The scorecard says it all: Sri Lanka 952 for 6 © AFP
The scorecard says it all: Sri Lanka 952 for 6 © AFP

On August 6, 1997, Sanath Jayasuriya had started the last day of a Test on a farcical wicket with 50 required to set a world record. Arunabha Sengupta looks back at the day that saw an agonising heartbreak for Sri Lanka and some excruciating torture for the bowlers.

The day had dawned with the possibility of a new high in Test cricket still 50 runs away. People had flocked in from all corners of the island, lured by the historic milestone that lurked around the corner.

The landmark was expected as logical conclusion of the batting orgy of the last two days. After all, wickets seldom looked less of a possibility in a Test match. Nilesh Kulkarni had got Marvan Atapattu with his first ball in Test cricket — becoming the 12th bowler to start off with success.  It had been the final delivery of the second day, and the last success that Kulkarni and the rest of the Indian bowlers would taste in a very, very long while.

On the third day at the Premadasa Stadium, Sanath Jayasuriya had scored 163, Roshan Mahanama 115, putting on 283. The next day had seen Jayasuriya pile up another 151, and Mahanama 96, and Sri Lanka 265. The score stood at a ridiculous 587 for 1.

As Jayasuriya walked out with his score on 326, among the throngs who cheered from the stands were old timers from Matara, the city of the former’s birth. Some of them had made the 160-kilometre journey to the north-west, to watch the son of their soil make them proud.

And desultorily, the Indians had walked out as well — doing scarce more than making up the numbers, on a pitch which came close to resembling a medieval torture chamber for fielding sides. Hundreds by Navjot Sidhu, Sachin Tendulkar and Mohammad Azharuddin seemed ages ago, after which they had spent a near eternity on the field.

The two batsmen took the score along to 615, while 30,000 people watched in anticipation and many more tried to squeeze in through serpentine queues. And all of a sudden, against the run of play, the expectant Sri Lankan hearts were broken.

Mahanama went back to one from Anil Kumble, was wrapped on the pads and given out lbw for 225. The partnership of 576 runs ended well ahead of the previous world record for any wicket, 467 between Andrew Jones and Martin Crowe. It finished just one run short of the First-class best of 577, set by Vijay Hazare and Gul Mohammad for Baroda against Holkar in 1946-47.

Even as the spectators wanted to brush the dismissal aside as a minor hiccup, the old adage of long partnerships ending with the demise of both batsmen came into play. Two deliveries later, an off-break from Rajesh Chauhan bounced a little more than expected and Jayasuriya lobbed a simple catch to silly-point. As the stadium looked on in shocked disbelief, and the Indian fielders rushed to congratulate the batsman, Jayasuriya departed after 799 chanceless minutes at the crease, having scored 340 off 578 balls with 38 fours and 2 sixes.

For a man sent out to ensure Sri Lanka avoided follow on after India had declared at 537 for 8, Jayasuriya had done well… in fact, he had saved the follow-on all by himself!

Intolerable cruelty

However, the double blow failed to make any dent on the torture machine set in motion by the Lankans. On a wicket that would have made fossilised remains seem vibrant with life, where bowlers could very well take the field accompanied by a priest and an undertaker rather than fieldsmen, captain Arjuna Ranatunga thought it would be meaningless to try for victory. Aravinda de Silva, who had sat padded up for almost 13 hours, belted a hundred. Ranatunga was on his way to one himself when he was run out. And a 19-year old debutant named Mahela Jayawardene stroked his way to an attractive 65.

Nine years later, Jayawardene would team up with Kumar Sangakkara to add 624 against South Africa.

That day 15 years ago de Silva and Jayawardene took the home team past the world record team score of 903 for 7 declared set by Wally Hammond’s Englishmen in 1938. Kumble had 226 against his name in the bowling analysis, Rajesh Chauhan 276. Poor Kulkarni’s descent from the seventh heaven was brisk, but excruciating, with figures of 1 for 195 in 70 overs.

The torment ended at 952 for 6, but painful nightmares will perhaps startle several of the participating bowlers awake for a long, long time.

Jayasuriya himself is refreshingly frank about his regret. “I wasn’t going after the record — at least not until the end of the fourth day, when someone told me I was only 50 short. I felt great pressure on me when I came out to bat [on the fifth morning], and obviously I am disappointed now — but at least my country has made a great achievement.”

His agony will be shared by all those who had sat with great expectations on the stands that day, watching eagerly as the march of history was stopped just short of immortality.

Brief scores:

India 537 for 8 decl. (Navjot Sidhu 111, Rahul Dravid 69, Sachin Tendulkar 143, Mohammad Azharuddin 126; Sanath Jayasuriya 3 for 45) drew with Sri Lanka 952 for 6 decl. (Sanath Jayasuriya 340, Roshan Mahanama 126, Aravinda de Silva 126, Arjuna Ranatunga 86, Mahela Jayawardene 66).

Man of the Match: Sanath Jayasuriya.

(Arunabha Sengupta is trained from Indian Statistical Institute as a Statistician. He works as a Process Consultant, but purifies the soul through writing and cricket, often mixing the two into a cleansing cocktail. The author of three novels, he currently resides in the incredibly beautiful, but sadly cricket-ignorant, country of Switzerland. You can know more about him from his author site, his cricket blogs and by following him on Twitter)