Born on July 14, 1967, Hashan Tillakaratne was a gritty southpaw who made his opposition toil hard for his wicket. He was one of Sri Lanka’s chief architects when they were starting to become a force to reckon with in international cricket in the mid 1990s. Prakash Govindasreenivasan looks back at the cricketing career of Tillakaratne.
Three years after winning the 1996 World Cup, Sri Lanka failed miserably to catch up. The defending champions surrendered meekly and bowed out of the 1999 version of the tournament with just two wins in the group stages. This led to a renovation of sorts in the team composition. Hashan Tillakaratne, who featured only in the tournament opener against England, saw youngsters coming through the ranks to form a young side for the future. It looked like his time was up. However, that wasn’t the case. The resolute southpaw had enough arsenal in him to fire.
Born in the capital city of Sri Lanka, Tillakaratne took to cricket quite early in his life. He had the fire in his belly to compete intensely from a very early stage in his life and one such instance escalated him to the national side.
While representing Isipathana College, 19-year-old Tillakaratne got an opportunity to play against England B at Galle in 1986. He grabbed the chance with both hands and slammed a match-saving ton. People in the Sri Lankan cricketing circles stood up and took notice of this young, gritty cricketer. The effort paid off as he was put on the plane to Sharjah to represent his country against India in One-Day Internationals (ODI) for the first time.
Three years later, he found himself in the Sri Lankan Test squad for the tour of Australia. He and his Nondescripts Cricket Club teammate Gamini Wickremasinghe travelled with the side in a bid to take their first steps in Test cricket. Tillakaratne had to wait in the wings as Wickremasinghe was given a debut in the first Test as the wicketkeeper. However, an injury to the latter gave Tillakaratne an opportunity to make his Test debut in the second Test at Brisbane.
It was a great chance for Tillakaratne to establish himself as a wicketkeeper-batsman and he did just that. While it was unfortunate for Wickremasinghe to miss out and eventually be ignored, it was also the start of a long Test career for Tillakaratne.
1996 World Cup triumph
The 1996 World Cup triumph was one of the most revered moments for the Sri Lankan team. An unexpected tournament victory under the wily skipper Arjuna Ranatunga triggered Sri Lanka’s transformation into a world-class side. By this time, Tillakaratne had done enough with the bat to stake a permanent claim in the side and even gave up his wicket-keeping duties. In their fourth group-stage match against India where Sachin Tendulkar blazed away to a run-a-ball knock of 137 to post a mammoth 271, Tillakaratne spoiled the opposition’s party. He joined forces with his skipper Ranatunga and added an unbeaten stand of 131 runs to take his side to victory. Tillakaratne got completely on top of the Indian bowling and attacked them to keep Sri Lanka in the game throughout. Such was his impact that Ranatunga was reduced to a second fiddle. The Lankans won the game by six wickets and eight balls to spare, as Tillakaratne’s 98-ball 70 saw them through.
Tillakaratne showed flashes of brilliance every now and then but just when one starts considering him a serious threat, he would fizzle out. Nothing else can explain just two centuries and 13 half-centuries in as many as 200 ODIs. Both his ODI hundreds came against West Indies. His 104 against West Indies was his first century scored in the year 1993 which was not quite enough considering how other batsmen around him failed. Sri Lanka lost that game by 46 runs.
In October 1995, Tillakaratne scored his second ton which almost helped Sri Lanka chase down a mammoth 334 at Sharjah. He was dismissed in the final over and Sri Lanka fell agonizingly short by four runs.
Tillakaratne started his Test career in 1989 with a duck in his first ever innings but took just two more to score his first half-century. It came in Chandigarh against India in a losing cause. His next big knock came in December 1992, but this time it wasn’t in vain. His outstanding innings of 93 and a 92-run partnership with his skipper Ranatunga once again set his side up for a big victory against New Zealand at Colombo (SSC). Three months later he put on a repeat show. This time it came against England at the same venue. At 330 for four, Sri Lanka were at par with England’s first innings total when he walked out to join Ranatunga. After adding just nine more runs to the total, Ranatunga departed and that triggered a collapse. However, Tillakaratne played on till the end of the innings and scored an unbeaten knock of 93 to take the team to 469. This knock too, set the Lankans up for a five-wicket victory. It was a good year for him wherein he played eight Tests and amassed 485 runs at an average of 53.89.
He scored his maiden Test ton in 1994 against Zimbabwe at Harare and followed it up with three more in the following year against New Zealand, Pakistan and Australia away from home.
In 1996, he played in just three Tests but managed a whopping average of 71.33 as he slammed a fifty and a hundred.
The next three years leading up to the World Cup 1999 saw him score one century and four half-centuries but that wasn’t enough for him to keep his spot in the side and was dropped from both formats of the game.
The southpaw spent the next year in notching up good domestic performances and kept knocking at the doors of the selectors. They turned to him in 2001 for the home series against India. In the third Test of the series, when Muttiah Muralitharan picked up eight wickets to bamboozle their Asian rivals, Tillakaratne performed with the bat. He was one of the four centurions as Sri Lanka posted 610 runs in the first innings. His unbeaten knock of 136 was his way to announce his return and tell the world that he was far from finished.
He achieved his career-best score of 204 not out in the third Test match of the home series against West Indies in the same year in which Brian Lara showcased his brilliance with the bat scoring 221 and 130 in the Test match. In the first innings, Tillakaratne slammed his first ever double ton to help gain a massive first-innings lead and end up with a 10-wicket win to clinch the series 3-0.
In 2003, he was handed the captaincy in both formats of the game. Under his captaincy, the team could only win one Test out of 10. He faced a lot of flak as experts deemed him to be an overtly defensive skipper.
In 2004, in his final series as skipper, Sri Lanka lost 0-3 to Australia at home, prompting the selectors to strip him off captaincy. In the first innings of the Colombo Test, Tillakaratne scored an unbeaten 74. Yet, that turned out to be his last Test as he was never picked again.
One of the biggest advantages of having a player like Tillakaratne in the side was that he put a price tag on his wicket. Often, he made oppositions toil to dismiss him. In 200 ODIs, Tillakaratne was a finisher remaining unconquered on 40 occasions. In ODIs he scored 3,789 runs at an average of 29.60. He finished with 4,545 runs in 83 Tests at an average of 42.87.
He announced his retirement from the game in 2005.
Following the devastating tsunami that hit the Sri Lankan island in December 2004, Tillakaratne was appointed as director of Cricket-Aid.
He then made another comeback. He joined hands with his former skipper Ranatunga again. But this time it wasn’t on the field. When Ranatunga was appointed as president of the board, Tillakaratne returned to cricket and served on various committees.
He also tried to ply his trade in politics by joining United National Party, the country’s oldest.
In March 2008, Tillakaratne received honorary life membership of the Maryleborne Cricket Club (MCC). A couple of months later, he headed the Association of Cricket Umpires and Scores of Sri Lanka.
In 2011, Tillakaratne took the cricketing world by storm by making startling claims of corruption in cricket and the prevalence of match-fixing in Sri Lanka since 1992. He even went on to say that he was willing to divulge crucial first-hand information about the nefarious activities to the International Cricket Council (ICC) even as Sri Lanka Cricket (SLC) rubbished his claims as being baseless.
(Prakash Govindasreenivasan is a reporter with CricketCountry. His Twitter handle is @PrakashG_89)