Born on December 1, 1963, Arjuna Ranatunga was one of the early architects of Sri Lankan cricket’s fortunes. Abhishek Mukherjee looks back at the rotund figure who was as ruthless on bowlers as he was friendly to his team members.
My earliest strong memory of Arjuna Ranatunga is not a really impressive one: till then he seemed a rather innocuous cricketer, playing a few cute strokes here and bowling some military medium pace there, and generally allowing everything to go past him on the field. It was surprising that someone of his fitness even made it to an international side. But then, Sri Lanka were the minnows of international cricket, and the cut-off was generally low.
This was the opening One-Day International (ODI) of the series at Kanpur in December 1986: after Sri Lanka had piled up 195/8 in the stipulated 46 overs, Rumesh Ratnayake and Ravi Ratnayeke made early inroads in the strong Indian batting line-up. And then, along came a chubby little youth who bowled gentle medium pace, and ended up with the figures of 6-1-14-4; the famed Indian batting line-up, considered favourites for the upcoming World Cup next year, were dismissed for 78.
Ranatunga had arrived on the scene five years before this spell: his Test debut was also the debut Test for his country; though they lost the Test, England were made to fight for every run by the spirited Sri Lankans. Arjuna made his contribution with a well-rounded (no pun intended) 54. He also went on to play Sri Lanka’s 100th Test against Pakistan, 18 years hence. His three brothers, Dammika, Nishantha and Sanjeeva, all followed him into Sri Lanka’s international side.
An aggregate of 5,105 Test runs at 35.69 hardly does justice to Ranatunga’s stature. During the eventless 1980s and early 1990s, Arjuna, along with Aravinda de Silva, held the flame of Sri Lankan cricket intact – paving the path for their first moment of glory, the much-coveted World Cup against all odds in 1996. This came after Ranatunga had almost single-handedly pulled off their only two wins in the 1992 World Cup – including a 313-run record chase against Zimbabwe and an unexpected win against South Africa.
Almost no one had given the Sri Lankans a chance before the tournament: they, having never gone past the group stages of the tournament, had been considered as the minnows of the tournament. However, Ranatunga and coach, Dav Whatmore, had worked out a few aspects that might work in their favour: the matches would be played in the subcontinent, which would suit the explosive Sri Lankan batting; and the Sri Lankan bowling, which relied on a phalanx of slow bowlers, would be really effective in the slow conditions.
The Sri Lankan cause was helped by both Australia and West Indies pulling out from their group matches in Sri Lanka for security reasons. Sri Lanka thrashed England in the quarterfinal, romped past India in Calcutta in the semifinal, and when they met Australia for the final at Lahore, Ranatunga elected to field despite the fact that no team has ever chased successfully in a World Cup final.
Australia piled up 241 for the loss of seven wickets, and then removed the potentially lethal openers — Sanath Jayasuriya and Romesh Kaluwitharana — for the loss of just 23 runs. Asanka Gurusinha and de Silva then put up 125, before Ranatunga walked out at the fall of the third wicket at 148. The ever-aggressive Ranatunga’s tussles with Shane Warne had become public in the press. When Ranatunga joined de Silva and Mark Taylor finally brought on Warne, the world waited with bated breath to watch the outcome. Ranatunga hit one straight almost immediately that went through Warne’s hands, and when Warne’s misdirected flipper became a high full-toss, Ranatunga pulled him straight into the crowds. Soon after, he steered Glenn McGrath to collect the winning runs.
Though de Silva and Jayasuriya had run away with all the laurels, it was Ranatunga who had scored 241 runs in the tournament at 120.50 and a strike rate of 114.76 (his overall World Cup numbers read 969 runs at an impressive average of 46.14); however, it was his astute leadership that was largely responsible for Sri Lanka’s surge that culminated in a World Cup win and has helped them become one of the global forces in world cricket today.
Despite the fact that Arjuna had got involved in miscellaneous tussles with all and sundry in the world of cricket, he never hesitated in standing beside his teammates when they were in trouble. When Ross Emerson had called Muttiah Muralitharan for chucking in a One-Day International against England at Adelaide, Ranatunga got into a verbal joust with the umpire, and had walked with his team outside the ground, threatening to forfeit the match. The Sri Lankan manager Ranjit Fernando and the match refree Peter van der Merwe intervened on the boundary line; prompt international calls were made to Sri Lanka, the board was consulted, and only then was Ranatunga convinced to take field after 15 minutes of stoppage. Things got murky as Darren Gough shoulder-barged Roshan Mahanama. However, Ranatunga kept on supporting his ace spinner on and off the ground, and Muralitharan’s action was finally cleared by ICC.
While batting, Ranatunga’s chubby physique often implied that there was a dearth of sharp running between the wickets. Indeed, what might have been a sharp, well-run two by another batsman was often restricted a casually walked single. Sunil Gavaskar and other commentators had often described the approach as “conservation of energy”, but the reality was that Ranatunga simply refused to run in an era where running between the wickets was considered extremely crucial. He was known for calling on a runner feigning a minor injury; Ian Healy once protested against this strategy, suggesting that one cannot avail the advantage for being “an overweight, unfit, fat” individual, and Arjuna was merely pretending his cramps; years later, Warne had suggested that Arjuna looked like he swallowed a sheep. On another occasion, when Warne was pondering loudly on how to drag Arjuna out of the crease, Healy had suggested a Mars Bar be placed on a good length!
However, despite his reluctance to take singles, Ranatunga adjusted himself well to the shorter format. He was an elegant strokeplayer, and an extremely efficient batsman, especially while chasing, and despite his poor running between the wickets, he had a mysterious ability to keep the scoreboard moving and rotating the strike through elegant strokeplay and placement, especially through the off-side. He was destructive when required, and his overall contribution to the sport made him a Wisden Cricketer of the Year in 1999.
After quitting cricket, Ranatunga took his fiery image into politics, joining the People’s Alliance. He later joined the Democratic Nation Alliance, and resigned after a fallout with the Presidential Candidate Sarath Fonseka. He also became the chairman of the Sri Lankan Cricket Board, but lost his job after several controversial decisions.
He continued to be vocal on cricket issues, often taking up the cause of cricketers from his nation, especially Muralitharan. His bittersweet relationship with Warne continued on the newspapers; however, when Warne brought out his list of top 100 cricketers, he mentioned “deep inside, I’ll quietly admit that I rated him as a cricketer.” That, in a nut-shell, sums up Ranatunga: you might have disliked his attitude, but you couldn’t help but respect him.
(A hippopotomonstrosesquippedaliophobiac by his own admission, Abhishek Mukherjee is a statistical analyst based in Kolkata, India. He typically looks upon life as a journey involving two components – cricket and literature – not necessarily as disjoint elements. A passionate follower of the history of the game with an insatiable appetite for trivia and anecdotes, he has also a rather steady love affair with the incredible assortment of numbers the sport has to offer. He also thinks he can bowl decent leg-breaks and googlies in street cricket, and blogs at http://ovshake.blogspot.in.)