The dour Asanka Gurusinha was born on September 16, 1966. Abhishek Mukherjee looks at one of the pillars on whom the Sri Lankan success story of the 1990s was built.
They were dark days, the 1980s. The tiny, teardrop-shaped country to the south of India was ripped apart by terrorism. It was an era when tourism, now a thriving industry, was unthinkable as an option. They had tried to cling on to cricket as an almost hopeless mode of entertainment but it hardly seemed to work.
There had been men like the suave Mahadevan Sathasivam — the man who had captained Sri Lanka, Malaysia, and Singapore — the man whom Garry Sobers had called “the greatest batsman ever on Earth” and Frank Worrell had referred to as “the best batsman I have seen”.
But that had been ages ago. The 1980s saw the likes of Roy Dias, Duleep Mendis, and Ashantha de Mel emerge as leading performers. They did not last long. The two men who did manage to keep the fading torch of Sri Lankan cricket alive through those dark, turbulent nights were, of course, Aravinda de Silva and Arjuna Ranatunga.
There was also the supporting cast: the aggressive Rumesh Ratnayake, the mercurial Ravi Ratnayeke, the durable Roshan Mahanama, and the dependable Hashan Tillakaratne. There was also a bearded man who often worked as the anchor of the side, being the fulcrum around which a line-up of strokeplayers revolved.
Asanka Pradeep Gurusinha’s batting was not pretty. He was gritty, he was technically sound, he was adept against both pace and spin, and he had that uncanny ability of remaining glued to the wicket for sessions — something that Sri Lanka required in their early days of cricket.
It was not that he could not play his strokes. When in need, he was one of the most dangerous batsmen in the world. Ranatunga had referred to him as the hardest hitter of the cricket ball he had seen.
He was also a medium-paced bowler with an uncanny knack of picking up valuable wickets and an occasional wicketkeeper. When he did not keep wickets, Gurusinha was a deceptively good fielder, often flinging himself around to come up with unexpectedly good catches.
From 41 Tests, Gurusinha had scored 2,452 runs at 38.92 with seven hundreds. Bowling his military-medium, he also picked up 20 wickets at 34.05. In One-Day Internationals (ODIs), he accumulated 3,902 runs at 28.27 from 147 matches and managed to snare 26 wickets. The First-Class numbers were rather impressive, with 7,169 runs at 43.71 with 20 hundreds and 107 wickets at 21.47 from 124 matches.
Born in Colombo, Gurusinha was a student of Isipathana College, before moving on to Nalanda College. He began to play cricket at seven and scored a hundred at the age of 10. That innings also saw a hundred from Tillakaratne and the duo were involved in a massive partnership.
He made his First-Class debut for Sri Lanka Under-23s against Pakistan Under-23s at Kandy and scored 19. He scored 106 in the second match against the same opposition at P Saravanamuttu Stadium [PSS], Colombo.
The next season, playing for Sri Lanka Board President’s XI against the touring Indians, Gurusinha scored a brilliant 100 not out at Moratuwa. After scoring 82, 111, and 67 against England B, Gurusinha was selected for the Pakistan tour of 1985-86.
Gurusinha eventually earned his Test cap in the third Test of the series at Karachi after Amal Silva was injured, as a wicketkeeper. A bowling attack consisting of Imran Khan, Wasim Akram, Abdul Qadir, and Tauseef Ahmed was too hot for the Sri Lankans to handle, and they lost by 10 wickets. Gurusinha scored 17 and 12.
When Pakistan paid a return trip, Gurusinha was dropped for the first Test at Kandy that Pakistan won by an innings. He had a quiet Test at the Colombo Cricket Club [CCC] which Pakistan won against all odds. With everything to play for the teams headed to PSS for the third Test.
The first big innings
Gurusinha walked out to join Mahanama after Wasim removed Sidath Wettimuny for a duck. The pair added 67, and by the time Gurusinha fell for 39 his side had recovered. Ranatunga and Mendis then helped the hosts to 272. Pakistan survived the early jolts from Ratnayeke and Kaushik Amalean to secure a 46-run lead.
Sri Lanka walked out to bat on the third afternoon. Within minutes, both Wettimuny and Mahanama were back in the pavilion and they were reeling at 18 for two. The two youngsters, Gurusinha and Aravinda, saw them through to stumps; they were 24 for two; the innings defeat was yet to be averted.
Most of Day Four was washed off due to rain; Sri Lanka went past the 46-mark but lost Aravinda before stumps. At 83 for three with a day to go, things did not look too bright for the Lankans. Would Gurusinha, Ranatunga, and Mendis be able to save the Test?
Mendis did not need to bat. Gurusinha and Ranatunga batted out the entire day, adding 240 runs — a new record for any wicket for Sri Lanka. It was also the first time two Sri Lankans had batted throughout an entire day. Ranatunga did play the dominating role, finishing with a 208-ball 135 with 14 fours and two sixes, but Gurusinha provided him with more than ample support with a 307-ball 116 with 14 fours.
At 19, Gurusinha proved that he had the mettle to take on the best. He had arrived.
He had his moments on the India tour that followed. Sri Lanka were beaten by a convincing 2-0 margin, but he played a gem on a broken pitch at Cuttack; on a pitch where only two men, Dilip Vengsarkar and Kapil Dev, scored fifties (that too batting first), he kept out Kapil and a three-pronged spin attack, scoring 40. Sri Lanka lost by an innings, but once again Gurusinha proved that he had the technique to survive the toughest of condition.
He also picked up his first Test wicket. With Sunil Gavaskar (no less) going on an uncharacteristic rampage (he scored a 79-ball 74 with three sixes) he stopped the Little Master with another hundred in sight, caught by Asoka de Silva. Shortly afterwards he also removed Shastri, caught by Mahanama. It would not be the last time that he would get a big name out of the way.
After being sidelined for a couple of years, he was recalled for the two-Test series Down Under. It was the usual story: he walked out at 10 for one and resurrected the innings with a dogged 104-ball 43 at The Gabba. This paved the way for Aravinda, who scored his epic 167 and secured a 51-run lead.
The Test also saw him pick up four wickets, two in each innings. This included clean bowling Steve Waugh and trapping Ian Healy leg-before. Sri Lanka lost the second Test at Hobart (Aravinda played two dazzling innings of 75 and 72); Gurusinha had Healy caught behind yet again.
The Chandigarh epic
Sri Lanka toured India for a one-off Test in 1990. On what seemed to be a rank turner at Sector 16, Chandigarh, Mohammad Azharuddin won the toss and elected to bat first. India had gone in with four specialist spinners, and when the innocuous off-breaks of Jayananda Warnaweera and Ranjith Madurasinghe allowed the formidable Indian batting line-up to score 288, Sri Lanka knew they were in trouble.
One man, though, thought that he could stand up. As usual he walked out with four on the scoreboard, and then he dug in. He lost Athula Samarasekera for 13; little did he know that he would not find another man to go into double figures and support him.
It was an epic contest: on one hand there was Venkatapathy Raju, bowling the spell of his life (he finished with 17.5-13-12-6); on the other there was Gurusinha, refusing to give up. The last eight batsmen managed eight runs between themselves, five of them scored ducks, but Gurusinha stood firm. If it came down to a solo battle then he was prepared to fight it out.
Sri Lanka were bowled out for 82 in 51.5 overs. Gurusinha was left stranded on a 159-ball 52 with four fours. India could subdue the tourists; they could not conquer Asanka. He scored 63.41 per cent of the total runs scored, which was third on the list after Charles Bannerman (67.34 per cent) and Gordon Greenidge (63.50 per cent). Michael Slater (66.84 per cent) and VVS Laxman (63.98 per cent) have gone past him subsequently.
The Hamilton epics
It began with the first Test at Wellington. After Ratnayake and Graeme Labrooy restricted New Zealand to 174, Gurusinha walked out at the customary eight for one. He scored a 152-ball 70 and added 143 with Aravinda (who scored 267). The effort, however, was drowned by the gargantuan 467-run partnership between Andrew Jones and Martin Crowe.
The second Test at Hamilton, however, was played on a relatively difficult track. Ratnayake came to the forefront yet again, restricting New Zealand to 296. Once again, Gurusinha came out at eight for one, and once again the resurrection began.
It wasn’t easy this time. Danny Morrison and Chris Pringle reduced Sri Lanka to 83 for four. Gurusinha eventually found a reliable partner in a young debutant called Sanath Jayasuriya; they added a crucial 80, and Gurusinha carried on, being eighth out for a 261-ball 119 with 17 fours. Sri Lanka had reached 253.
New Zealand set Sri Lanka a target of 418 in the fourth innings, but Sri Lanka went after the chase quite well with Charith Senanayake and Chandika Hathurasingha setting it up with a 95-run partnership. Though Aravinda fell cheaply, Gurusinha carried on, and it was only after his dismissal for a 239-ball 102 with nine fours and a six that Sri Lanka gave up the chase and batted out time, finishing at 344 for six. In the process he became only the second Sri Lankan after Duleep Mendis to score two hundreds in a Test.
He finished the series with 50 and 29 at Eden Park and Sri Lanka managed to leave New Zealand without losing a Test. He ended up scoring 370 runs at 74.00 and finished only next to Jones and Aravinda.
The middle years
Playing Australia at the Sinhalese Sports Club (SSC), Colombo, Gurusinha scored 137 after the visitors were bowled out for 256. Sri Lanka managed a 291-run lead and had to chase 181 in the fourth innings. Mahanama and Hathurasingha set the hosts on track with a 76-run opening partnership, and after Aravinda’s cracking 32-ball 37 everything seemed on course at 127 for two.
Then Craig McDermott struck twice in quick succession, and Greg Matthews picked up three more wickets. It was suddenly 150 for seven, and Allan Border threw the ball to a young blond leg-spinner from Victoria. With a short burst of three for nought Shane Warne announced his arrival; the hosts lost by 16 runs and Gurusinha was left stranded yet again with an 88-ball 32.
The rest of the series passed without a fuss. At Premadasa, however, he trapped Dean Jones leg-before, and with the next ball, he had his ‘bunny’ Healy caught-behind.
Sri Lanka famously won the one-off Test at Kandy next season against England. Once again Gurusinha played a pivotal role with 43 and converted a fourth-innings 61 for four to a five-wicket victory with a 46-ball 29. Sri Lanka had played three spinners in the Test, which meant that Gurusinha had to open bowling. He finished the second innings with 6-3-7-2 with the wickets of John Emburey, and more significantly, Michael Atherton.
He also did a decent job against India at home, helping save the third Test with a 229-minute 56 and a 126-minute 35. On the other hand, at SSC he trapped both Manoj Prabhakar and Kapil leg-before.
1994-95 saw him save another Test in New Zealand, this time at Dunedin. With Sri Lanka 1-0 up, Gurusinha was asked to open the innings in Mahanama’s absence. Trailing by 74 Sri Lanka were quickly reduced to 81 for three. It was then that Gurusinha decided to put up tent.
A few months earlier, he had scored the third-slowest hundred of all time against Zimbabwe at Harare, reaching the landmark in 535 minutes, falling short of the 557 set by Mudassar Nazar. He eventually ended up scoring 128 in 461 balls and 607 minutes.
He found an able ally in Tillakaratne, who helped him add 192 in 332 minutes. Gurusinha eventually batted for 516 minutes, faced 429 balls, and hit 11 fours and a six in his 127. Sri Lanka saved the Test and claimed the series. At Faisalabad, soon afterwards, he added the wickets of Inzamam-ul-Haq and Wasim to his list of illustrious batsmen.
His 26-wicket ODI collection was also an impressive one: it included the likes of Brian Lara, Javed Miandad, Desmond Haynes, Andy Flower, Saeed Anwar, Azharuddin, Saleem Malik, Navjot Sidhu, Mark Greatbatch, and Alec Stewart.
The MCG epic
It was a three-Test series and Australia duly whitewashed Sri Lanka, winning all three Tests by convincing margins. The tourists were accused of ball-tampering during the first Test at WACA, and Darrell Hair had called Muttiah Muralitharan seven times for chucking during Australia’s first innings of 500 for six.
Led by Glenn McGrath, Australia bowled out Sri Lanka for 233. Gurusinha walked out at 11 for one and, somewhat uncharacteristically, counterattacked. He reached his 50 in 86 balls with five boundaries; the second fifty took 121 minutes and included five more fours and a six.
Gurusinha eventually finished with a 274-ball 143 with 15 fours and a six. He batted 353 minutes: it was an astonishing innings, scored out of 244 during his stay at the crease. Nobody else crossed 39 and Sri Lanka were bowled out for 307. They lost by 10 wickets.
The World Cup
Gurusinha played a role as significant as anyone else in Sri Lanka’s victorious World Cup campaign of 1996. Coming in after the explosive Jayasuriya and Romesh Kaluwitharana, Gurusinha unleashed a new avatar of his in front of the world. He knew that the Sri Lankan bowling attack was weak, so the only way out was to score big and fast.
With Australia and West Indies conceding their matches, Sri Lanka were restricted to only three group stage matches. Zimbabwe set Sri Lanka an easy target of 229 in the allotted 50 overs at SSC. The Men in Red, however, struck back: within minutes Sri Lanka had lost their openers for 23.
It was left to Gurusinha and Aravinda to lift their side. They went about it with absurd ease, putting up 172 runs in no time. Aravinda scoring an 86-ball 91 was somewhat expected, but the surprise innings came from Gurusinha: he clobbered the Zimbabwean attack for a 100-ball 86 with five fours and six sixes, thereby equalling Jayasuriya’s Sri Lankan record of six sixes in an ODI innings.
The run-chase against India at Delhi was restricted to a 27-ball 25 with two fours and a six and his 103-ball 84 with seven fours and three sixes were instrumental in Sri Lanka posting a world record 398 for five against Kenya at Kandy. The Sri Lankan juggernaut made even England look like a pushover at Faisalabad as they won with almost 10 wickets in hand, Gurusinha contributing with a 63-ball 45.
The final was supposed to be steep, especially after Sri Lanka were 23 for two after Australia had posted 241 for seven. Aravinda was in supreme touch, but he needed another man at the other end. Gurusinha got off with an inside edge off Damien Fleming that made it to the boundary.
There was one minor blemish when Stuart Law dropped an easy catch Gurusinha at deep mid-wicket, but other than that he batted brilliantly. He let Aravinda dominate proceedings, but did not let the loose balls go unpunished. He hit a lawn-tennis like stroke off Warne for a four past long-on and then lofted him for a six over long-off.
By the time he was clean bowled by Paul Reiffel, attempting a risky stroke, he had scored a 99-ball 65 with six fours and a six and had helped Aravinda put on 125. Arjuna walked out and the duo polished off the remaining runs. The unfancied Sri Lankans ended up winning the tournament.
Gurusinha finished the World Cup with 307 runs at 51.16 and a strike rate of 75.24. He had hit 11 sixes in all. Among Sri Lankans only Jayasuriya (four times) has hit more sixes in a single tournament.
An abrupt end
The 29-year-old Gurusinha’s career was just about beginning to peak. He played two Tests at home against Zimbabwe and several ODIs in which he performed decently. Despite the advent of Marvan Atapattu, his position in the side was secure.
It was at this period that the Sri Lanka Cricket (SLC) stepped in to mess everything up. Trying out Atapattu did not affect Gurusinha a lot; what did matter was, however, the way in which he was dealt with. In an interview to The Island, Gurusinha reminisced: “No one was willing to face me in the team and tell what was going on. Not the captain (Arjuna) and not the manager, who was Duleep Mendis at that time. They didn’t want to face me eye to eye and say you are dropped. When you are in that mode you get angry.”
A heavy fine was imposed on him without an enquiry for making a press statement in Sharjah; to quote him, “The Board President called me up in Australia and said the board has made a decision and that I was fined 50 per cent of the match fee. He also said, but don’t worry you don’t have to pay the fine, we have found someone to pay the fine.”
Gurusinha was selected for a tour of Australia. Almost as an afterthought, he was also selected for the subsequent tour of New Zealand, and was asked to travel from Melbourne to Auckland (a three-hour flight) via Colombo, where he had to stay for 24 hours.
As a result Gurusinha retired from all forms of cricket with immediate effect. He had a severe faceoff with Arjuna which lasted for a year during which the two men were not on talking terms. Gurusinha moved to Melbourne with his family and has stayed there since.
Over time, Arjuna and Gurusinha realised the role SLC had played in setting them apart. Gurusinha has openly blamed SLC as the reason behind the rift and has acknowledged Arjuna as the greatest captain he has played under. Arjuna, on the other hand, has been quite vocal on the role of Gurusinha in shaping Sri Lankan cricket during its nascent stages.
Gurusinha signed a three-year contract with North Melbourne Cricket Club; he eventually played for six years, and then quit cricket altogether once he realised that he would never make it to the Victoria state side. He works as the Sales Manager for Trader Classifieds. SLC has tried to approach him with various coaching offers but he has always preferred to stay back in Melbourne.
However, he still continues to remain in touch with his old mates Arjuna, Aravinda, and Mahanama, and some of the local migrants, especially Ratnayeke (another man who had to move to Melbourne at 30) and Sanath Kaluperuma. The three are among the many ex-Sri Lankan cricketers currently settled in Melbourne (Saliya Ahangama, Manjula Munasinghe, Marlon Vonhagt, Susil Fernando, Kosala Kuruppuarachchi, and Sanjeewa Weerasinghe being some of the others).
(Abhishek Mukherjee is a cricket historian and Senior Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He generally looks upon life as a journey involving two components – cricket and literature – though not as disjoint elements. A passionate follower of the history of the sport with an insatiable appetite for trivia and anecdotes, he has also a steady love affair with the incredible assortment of numbers that cricket has to offer. He also thinks he can bowl decent leg-breaks in street cricket, and blogs at http://ovshake.blogspot.in. He can be followed on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/ovshake42)