and helped Sri Lanka to 251. The match, ended rather anti-climactically, with the spectators giving in to volatility – and when they left the match abandoned after burning off the seats, it was all a clear indication of how the young Mad Max had doused the fire of expectations that had burned forth all around the Gardens.
In the finals, he raced away to a sizzling hundred and in a display of controlled assault, gave the world a view of the array of shots in his arsenal. Sri Lanka, an associate nation, went on to lift the trophy and sans de Silva’s power, finesse and charisma, probably the moment would have taken a while coming.
For the next two years, he was constantly in the Sachin Tendulkar-Brian Lara bracket, plating 24 Tests for 2195 runs at an average of 66.5. In 1997, he scored seven tons in 11 Tests but as destiny would have it, a series of selection arguments and match-fixing arguments hindered the path to further greatness. By the time a new selection panel came on board in 2002, de Silva’s interest in the game was clearly on the wane but he still reduced almost 12 kilograms for a final flourish. His return to England showed glimpses of his heydays but he could never really grasp on to make it a comeback worth remembering.
But, even though he walked out unsatisfied, he did show his teammates how importance self-belief was in this tough sport. Against one of the strongest teams in his era, Pakistan, de Silva scored eight hundreds – a team that comprised of a bowling line-up of Wasim Akram, Waqar Younis, Imran Khan and Abdul Qadir. He won seven Man of the Series awards and forty-two Man of the Match awards, scoring 15645 runs in both the formats, even picking up 145 wickets with his off-spin. Two Test double centuries, one in his very last outing and a wicket in the last ball of his Test career further emphasises his alluring presence in a camp that was slowly on the rise.
He ended his career knowing that he did have his hands sunk into the bowl of greatness many times. He may not have achieved the maniac levels of Tendulkar, but he did ensure, that in his own way, he left behind a footprint in Sri Lanka’s cricketing history, and in an age when the national side is struggling to find motivation, they need not look farther than de Silva’s heroics and how from a team of under-achievers, he led his side to a magical transformation.