Nuwan Zoysa: A gangly left-arm fast sensation disconcerted by injuries

Nuwan Zoysa played 30 Test matches and 95 ODIs in a career spanning across a decade, interspersed with injuries which do not give the complete picture of his ability © Getty Images

On May 13, 1978, Demuni Nuwan Tharanga Zoysa was born in Colombo. Zoysa was a left-arm seam bowler who was lanky and had a cadenced run-up and bowling action. Considered as one of the best bowlers from the island nation, Zoysa’s career was plagued by injuries. Yet, he had carved a niche for himself with the delivery that came back in to the right-hander. Sarang Bhalerao remembers Nuwan Zoysa’s career on his birthday.

In the mid-1990’s Sri Lanka produced a young fast bowling sensation in Nuwan Zoysa, a gangly left-arm fast bowler who had a measured run-up and rhythmic action. He bowled untiringly to an unremitting line and length and moved the new ball appreciably.

In only his eighth Test against Zimbabwe at Harare in November 1999, Zoysa accomplished an astonishing hat-trick off the first three deliveries of the Test match. His victims were Trevor Gripper, Murray Goodwin and Neil Johnson.

Zoysa’s ability to find line and length quickly, with no succour balls at the start of his spell, was his forte.  He was first spotted by Lionel ‘the legend’ Navaragodagedera when he was plying his trade [bowling fast] for Isipatana College. Lionel realised the talents in his and persuaded Sri Lanka Captain Arjuna Ranatunga to have a look at the bowler, who at that time was proving too fast for the opposing schoolboy batsmen.

Ranatunga was instantly impressed by him and enrolled him as the member of the Sinhalese Sports Club (SSC). After performing exceedingly well in the First-Class cricket, Zoysa was drafted into the Sri Lankan national team for the tour of New Zealand in 1997. He made his Test match debut against the Kiwis. He picked up seven wickets in the two Test matches at Dunedin and Hamilton.

Bruce Yardley, the then coach of Sri Lanka, was so impressed with Zoysa that he prophesied a great future for the lad. Yardley saw in him a bowler of class and likened him to Bruce Reid, the former Australian left-arm pacer. On that tour a New Zealand commentator who watched him bat said he had a bit of former West Indian Clive Lloyd in style when taking strike. But an untimely injury affected his career came as a blow to the initial promise. In 2001, he was sidelined  stress fracture in the ankle.

When Sri Lanka toured England in 2002 a lot was expected from the tall fast bowler. But he picked up only six wickets in two Test matches and was dropped for the third Test. In the One-Day International (ODI) tri-series that followed, he picked up only five wickets from five games. His bowling lost the zip in his bowling and became a shadow of his former self. He was duly dropped from the team after this disappointing tour.

During an A tour to Kenya in 2003, he was employed as a pinch hitter to good effect. He showed his hitting prowess in that tour. He made his comeback in the side in the ODI series against Australia in 2004.

In the fifth ODI of the series, Zoysa’s all-round ability secured a memorable win over the Australians at Colombo. Zoysa picked up three for 34 which restricted Australia to 198 in 50 overs. Sri Lanka made heavy weather of the run chase and were precariously placed at 136 for seven. He came in at No 9 and joined Russell Arnold. Zoysa took his chances and they paid off. He saw Sri Lanka through scoring 47 off 42 deliveries that included five boundaries and couple of sixes. The added dimension of batting made him a dangerous prospect in ODI cricket.

On the eve of his wedding, August 22, 2004, Zoysa took a five-for against South Africa that helped Sri Lanka in taking a 2-0 lead over South Africa. He picked up the first five wickets and his foray had left the Proteas perilously placed at 50 for six chasing 214. South Africa lost the match by 49 runs and he was named the man of the match. South African captain Graeme Smith said after the match: “Nuwan Zoysa bowled well, putting the ball in the right areas, but there were a couple of loose shots and I don’t think we should have been 40 for six. At the moment, as an all-round team, we would be lucky to be called club cricketers.”

Such was the aura of Zoysa. He had reduced the high quality South African batsmen into believing that they were no better than the club batsmen.

By this time [mid 2000] Zoysa was considered as a more than a useful batsman. When everything was set for him to become a more than useful all-rounder, he had the misfortune of being yet again dogged by injuries to put a brake on his career.  In March 2005, he suffered from a lingering knee injury and four months later he failed to play against the touring Indian team because of a back injury.

In 2006, Sri Lanka recalled him for the tour of England. But he did not feature in a single Test. He was never the same [effective] bowler after the series of injuries. At 26, he played his final Test match, though he went on to play ODI cricket till 2007.

He was part of Deccan Chargers squad in the inaugural Indian Premier League. But he had disappointing outings and was not a regular member of the side.

In 2010, he was in the provisional squad of 30 for the ICC World Twenty20 which was held in the Caribbean despite his moderate success at the Inter-Provisional T20 tournament. But he never made it to the final squad of 15.

Zoysa joined the Goa Ranji team for a short stint as a coaching consultant in October 2012. He worked with the squad for 10 days of the season. Goa and Zoysa were initially looking for a longer-term agreement, but with the Lankan had already tied up with his assignments as coach of Sri Lanka’s domestic side Nondescripts Cricket Club and assistant coach of Sri Lanka Premier League franchise Nagenahira Nagas and wasn’t free to commit himself for a longer stint.

Thirty Test matches and 95 ODIs in a career spanning across a decade, interspersed with injuries do not give the complete picture of his ability. He remained yet another cricketer who fell under the category “what-if the injuries hadn’t happened?” He would have certainly been in the pantheon of great cricketers as predicted by Ranatunga and Yardley after his first tour.

(Sarang Bhalerao hails from a family of doctors, but did his engineering. He then dumped a career in IT with Infosys to follow his heart and passion and became a writer with CricketCountry. A voracious reader, Sarang aspires to beat Google with his knowledge of the game! You can follow him on Twitter here)