Upul Chandana: The Sri Lankan spinner whose form fluctuated like a sinusoidal wave

Upul Chandana (above)…played under the shadows of Muttiah Muralitharan and thus could not optimise his potential © Getty Images

Upul Chandana, born May 7, 1972, was one of Sri Lanka’s able leg-spinners, whose career coincided with that of Muttiah Muralitharan’s. Although they operated differently, the former was seldom consistent. Moreover, Murali’s effectiveness meant that Chandana’s services were sporadically used. Karthik Parimal looks back at his punctuated career.

Twiggy and bustling, Upul Chandana was one of Sri Lanka’s handy lower-order players post the 2003 World Cup. Despite possessing the guile of a leg-spinner, he wasn’t considered first-rate on the big stage, partly because he was ferried in and out of the side owing to the plethora of bowlers of his genre, but primarily because he was always under the shadows of a certain Muttiah Muralitharan. Though both these spinners were blessed with different abilities, Chandana lacked the consistency his colleague so nonchalantly mastered and hence often donned the role of a second fiddle. Moreover, Murali’s brilliance
meant that an extra spinner was rarely required.

Chandana began his international career in the April of 1994, during a One-Day International (ODI) against Australia. He was utilised on a sporadic basis in his first year and he grassed a few opportunities that came his way. Hence, in the following year, he was duly dropped. It was in 1996 that his prowess as a leg-break bowler came to the forefront, during a triangular series that involved Sri Lanka, India and Australia. With figures of three for 38 and four for 35 (both against Australia), he became the joint highest wicket-taker alongside Glenn McGrath in that tournament, ahead of Murali, who could muster just four scalps.

In 1997, Chandana blew hot and cold, seldom managing to win the faith of the powers that be. In 11 ODIs, he registered just one three-wicket haul. Yet, he was retained on Sri Lanka’s dust bowls and scripted a much better performance in 1998. He was, however, still to earn a Test cap. It was in the March of 1999, against Pakistan in the finals of the Asian Test Championship at Dhaka, and in the absence of Murali, that he graced the whites for Sri Lanka. He dished out a performance that would eventually be his best in Test cricket — figures of six for 179. Pakistan won the fixture by an incredible margin of an innings and 175 runs, but one felt it announced Chandana’s arrival on the big circuit.

But, for the next five years, he never replicated the efforts that won him several accolades on debut. He played just eight Tests in the aforesaid period, all in Sri Lanka, managing a best of two for 21. Inconsistency meant that he was seldom considered when a full strength attack was available. Nonetheless, he was a regular in the limited-overs format, more so after the 2003 World Cup. In August 2004, at Colombo against South Africa, he picked his first and only five-wicket haul in ODIs, thereby steering Sri Lanka to a 49-run victory and winning his second man-of-the-match owing to his performance with the ball.

He wasn’t a novice with the bat either, as is evident in his 1627 runs and five half-centuries in the shorter format. He blazed his way to 89 off 71 deliveries — a knock that was inclusive of six fours and four sixes — and helped Sri Lanka chase down a mammoth total of 312 (this was before T20 became rampant) at Barbados against West Indies in June 2003. Almost one year later, he scored 51 against Zimbabwe at Harare in a low-scoring fixture that the visitors eventually won by 72 runs. These outings ensured he stayed in the limelight.

From 2004 to 2005, he pocketed 50 wickets from 41 ODIs at an average of 30 and scored 448 runs at almost 20, both slightly better than his career average. Thereafter, he travelled down a slippery slope, never fully recuperating from the slump. He played his penultimate game in the November of 2005, and returned to play his last fixture two years later in 2007, against Bangladesh, after which he announced his retirement. It was an absurd end to a punctuated career, one that lasted 16 Tests and 147 ODIs.

Apparently, Chandana reached the decision owing to “politics” within the team. “I have not been considered even for a place in the Hong Kong Sixes side which goes to prove that the selectors don’t want me in the national side,” he stated. The head honchos, though, believed that Chandana’s decision was influenced by the advent of the Indian Cricket League (ICL). Despite lashing out at the selectors for speculating his involvement with the league, he eventually played for the Kolkata Tigers and ICL World XI.

One wonders whether his career would have been on a higher plane had it not coincided with that of
Murali’s. Nevertheless, consistency was one trait that was seldom his.

(Karthik Parimal, a Correspondent with CricketCountry, is a cricket aficionado and a worshipper of the game. He idolises Steve Waugh and can give up anything, absolutely anything, just to watch a Kumar Sangakkara cover drive. He can be followed on Twitter at https://twitter.com/karthik_parimal )