Sanath Jayasuriya © Getty Images
Sanath Jayasuriya © Getty Images

Sanath Jayasuriya, born on June 30, 1969, is arguably the greatest ODI cricketer ever. Abhishek Mukherjee pays tribute to the bowling all-rounder who went on to revolutionise batting in the 1990s.

“And in the ancient lands of Pakistan,
Some names will always be spoke with fear,
Like Tamerlane the Terrible,
And Sanath Jayasuriya.”
— Renuka, That Cyclone Sanath

Unlike cricketers of yesteryear, the modern masters of the sport have seldom inspired poems. There have been exceptions, though: the Matara Marauder was one. The blue helmet that glistened in the floodlights of sub-continental stadiums; the bowler erring in bowling a fraction wide; those familiar eyes gleaming up in delight; the powerful, sweaty forearms coming into action; the anticipating willow slashing with a murderous motion to send the ball flying over point; the crowd shrieking in ecstasy; and Tony Greig going ballistic and spelling out every syllable of ‘Sa-nath Ja-ya-su-ri-ya’ at the top of the voice — well, that entire package defined ODIs in the 1990s more than anything else.

Jayasuriya was arguably the most destructive batsman of the 1990s. There have been greater batsmen, but few as intimidating. If Sachin Tendulkar amazed you with his relentless consistency and Brian Lara took your breath away with his graceful charm, the Sri Lankan murdered you psychologically with his unbelievable power-hitting. Not only that, he changed the concept of opening batting in ODIs.

Note: All numbers are updated till June 2013. 

He had grown up listening to how you were supposed to give the first hour to the bowler. ‘What first hour?’ was probably what he had been asking himself in those days: he was the kind of batsman who, opening batting, had scored a 48-ball hundred at Singapore against Pakistan in 1996.

Five days after this carnage he ended up scoring a 17-ball 50 (his opening partner Romesh Kaluwitharana was dismissed for a duck with the team score on 70). Both were world records then. The fifty still is.

In Tests, however, he could surprisingly change to a completely different mindset — to be cautious and restrict himself going for the big booming drives. It didn’t come naturally to him, but he honed it after months of practice and ability to remain firm under temptations.

Consider his triple-hundred in 1997 at Premadasa for example. Even after Marvan Atapattu fell on Day Two we knew Sri Lanka would get somewhere close to India’s target on that placid pitch. But we did not expect that. Day Three came and went and so did Day Four, and cricket aficionados were left dumbstruck, unable to believe our own eyes. Roshan Mahanama could bat out of his skin and pull off something like this in a once-in-a-lifetime performance, but Jayasuriya?

It had felt so unreal: Jayasuriya had faced 578 balls (that is 22 short of an entire ODI) and had batted for 799 minutes. Another 3 hours and he could have challenged Hanif Mohammad — who had scripted a brilliant 337 against West Indies batting for 970 minutes. The author huddled in front of the small black-and-white television set in the college canteen cheering for Jayasuriya as he inched closer to that coveted 375-mark, which, of course, did not happen.

Or consider that Faisalabad Test of 2004 where Pakistan led by 21 in the first innings; coming out to bat he lost Atapattu for a duck but put on three significant partnerships. Then, as the wickets fell in a heap he stood strong amidst the collapse, eventually being last man out for a 348-ball 253 out of a team score of 438.

It was an innings very unlike the Premadasa one: he knew he not only had to play a big innings, he also needed to score it fast in order to allow the bowlers to bowl out Pakistan. He played all his strokes — albeit with some caution — and Pakistan lost by 201 runs.

And then, there was that 156-ball 148 in July 2000, against Shaun Pollock, Makhaya Ntini, and Lance Klusener at Galle where the wicket was certainly not friendly — and playing aggressively was obviously the best way out. What Jayasuriya did, though, can only be classified as carnage: the first wicket fetched 193 in 43.5 overs at almost an ODI run rate. Jayasuriya himself fell with the team score on 211 exactly 3 overs later.

Those forearms came into play again, and Jayasuriya stood up tall and simply hit the bowlers with contempt; it seemed that he took despicable risks but they paid off. His attack left the South Africans decimated mentally. Mahela Jayawardene contributed as well, and the coast was now clear for Muttiah Muralitharan. The Master picked up 13 wickets and South Africa slumped to a defeat by an innings and 15 runs.

What about that 213 at The Oval in 1998, then? England scored 445 despite Murali’s hard-earned 7 wickets. Sri Lanka, coming out to bat in the second afternoon, never the best of tourists, they needed a special innings to acquire a lead and more importantly, they needed it fast.

A bowling attack consisting of Darren Gough, Dominic Cork, and Angus Fraser was put to the swords as the man from Matara massacred them brutally: he scored 213, and put Sri Lanka on course as they were 328 for 3 in the 80th over as he fell. Muralitharan picked up 9 this time, and Jayasuriya provided the finishing touches with an unbeaten 24 off 17 balls in the fourth innings.

I am forever at a loss when asked to choose my favourite Jayasuriya ODI innings: I will probably go for the 189 at Sharjah. It was not brutal: it was savage. No other word can be used to describe that brutal onslaught. Let us gauge the intensity of the onslaught: Sri Lanka were 116 for 4 in 27.5 overs; the 4 batsmen dismissed had scored 35 runs from 79 balls between them.

At the other end, Jayasuriya was comfortably going at a run a ball, but when he realised that Russel Arnold would hang around, he started the carnage. Worse, he even began to place the ball with nudges and pushes and still find the boundary with clinical precision. The savagery was combined with skilled craftsmanship to render the Indian bowlers into helplessness.

To cut things short Jayasuriya and Arnold put up 166 in 122 balls; Arnold had scored 35 of them in 55 balls in the partnership. Do the calculations now. He fell for 189 on the first ball of the 49th over — when he looked all set to go past Saeed Anwar’s 194, and even reach the first ODI double-hundred. With 63.21% of the team runs, he ranks fourth in ODI history when this article was written.

India were so demoralised after that onslaught that they collapsed without a word of protest when they were up against 299 for 5. Chaminda Vaas wrecked the top-order, Muralitharan did the rest, and India were bowled out for 54. It remains the only occasion when a batsman had scored over 50% of an entire ODI.

And then there was the exact antitheses — the 151 not out at Bombay that knocked India out of the Independence Cup in 1997 played under immense pressure. After India scored 225 for 7, Jayasuriya once again took things in his own hands. Wickets kept falling at one end, but Jayasuriya kept on massacring the attack.

Once again let us do some calculations. Jayasuriya’s six partners scored 65 runs from 127 balls in that innings. The great man, on the other hand, raced away to 151 not out off 120 balls — and Sri Lanka reached home in the 41st over.

On the other hand there was the other aspect of his cricket: once his side had already scored a gazillion of runs and the opposition batsmen were already found struggling for runs, he would come on, shooting darts at their feet, making run-scoring almost impossible. If it was a maiden over he scampered through it in under two minutes, thereby keeping the pressure on the batsman.

What was more, every now and then he tossed one up and took the batsman by surprise. The unsuspecting batsmen played for the straight delivery, but the turn he extracted as a result of the extra flight took even the best of batsman by surprise, often beating his bat or finding the edge. His flight and turn earned him a lot of wickets, especially in the early days of the 2000s.

Recall the Galle Test of 2000-01: after Sri Lanka had piled up 470 for five Jayasuriya picked up four for 50 to bowl out England for 253; when they followed-on he brought himself on first-change and picked up four for 44 to lead Sri Lanka to an innings victory.

The career in numbers

Jayasuriya’s 13,430 runs at 32.36 with a monstrous strike rate of 91.20 may not satisfy many — even if you consider the fact that Tendulkar and Ricky Ponting are the only ones to have scored more ODI runs than him when this article was written. Add to that 323 wickets at 36.75 with an economy rate of 4.78 — and still you would leave a lot of people unsatisfied. So what if he ranks 10th among all bowlers in terms of wickets?

Let us get a few facts straight, then. Of all bowlers who have taken 300 ODI wickets, Shahid Afridi is the only other one with over 7,000 runs and he averages 23.45 with the bat. If we look at the other way round and put a 10,000 runs cut-off, Jacques Kallis is the only other one with over 200 wickets.

We can determine a batsman’s contribution to the world of cricket by the runs he had scored and we can judge a bowler by the wickets he had taken. If we consider a parameter — the product of runs and wickets – to rank the all-rounders, Jayasuriya is at 4,337,890; Kallis comes second with 3,104,460; and Tendulkar (with numbers heavily skewed, thanks to his humongous runs tally) and Afridi are the only other ones past the two-million mark.

Of all batsmen with 10 or more ODI hundreds (Jayasuriya has scored 28, which included six 150s) nobody has taken more than 2 five-fors; Jayasuriya has 4. Similarly, with bowlers with four or five-fors. Afridi is the closest in terms of hundreds: he has scored 6. I may be going a bit aboard with the number-crunching, but then, these numbers truly reflect the volume of Jayasuriya’s contribution to ODIs.

Jayasuriya had also held the world record for most runs in an over (30) a record that he achieved off the bowling of Aamer Sohail at Singapore in 1995-96. He equalled the feat against Chris Harris at Sharjah in 2000-01 and remained the only man to have taken 30 off an international over until Herschelle Gibbs came along in 2007. He also held the record for most sixes in an innings (11) before Xavier Marshall of West Indies hit 12 sixes against Canada in 2008 and most sixes in a career (270).

What about Test cricket, then? 6,937 runs from 110 Tests at 40.07 with 14 hundreds (including a 340, two other 200s and a 199) is a quite impressive tally, as is 98 wickets at 34.34 with two five-fors. He fell agonisingly short of the 7,000 run-100 wicket mark — a milestone achieved by only Garry Sobers and Kallis. Among Sri Lankans he ranks third in terms of Test runs (after Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara) and sixth in terms of Test wickets.

I promise that this is going to be the last bit of number-crunching (it is too tempting to leave out). Sri Lanka currently hold the highest innings aggregates in all three versions (952 for six in Tests, 443 for 9 in ODIs, and 260 for 6 in T20Is); Jayasuriya had top-scored in all three innings (340, 157 in 104 balls, and 88 in 44 balls respectively).

The ascent

It is hard to believe that Jayasuriya was a non-entity till quite late in his career. The following table will show the various segments of the great man’s timeline:

Jayasuriya’s ODI career in phases Batting Bowling
    M        R    Ave    SR      W Ave Econ
Before 1992 World Cup       20           143       8.41       55.9         6    52.16    5.41
1992 World Cup – Before 1996 World Cup       79       1,633    22.36       76.5       65    33.09    4.76
1996 World Cup – Before 1999 World Cup       79       2,896    39.67    106.3       81    35.62    4.90
1999 World Cup – Before 2003 World Cup    109       3,973    37.48       88.2       82    37.14    4.70
2003 World Cup – Before 2007 World Cup       92       2,893    35.28       92.3       51    41.94    4.57
2007 World Cup and after       66       1,892    29.56       96.1       38    35.15    5.00
   445    13,430    32.36       96.1    323    36.75    4.78

As is evident from the table, Jayasuriya was fortunate even to play his first 20 ODIs. It had more to do with the dearth of talent in Sri Lanka in the late 1980s and early 1990s than anything else. On the other hand his numbers seem to have dipped as age had caught up with him: perhaps he should have quit sometime between the 2003 and 2007 World Cups — in other words, roughly at the age of 36.

The Test career, too, shows similar numbers:

Jayasuriya’s Test career in phases Batting Bowling
    M         R   Ave     W Ave
Before 1996 World Cup       17           771    35.04        4    96.50
1996 World Cup – Before 1999 World Cup       21       1,841    52.60       21    36.14
1999 World Cup – Before 2003 World Cup       38       2,177    36.89       44    25.29
2003 World Cup and after       34       2,184    37.65       29    38.20
   110       6,973    40.07       98    34.34

Once again it’s evident that he had just about managed to hold on his place in the squad as a merely passable batting all-rounder. As in the case of ODIs his peak with the bat was between the 1996 and the 1999 World Cups. His Test bowling, however, reached its best when he started to flight the ball at the turn of century. He was well-rewarded, as the results reflect.

The 1996 World Cup

As is evident from the above numbers, it was the 1996 World Cup that had changed things for Sri Lanka completely. Dav Whatmore and Arjuna Ranatunga had decided to catapult Jayasuriya to the opening slot as early as 1994. He was still a grafter, scratching around for runs.

It was in the Mandela Trophy match against New Zealand at Johannesburg in 1994-95 that Sanath first made an impression as an opener. The famous hand-eye coordination was first seen in action, and as in the case of Tendulkar, the Kiwis were the ones against whom Jayasuriya established himself as an opener.

A 143-ball 140 looked good, especially in that era, more so since it was scored out of a team score of 238, but it was forgotten as the match was abandoned due to rain. What the team management realised, though, was the fact that their experiment had been successful: Jayasuriya had to remain at the top.

He did not score a lot of runs going into the World Cup — but whatever he did he did it at an alarming rate. The management knew that they were ready with Jayasuriya and Kaluwitharana at the top followed by the strongest middle-order in the world, backed up by Vaas and a phalanx of spinners: the combination did not look lethal, but it was more than efficient on subcontinents track.

Sanath Jayasuriya receives a standing ovation after his double-hundred at The Oval, 1998 © Getty Images
Sanath Jayasuriya receives a standing ovation after his double-hundred at The Oval, 1998 © Getty Images

The juggernaut began. Australia and West Indies had already conceded their league matches to Sri Lanka, so it all began with Zimbabwe at SSC where he fell for six. The middle-order saw them through, and Jayasuriya’s failure was overlooked. Then came the India match.

India were placed safely at 271 for 3 at Delhi when Jayasuriya and Kaluwitharana walked out to bat. Manoj Prabhakar, India’s seniormost bowler, was simply decimated: he bowled over the wicket, he came round the wicket, he varied his line, length, pace, he did whatever he could — and still ended up conceding 33 off his first 2 overs. I sat glued to the television set, unable to fathom what was going on as Sri Lanka had raced to 42 without loss after 3 overs.

Then, after an unbelievable run rate was achieved, Jayasuriya decided to slow down, eventually scoring a 76-ball 79. Prabhakar was reduced to bowl off-breaks in his second spell. He never played another international match. Sri Lanka won the match with 8 balls to spare.

The 27-ball 44 against Kenya at Kandy was just a warm-up for the quarter-final that followed. England accumulated 235 for 8 at Faisalabad (after Jayasuriya had picked up 2 for 46). Kaluwitharana then perished for a 3-ball 8 (honestly) and Jayasuriya made merry thereafter.

He reached the fastest World Cup fifty (in 30 balls); he eventually scored 82 from 44 balls. By the time he had fallen Sri Lanka were 113 for 2 in 13 overs and the match had reduced to a no-contest. It was the first time that Sri Lanka had made it to the top four — and the first time that England could not.

He failed with the bat in the semi-final at Eden Gardens, unable to clear the humongous coliseum with his trademark slash. He came back to remove the dangerous Tendulkar and the well-set Sanjay Manjrekar to break a 90-run partnership and finished with figures of 7-1-12-3 (he bowled Manjrekar and Ajay Jadeja round the legs). He also took 2 catches as India succumbed to a humiliating defeat. This time I was at the ground, and even while standing amidst a disgruntled mob watching my side sink to an inglorious defeat I could help realise that one of the greatest ODI players was making his mark on international circuit.

The choice was virtually unanimous after the semifinal. Jayasuriya was named the Man of the Tournament. He had scored 221 runs in the tournament at a decent 36.83 (this included the final where he had scored 9) — but at a strike rate of 131.5. He had also picked up 7 wickets at 33 and an economy rate of 4.52.

Sanath Jayasuriya was as useful with the ball as he was with the bat © Getty Images
Sanath Jayasuriya was as useful with the ball as he was with the bat © Getty Images

These were good numbers but certainly not outstanding ones. Jayasuriya, however, had revolutionised ODI batting like nobody else before or after him. Yes, there have greats like Viv Richards — but people were too much in awe of him and never tried to imitate him. Jayasuriya, on the other hand, changed the science of ODI batting — and the subsequent generations are still following his example.

Was he the first makeshift opener who made use of the initial restrictions in field placements? New Zealand had sent Lance Cairns up the order as early as in the World Cup of 1983, and the 1992 World Cup saw the likes of Mark Greatbatch, Ian Botham, and Kapil Dev all open batting with varying amounts of success.

Neither of them changed anything long-term, though: the Jayasuriya model is not outdated – even in 2013. It has worked because Jayasuriya did not get out after the initial onslaught: he scored 28 ODI hundreds, and eventually migrated to a successful Test batsman as well.

That was what made him a role-model for a generation — making big scores despite his go-for-everything approach in the initial stages of the innings. He mixed temperament with aggression and modified himself from an ordinary batsman to an outstanding one; add to that his bowling and you’ll find that he has been peerless in ODIs.

His performance was so influential that he was named a Wisden Cricketer of the Year in 1997 despite not playing in the previous English season. A path-breaker if there had been one.

Leading Sri Lanka

Jayasuriya remains Sri Lanka’s most successful Test captain along with Mahela Jayawardene. The two have uncannily similar numbers — both of them have led in 38 Tests, won 18, lost 12, and drawn eight. In overseas Tests he comes a close second to Jayawardene in terms of win-loss ratios. He comes second to Kumar Sangakkara in terms of win-loss ratio in ODIs, and in overseas ODIs with a 25-match cut-off he is next to only Jayawardene.

His career faded out in the mid-2000s after he handed over the mantle of captaincy — leading to him contemplating a retirement. He eventually announced that he was going to retire from Test cricket (though he would continue to play the shorter versions) during the Kandy Test against England in 2007-08. In typical Jayasuriya style he blasted away to 78 (out of a team score of 113 during his stay) in his last Test innings including an over off James Anderson where he hit six fours.


After his career faded out he was elected to the Parliament from his beloved Matara at the age of 40. He topped the Matara UPFA preferential vote list with 74,352 votes. And then, after being elected MP, he made a comeback to the national side — eventually playing his last match two days short of his 42nd birthday. Currently he works as the Chairman of Selectors for the international side.

Now that is what you call an all-rounder.

(Abhishek Mukherjee is a cricket historian and Senior Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He generally looks upon life as a journey involving two components – cricket and literature – though not as disjoint elements. A passionate follower of the history of the sport with an insatiable appetite for trivia and anecdotes, he has also a steady love affair with the incredible assortment of numbers that cricket has to offer. He also thinks he can bowl decent leg-breaks in street cricket, and blogs at He can be followed on Twitter at

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