“He was nimble behind the wickets as well, very rarely making blunders that would cost his team runs. He would at times get a bit innovative too. The world needs more selfless cricketers like Romesh Shantha Kaluwitharana”
He is not someone who comes to mind when we see cricket matches or records on a regular basis. But he did have a huge impact in the rise of Sri Lankan cricket. The little dynamite Romesh Kaluwitharana will always be etched in Sri Lankan folklore with his energetic personality on the field and his attacking style of batting at the top alongside Sanath Jayasuriya. A Test average of 26.12 and ODI average of 22.22 does not speak volume of the player he was, but his impact at the top was not easy to ignore. Part of the underdog team that lifted the World Cup in 1996, Kaluwitharana played a pivotal role in ensuring that Sri Lanka got off to a good start inside the first 15 overs, during the fielding restrictions.
The turning point
Credit also has to be given to Sri Lanka captain Arjuna Ranatunga, who decided to promote Kalu to open with Jayasuriya. Before the decision was taken, the Sri Lankan wicketkeeper-batsman would be juggled all around the batting order, No. 6 and 7 being his spot on most occasions. The Benson and Hedges series in 1995-96 held in Australia turned out to be a pivotal tour for Kaluwitharana and also for Sri Lankan cricket. Kalu was given a permanent opening spot alongside Jayasuriya, which gave him more freedom to express himself. The result? Kalu was Sri Lanka’s second highest scorer with 250 runs at 25, with a staggering strike-rate of 91.24.
His partner, however, had an underwhelming performance, managing just 173 runs from 10 matches with a strike rate of just 61.13. That was so unlike Jayasuriya, who in the years to come would go on to tear apart some of the best bowling attacks in the world and thereby becoming one of the most intimidating figures in world cricket.
In a span of a week, Kaluwitharana had earned three player-of-the-match awards for giving Sri Lanka a blistering start. In Match 9 of the Benson and Hedges World Series, he had scored 77 off just 75 deliveries. In the next match against West Indies at Perth he slammed 50 off 54 and then at the MCG against Australia, he hit 74 off 68 – Helping Sri Lanka win all the three matches in the process.
“When Sanath and Kalu were batting, we didn’t even want to get up for a cup of tea,” a young leg-spinner Upul Chandana said. “All I remember wanting to do was to sit there and watch them bat. I had never seen anything like it.”
Their batting was a fresh of breath air not just for Sri Lanka and their players, but for the entire cricket fraternity.
Sri Lanka may have lost the tri-series and also the Test series, but they had their sights on bigger things. In Kalu they had found a reliable opener. The gamble to send him at the top worked wonders and Sri Lanka were in store for another big performance from him and this time it was in the grandest stage of them all…
Just like 1983 where India were underdogs, 1996, was Sri Lanka’s turn. It was still a time when cricket was not considered to be a full-time job. The Sri Lankan team consisted of players from different professions, who had come together to play cricket and compete in the 1996 World Cup. To put things into perspective, Sri Lanka had just won 4 matches in the previous 5 World Cups. They suffered a minor setback when their premier spinner Muttiah Muralitharan was called into question for chucking in Australia, but the spinner had his captain’s backing.
Former Sri Lanka batsman Sidath Wettimuny, the selector at that time, sensed that Ranatunga had this belief that his team will go all the way. Was it confidence in his players or over-confidence? Whatever it was, it certainly worked for Sri Lanka.
Wettimuny recalls and says, “It’s as if someone had foretold Arjuna that Sri Lanka were going to win,” according to ESPNCricinfo. “He must have been told that by an astrologer, or soothsayer or something, you know. He knew it in his bones,” Wettimuny a veteran of 23 Tests and 35 ODIs added.
Due to security concerns both Australia and West Indies refused to tour Sri Lanka for their respective group matches. On January 31, 1996, the Colombo Central Bank was bombed, in which 91 people lost their lives and around 1,400 people were injured. As Australia and West Indies refused to travel to the island nation, the co-hosts, having squeezed in a victory against Zimbabwe between these two forfeited matches were more or less assured a place in the quarter-final.
The way cricket was played 20-25 years ago was very different than it is today. In the initial 15 overs, only two fielders were allowed outside the 30-yard circle, which gave batsmen an opportunity to go aerial and collect some vital boundaries before the field was spread out. Of course, only a handful of cricketers used this to full affect. Ideally, the teams would keep their wickets intact and then goo all guns blazing in the last 10 overs or so. Sri Lanka had other plans.
In an era where 50 to 60 runs was considered to be adequate, Sri Lanka redefined one-day cricket. In the first 15 overs, Sri Lanka managed scores of 117 against India, 123 against Kenya, 121 against England in the quarters and a meagre 86 against India, this time in the semi-final. There was a lot expected of Kaluwitharana, considering how well he had done in Australia just a month ago, but sadly, he failed to live up to his expectations. He managed just 73 runs from 6 innings at 12.16 with the highest score of 33. However, it was his partner Jayasuriya who had to make up for Kalu’s poor form, scoring 221 runs at 36.83, coupled with a strike-rate of 131.54.
It was ironic how despite having a poor series in Australia, Jayasuriya stepped up to the plate and delivered at the World Cup, while Kalu, who had rediscovered his form at the top of the order, failed. Jayasuriya’s all-round effort also won him the player of the tournament.
The philosophy with which Sri Lanka went into the World Cup was simple: Get as many runs on the board within the first 15 overs, not worrying much about the wickets. Luckily for Sri Lanka, this paid off in all the matches. They would get big runs on the board before the fielding restrictions were lifted and then knock the ball around, before going big in the final overs.
However, more than anything, it was Sri Lanka’s belief in their players and the execution of their strategy that won them the World Cup against all odds.
Kaluwitharana was now a world champion and nothing could take this away from him. From struggling to find form down the order to make himself a permanent fixture at the top in a span of a few months was an incredible achievement in itself.
More successes followed
After Kalu’s failure in the World Cup, Sri Lanka persisted with him at the top and he went on to justify that, slamming his first and second ODI tons. He was also a regular in Test cricket until the emergence of none other than Kumar Sangakkara. After scoring a century on debut, Kaluwitharana had to wait five more years to score his next ton, which came in testing conditions at Dunedin. In fact, Kalu loved playing against New Zealand, slamming 496 from 7 Tests at 45.09.
He put up many more gritty performances, but in the early 200s, Sri Lanka were looking towards the future and Kalu did not fit in. He ended his Test career with a fifty. After the end of his career, he coached a local club while beginning a career as an insurance executive. He briefly coaches Malaysia in 2008.
Sri Lanka had a miserable 1999 World Cup, where they managed to beat only Kenya and Zimbabwe, and losing by huge margins against the likes of England, South Africa and India. Kalu had a slightly better World Cup this time around, scoring 90 in 5 matches at 22.50, including the highest score of 57 as Sri Lanka failed to make it beyond the group stages.
It might be a long time since Kaluwitharana bid adieu to the game, but his contribution was immense. In the days when wicketkeepers were primarily in the team to just to don the gloves behind the wickets, Kalu showed that they can be reliable batsmen, occupying a crucial position in the batting line-up. Since then, we have seen the likes of Sangakkara, MS Dhoni and Adam Gilchrist to name a few take their batting seriously while also being wonderful wicketkeepers. In modern day cricket, a wicketkeeper is as important a batsman as the others in the team, regardless of the format.
A small figure at the crease, Kalu, not being naturally gifted, worked extremely hard on his game to become a dangerous batsman for Sri Lanka. He had a compact stance with minimum bat lift, but the pace he generated with his bat swing was immense. He was also an extremely tough candidate to bowl at in the initial 15 overs. You bowl full, he’ll drive, you bowl short he will not be afraid to pull. He was particularly good through the covers and will not hold himself back to play on the up. Top bowlers like Glenn McGrath found it difficult to settle down when Kalu was batting.
He was nimble behind the wickets as well, very rarely making blunders that would cost his team runs. He would at times get a bit innovative too. The world needs more selfless cricketers like Romesh Shantha Kaluwitharana.