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Ashantha de Mel: Sri Lanka’s first bowling spearhead

Ashantha de Mel played 17 Tests for Sri Lanka and took 59 wickets © AFP
Ashantha de Mel played 17 Tests for Sri Lanka and took 59 wickets © AFP

Ashantha de Mel was born on May 9, 1959. With Sri Lankan cricket in its nascent stages, de Mel was the spearhead of the Sri Lankan attack till an injury brought his career to a premature end. Abhishek Mukherjee looks at the man who bowled the first ball for Sri Lanka in Test cricket.

The word ashantha means “restless” in Sanskrit, and is perhaps an apt description for Ashantha Lakdasa Francis de Mel. He was the first Sri Lankan bowler who could be classified as anywhere close to “fast”, was the first spearhead of the Sri Lankan attack in the true sense of the word, and had the ability captains seek desperately in their strike bowlers: he could run through sides.

De Mel bowled at a nippy pace and could curve the ball beautifully away from the right-hander. He troubled most batsmen on his day, and his bouncer — one that rose abruptly from a length — could be menacingly fast: he had once hit Richie Richardson on his face [Tony Greig had suspected that not all of Richardson’s teeth remained intact after the blow] and had forced Clive Lloyd to put his helmet on.

It was not only about bowling either: de Mel was an extremely hard-hitter with the bat with the ability to send the ball a long distance. With the side under pressure, de Mel often batted with gay abandon, taking the bowlers for boundaries and watching the results with glee. He scored 466 runs at a strike-rate of 78.3, which puts him at the top of Sri Lankan batsmen with a 450-run cut-off in the 1980s. He also had a First-Class hundred.

The injury-prone de Mel had finished with 59 wickets in each international format of the sport, and was the first Sri Lankan to reach the 50-mark in either format.  He had an excellent strike-rate: with a 50-wicket cut-off, de Mel ranks third among Sri Lankan bowlers in Tests with 59.6 [after Lasith Malinga and Muttiah Muralitharan]. In fact, he claimed 31 per cent of the wickets Sri Lankan bowlers managed in the Tests he had played.

Early days

Born in Colombo, de Mel started his academic career in Isipatana where he was named the Best Schoolboy Bowler [Ranjan Madugalle was named the Best Schoolboy Batsman the same year]. He later moved on to Royal College. While still at Isipatana, de Mel attended practice sessions at Petersons Sports Club, Wellawatta as an off-spinner. By 1976, de Mel had been a part of the Royal College First XI in cricket and the First XV in rugby.

De Mel shifted to fast bowling mostly because Petersons was in desperate search of speedsters. He played for them for a couple of years as a fast bowler before moving on to Sinhalese Sports Club (SSC); the love-affair with SSC continued till 1986. He made it to the home series against Australia Under-19s [it was a strong side, consisting of David Boon, Dirk Wellham, and Greg Dyer] where he picked up six for 95 at Kandy and five for 98 at P Sara Oval.

He was picked for the Sri Lanka Under-25s [at an age of 21] against Tamil Nadu Under-25s at Salem, where he scored 27 and 37 not out, but went wicket-less on his First-Class debut. This was followed by an unofficial “Test” at P Sara Stadium, where he, once again, did not create an impact.

He first grabbed attention on Sri Lanka’s tour of England in 1981, slamming a ferocious 94 against Gloucestershire at Bristol [the attack consisted of Mike Whitney, Alan Wilkins and Mushtaq Mohammad]. He followed this with two for 88 and three for 70, along with 56, against Leicestershire at Grace Road. Though his numbers were not great, it was evident that de Mel was easily the finest, the most penetrating and the fastest bowler of the side.

Spearheading the national attack

Sri Lanka played their first ever Test against England at home, but before that there were two One-Day Internationals (ODIs) to deal with. In the first match at SSC, de Mel ripped the heart out of England’s middle-order, finishing with four for 34 and bowling them out for 211. Sri Lanka required 25 when the ninth wicket fell, and de Mel and Lalith Kaluperuma could take the score to only 206.

Sri Lanka turned the tables around in the next ODI at the next day at the same ground. This time they reached 215 for seven, and de Mel led the attack, restricting the tourists to 212 with figures of 8.5-0-14-2. Then came the Test.

After deciding to bat, the hosts were reduced to 34 for four before some excellent batting from Madugalle and Arjuna Ranatunga lifted them to 218. When it was Sri Lanka’s turn to bowl, de Mel jolted them early, removing Geoff Cook, Chris Tavaré, and Graham Gooch with a mere 40 on the board; and came back to clean bowl Ian Botham. He finished with four for 70, and with the de Silvas — Somachandra and Ajit — also bowling well, England were restricted to a five-run lead.

The Sri Lankans reached 113 for one, but collapsed for 175 against John Emburey and Derek Underwood. De Mel bowled Cook for a duck, but Tavaré saw England to victory. Sri Lanka lost by seven wickets, but match figures of five for 103 meant de Mel had finished the Test with his head held high.

He toiled hard on the Pakistan tour that followed, where India were beaten 0-2 in the three-Test series (de Mel and Somachandra had almost effected a victory at Faisalabad as Pakistan finished on 186 for seven chasing 339). De Mel finished the series with 11 wickets on unhelpful tracks, where Imran Khan was the only fast bowler to get some purchase.

In the Madras Test later that year — a match usually remembered for Duleep Mendis’ 105 and 105 and Roy Dias’ majestic 97 — de Mel rocked the Indian line-up in the second innings as they went for a win. Sunil Gavaskar had to walk out at nine to save the Test as the hosts finished on 135 for seven in 28 overs chasing 175. De Mel, taking advantage of wickets falling in a heap, finished with five for 70 — the first Test five-wicket haul by a Sri Lankan fast bowler.

The next season he slammed 100 not out — his only First-Class hundred — in 137 minutes in the MJ Gopalan Trophy encounter at P Sara Stadium.

Ruling the big stage

Nobody expected Sri Lanka to do anything major in the 1983 World Cup, and they ended with a single victory from six matches. De Mel finished joint second on the wickets tally with 17 wickets at 15.58 (along with Madan Lal, 17 at 16.76, and next to only Roger Binny, 18 at 18.67). He was also the only one to finish with two five-fors in the tournament, and was the second to do so in a single World Cup after Gary Gilmour (Vasbert Drakes and Shahid Afridi have subsequently emulated the feat).

The sequence is worth a mention: 12-2-69-2 against Pakistan at Swansea; 12-3-62-2 against England at Taunton; 8-2-30-2 against New Zealand at Bristol; 12-1-39-5 against Pakistan at Headingley; 12-4-32-5 against New Zealand at Derby; and 10-1-33-1 against England at Headingley. These were the first two ODI five-fors by Sri Lankans.

The first Test victory

The Lankans played their first Test out of the subcontinent next season, and Sidath Wettimuny scored a 471-ball 190; with Mendis also scoring 111, Sri Lanka declared at 491 for seven before England were bowled out for 370. Vinothen John (four for 98) and de Mel (four for 110) were the wreckers-in-chief. With Amal Silva scoring a hundred the Lord’s Test petered out to a draw.

On their arrival to Sri Lanka in 1985, the Indians were jolted by some hostile bowling from de Mel, Rumesh Ratnayake, and Saliya Ahangama (and some dubious umpiring, which tended to go from bad to worse) in the first Test at SSC. India managed to save the Test marginally, but they knew what was in store.

A hundred from Silva helped Sri Lanka reach 385 at P Sara before de Mel provided with the initial breakthrough, having Lalchand Rajput caught-behind for a duck. He also removed Mohinder Amarnath. After Mendis set India 348, de Mel as good as settled the Test with the wickets of Rajput and Mohammad Azharuddin. He finished with match figures of five for 127 as Sri Lanka won their first Test — by 149 runs.

Later years

The Pakistan tour of 1985-86 ended in another 0-2 defeat for the Lankans, but de Mel impressed with a spell of six for 109 at Karachi. In the Kandy Test that followed a month later, however, de Mel (three for 39 and three for 79), Ravi Ratnayeke, and Kosala Kuruppuarachchi bowled out the Pakistanis for 132 and 172 as a patient 75 by Ranatunga won the Test for Sri Lanka.

Selected for the 1987 World Cup, it was perhaps expected that de Mel would perform an encore for Sri Lanka, but he took a severe hammering in the hands of Viv Richards at Karachi as the latter went berserk, setting the then World Cup record of 181 (in a mere 125 balls, with 16 fours and seven sixes). de Mel took the maximum battering and ended up conceding 97 runs from ten overs.

In the process de Mel became the first bowler to concede 90 in an ODI after bowling ten or less overs. His record of 97 has been “bettered” by only Muttiah Muralitharan (10-0-99-0), Mick Lewis (10-0-113-0), and Tim Southee (10-0-105-0), while Steve Harmison (10-0-97-0) has equalled de Mel’s number. The only consolation for de Mel perhaps lay in the fact that he had ended Richards’ innings when the legend mistimed one, and Roshan Mahanama came up with a spectacular catch at third man (one that had made it to the inaugural Bush Great Catches Contest).

He played only two more matches in the World Cup without any impact. Thereafter he underwent a serious knee injury and was forced to retire from all forms of the sport with immediate effect. He was only 28.

Post-retirement

As with rugby, de Mel excelled in bridge as well, representing Sri Lanka in the Commonwealth Games. He also worked as the Chairman of Ceylon Petroleum Corporation. He went on to work on the interim committee of Sri Lanka Cricket (SLC), was appointed as the Chairman of Selectors in 2004, and was named the manager of the Under-19 side.

He has had a rather turbulent tenure as a selector, first by criticising the side heavily, then by mentioning openly that his colleagues Shabbir Asgerally and KM Nelson had “vested interest” and had been “promoting their own agendas”, and then mentioning that Sanath Jayasuriya was “forced to retire” from Tests.

(Abhishek Mukherjee is the Deputy Editor and Cricket Historian at CricketCountry. He blogs at http://ovshake.blogspot.in and can be followed on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/ovshake42)

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