“de Mel played a lone hand, match after match, throughout the tournament”
Asantha de Mel was, to cut things short, Sri Lanka’s first world-class pacer. He was fast – so fast that he once unleashed a bouncer barrage to force Clive Lloyd to don a helmet. He could also move the ball around in helpful conditions and had an enviable ability to pick up wickets.
de Mel took 57 wickets from 17 Tests at a wicket every 59.6 balls – a number better than, say, Chaminda Vaas and Rangana Herath, and played major roles in Sri Lanka’s first two Test wins, against India and Pakistan in 1985-86, both at SSC.
But despite all his achievements, never in his career did he match his feats in the 1983 Prudential Cup.
De Mel took 17 wickets in the tournament, at 15.58. Only Roger Binny (18) had more wickets, while Madan Lal also had 17 – but both Indians played two more matches each; they also supported each other, and had in their side Balwinder Sandhu, and more importantly, Kapil Dev.
There was no such luxury for de Mel. The other Sri Lankan bowlers in the tournament combined to take 15 wickets between them. Of them, Rumesh Ratnayake had 8 wickets at 34.25; none of the others averaged below 79.
In other words, de Mel played a lone hand, match after match, throughout the tournament.
He took some hammering in the first two matches, against Pakistan at Swansea (12-2-69-2) and against England at Taunton (12-3-62-2), but his wickets included Zaheer Abbas, Javed Miandad, and David Gower. There was little he could do on his own as Pakistan piled up 338 for 5 and England 333 for 9.
To their credit, Sri Lanka – a year old in Test cricket at that point – emerged from both defeats with their head high. They scored 288 for 9 and 286. De Mel scored a 26-ball 27 the second match.
Sri Lanka then set New Zealand just 207 at Derby. They lost in the 40th over, but not before de Mel (8-2-30-2) took out John Wright and Martin Crowe. Then came the Headingley match, against Pakistan.
On a cloudy morning at Leeds, de Mel ripped through the top order, taking out Mohsin Khan, Mansoor Akhtar, and Zaheer. Ratnayake took out two more at the other end, and Pakistan were left reeling at 43 for 5.
The handful of Sri Lankan fans cheered them on, but nobody rose to the challenge as Imran Khan (102*) and Shahid Mehboob (77) added 144 to turn the match on its head. De Mel returned later to take two more wickets to finish with 12-1-39-5 – the first five-wicket haul by a Sri Lankan.
But Sri Lanka came back into the match after restricting Pakistan to 235 for 7. At 162 for 2 it was Sri Lanka’s match to lose, but Abdul Qadir (5 for 44) took them out one by one. From 199 for 9, de Mel (17 in 19) added 25 for the last wicket with Vinothen John, but that was it.
De Mel, however, refused to give up. At Derby, he got the openers – Glenn Turner and Wright – once again. Once again Ratnayake struck twice. Once again Sri Lanka were on top, this time with New Zealand on 49 for 4. And once again a partnership, this time between Bruce Edgar and Jeremy Coney, threatened to take the match away.
But support came from Somachandra de Silva, whose 3 for 29 had stunned India in the 1979 World Cup. He got both Edgar and Coney, and more importantly, maintained a tight leash, to finish with 12-5-11-2. De Mel finished with 12-4-32-5. Richard Hadlee, Warren Lees, and Lance Cairns, the last three batsmen he dismissed, were all capable of big shots.
De Mel had now taken Sri Lanka’s first two five-fors. He also became the second bowler (after Gary Gilmour in 1975) to take two five-wicket hauls in a single edition of the World Cup. No one would emulate this till Vasbert Drakes in 2003.
But New Zealand hit back. Martin Snedden and Ewen Chatfield added 55 for the last wicket to take them to 181. Then, after Sri Lanka reached 129 for 2, the New Zealand bowlers kept gnawing into the line-up. Sri Lanka were in trouble of sorts at 161 for 7, but Roy Dias’s brilliance ensured there were no further hiccups.
There was still a match left, and this was where de Mel’s sequence of two or more wickets every match was interrupted. Sri Lanka were bowled out for 136 and lost by 9 wickets in the 25th over. The only wicket, of Chris Tavare, fell to – no point for guessing – de Mel.
What happened to de Mel?
De Mel continued to play till the 1987 World Cup, eventually featuring in 17 Tests and 57 ODIs. He later represented Sri Lanka in the 2002 Commonwealth Nations Bridge Championships in Manchester, thus becoming one of the very few Test cricketers to represent his country at the bridge.
In 2004 he became Chairman of Selectors.
Tournament record: Matches 6 | R 68 | Ave 13.20 | SR 68.75 | W 17 | Ave 15.58 | Econ 4.01