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Russel Arnold © Getty Images

Born October 25, 1973, Russel Premakumaran Arnold was a very useful batsman down the order in One-Day Internationals (ODIs). With his gentle off-break bowling, Arnold often provided his captain with an extra bowling option to fill in during the middle overs. Prakash Govindasreenivasan looks back at his career.

It’s riveting when a young, unknown cricketer who is picked in the side for a few warm-up matches makes full use of a stroke of luck that comes his way. Russel Arnold, thanks to his good performances in the domestic circuit since 1992, had found himself in the reserves squad for the home series against Pakistan at home in 1997.

On the morning of the first practice game, when the designated opener turned up with a swollen thumb, the Sri Lankan team was looking for a replacement. The first choice of replacement was Chandika Hathurusingha whose whereabouts were not known at that point in time. Thus, came an opportunity to play alongside the senior pros for Arnold.

It wasn’t exactly the dream start. Arnold, a left-handed batsman was not exactly known for his flair. He was rather gritty and was aptly nicknamed ‘Rusty’ by teammates Pramodya Wickramasinghe and Roshan Mahanama.

Opening the innings in the warm-up game, Arnold was caught at first slip off the bowling of one of Pakistan’s erstwhile sensational pacer Mohammad Zahid, but off a no-ball. Arnold survived to die another day and by the time the teams took tea, he was on 140.

Two days later, Arnold walked out to open the batting in the first Test at Colombo. Roshan Mahanama, the original opening partner of Sanath Jayasuriya was injured by a yorker bowled to him in practice. It was a great culmination of luck and his ability to make the most of the sudden opportunity.

In a batting order like Sri Lanka’s, chances were hard to come by. Arnold had attracted enough attention to be picked as a back-up option for the opening slot. Until 1999, Arnold played sporadically and was often a tourist with the senior side, watching and learning immensely from the senior players.

Arnold began his ODI career as an opening batsman but faced stiff competition from Marvan Atapattu. In 1999, the erstwhile Sri Lankan coach Dav Whatmore felt Arnold could play a better role and could be utilised in a better fashion while playing down the order. Arnold first played at No 6 in the Coca-Cola  Champions Trophy final at Sharjah in 1999. Sri Lanka lost but Arnold found himself a perfect spot in the batting order.

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Russel Arnold featured in 180 ODIs for Sri Lanka, scoring 3,950 runs at an average of 35.26 © Getty Images

Zimbabwe tour in 1999

Arnold enjoyed one of his best spells with the bat in Sri Lanka’s tour of Zimbabwe in 1999. In the first game which was abandoned due to rain during the second innings, Arnold scored a brisk half-century (56 off 53 balls). He followed it up with a gritty century.  Sri Lanka were asked to bat by Andy Flower on a tricky Bulawayo wicket. From 66 for 5 Arnold steadied the ship by scoring 103 from 121 deliveries. He put on three important partnerships — 34 with Upul Chandana for the sixth wicket, 57 with Wickramasinghe for the eighth wicket and a quickfire 51 with Sajeewa de Silva for the final wicket. It helped Sri Lanka post 213 and register a narrow 13-run victory. In the fourth game where Sri Lanka were chasing 261, Arnold consolidated well after Romesh Kaluwitharana (99) and Mahela Jayawardene (63) had provided the side with a good start to the chase. Arnold added an unbeaten partnership of 49 runs with Tillakaratne Dilshan for the fifth wicket to take his team home.

With strong top-order batsmen in their ranks, Arnold’s utility at Nos. 5 and 6 had more meaning to it. In games where the top three or four batters provided a solid start, Arnold would finish with a blazing knock to push the final score to a challenging one.

Test career

In his brief Test career of just 44 matches, Arnold scored 1,821 runs at an average of 28.01. He also has three Test centuries to his name. The first one came against Pakistan at Lahore in 1999 in the Asian Test Championship. In reply to Pakistan’s 398, Arnold — who opened the Sri Lankan innings — scored 123 while Kaluwitharana got a 100 down the order. Pakistan still managed a slender first innings lead and set a target of 385. Once again, Arnold played well for his unbeaten half-century (56 not out) as the game ended in a draw.

Arnold’s second Test ton came against Zimbabwe at the Harare sports club in 1999. The visitors bowled out Zimbabwe for 218 but struggled with the bat themselves. The duo of Henry Olonga and Eddo Brandes ripped apart their top-order. Arnold’s 104 helped Sri Lanka managed to gain a paltry first innings lead. This game too ended in a draw.

Arnold’s best efforts with the bat in Tests came in a loss to England in Manchester in 2002. England won the toss to bat first and post a massive total of 512, thanks to centuries from Mark Butcher and Alec Stewart.

In reply, Sri Lanka were jolted early as opener Atapattu had to walk back retired hurt. Arnold scored a gritty half-century but was dismissed by Alex Tudor at the score of 62. Sri Lanka eventually failed to avoid follow-on and were asked to bat again. In such a situation, Arnold walked out and put up a brave fight with a 236-ball knock of 109. Unfortunately for him, he did not have a lot of company at the other end. Sri Lanka could manage just 308, setting a target of 50 for the hosts. To rub salt to Sri Lanka’s wounds, England openers Marcus Trescothick and Michael Vaughan got the runs in just five overs.

The tied ODI and Wasim Akram

Arnold rated Pakistan’s Wasim Akram as one of the best he played against. In the tied ODI between Sri Lanka and Pakistan in 1999, Akram was clearly miffed with Arnold who had appeared to have guided a bouncer over the slips to the boundary. Akram let out his steam and Arnold kept his calm and indicated where the ball had actually sailed over. Years later in an interview, Arnold claimed that it was actually a ball that took him by surprise and he attempted an awkward shot which ended up in him guiding the ball over slips. While narrating this story, he talks about how highly he rated Akram. In the tied game, Arnold had an all-round role to play, as he picked up two wickets — that of Inzamam-ul-Haq and Arshad Khan. He then came out and scored 61 off 97 deliveries.

Following poor performances in the World Cup 2003, Arnold found himself sidelined as the selectors began to give importance to grooming youngsters who would form the future of the side. Arnold, however, did not give up and made a comeback through solid performances for his club, Nondescripts in the domestic circuit.

On his return, he continued to assume the role of the lower order batsman who would often go on to pull Sri Lanka out of dire straits.  Arnold played a crucial role in the Indian Oil Cup final against India in 2005. His 125-run stand with Mahela Jayawardene for the fifth wicket and his contribution of 64 from 63 deliveries helped Sri Lanka post 281 and beat India by 18 runs. Arnold’s efforts of 49 from 47 deliveries helped Sri Lanka register their first win over India in the seven-match series in 2005 in Motera. In the third final of the VB series against Australia, Arnold and Jayawardene added 76 runs for the fourth wicket as Sri Lanka posted 266. Australia chased down the total but Arnold’s 71-ball knock of 76 proved that he was far from finished.

Arnold the bowler

Arnold was a handy bowling option for his skipper during the middle overs. His wily off-break bowling was tough to score off and his economy rate of 4.83 reflected that. His best bowling performance came in the World Cup 2003 against New Zealand where he finished with figures of three for 47. The Kiwis were set a target of 273 and were looking on course thanks to Scott Styris’ efforts. Arnold, however, brought an end to that effort by getting him caught by Chaminda Vaas. Styris fell for 141 and the Kiwis were bowled out for 225, falling short of Sri Lanka’s total by 47 runs.

Arnold featured in 180 ODIs for Sri Lanka, scoring 3,950 runs at an average of 35.26. He also picked up 40 wickets in coloured kits. In Tests, Arnold could manage to play just 44 games, scoring 1,821 runs at an average of 28.01.

The final appearance

Arnold’s final appearance in ODIs came in the World Cup 2007 final against Australia. Chasing 281 off just 38 overs and further down to 269 from 36 overs on D/L method, Sri Lanka struggled to try and stay in the game.  By the time Arnold walked out to bat at No. 7, the Sri Lankan camp had already come to terms with the fact that they were moments away from finishing as runners-up of the tournament. In fading light, Arnold faced a high full toss from Glenn McGrath. He tried to guide it on the leg-side but the ball took a leading edge and Adam Gilchrist completed a good catch behind the stumps. In the process, Arnold also became McGrath’s final ODI wicket.

Arnold was an honest cricketer who realized his limitations and worked on them. He said in an interview that he did not consider himself in the same bracket as the Kumar Sangakkaras, the Mahela Jayawardenes in terms of talent. He felt that it was his hard work and mental attitude that helped him stay focused at the top level.

He is currently a reputed cricket commentator who is known to make pertinent points.

(Prakash Govindasreenivasan is a reporter with CricketCountry. His Twitter handle is @PrakashG_89)