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Opinion

The best Sri Lanka Test XI of the 1980s

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Roar Guru
22nd May, 2020
19

I became interested in Sri Lankan cricket in early 1978, as a Sri Lankan team led by Anura Tennakoon toured Bangladesh for a month.

They were the strongest associate member nation at the time. Also, many top Sri Lankan cricketers played club cricket in Dhaka in the second half of the 1980s. Their presence not only increased the competition level of the league, but they played a big part in developing the cricket skills of our young cricketers.

Very few of the readers here have much idea about Sri Lankan cricket in the ’80s. That’s why I will first discuss Sri Lankan cricket during the ’80s before selecting my XI.

Sri Lanka made their Test debut at Colombo in 1982, playing against Keith Fletcher’s England. The new boys fought well for the first three days before their batting collapsed on the fourth morning against the spin of John Emburey. England won by seven wickets. Six members of my list here were part of the Sri Lanka team in that historic match.

Soon, Sri Lankan cricket faced a big setback as some leading cricketers, including captain Bandula Warnapura, were banned following a rebel tour to South Africa. However, the team was rebuilt under the guidance of new captain Duleep Mendis. Sri Lanka recorded their first ever Test victory against India in the autumn of 1985 and then defeated Pakistan in early 1986. They also won the second Asia Cup in 1986 on their home soil.

Earlier, the team had performed admirably in the Lord’s Test of 1984, forcing a draw. However, their first ever Test in Australia at the WACA in 1988 was a humiliating experience. From the Sri Lankan perspective, the WACA was a poor choice as the venue for this match. However, the Sri Lankan team under Arjuna Ranatunga impressed during the 1989 series, and they fought well before eventually losing the two-match series 1-0.

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Political disturbance within the island meant that Sri Lanka didn’t host any international matches during a five-year period between 1987 and 1992.

Now, to the players.

Sidath Wettimuny
A solid but unspectacular opener in the Sunil Gavaskar mould, Sidath was a regular feature of the Sri Lanka team until 1987. His average of 29 may not seem brilliant, but he played two memorable innings in Sri Lankan cricket history.

In Faisalabad, in only the third Test in Sri Lankan history, he scored a fine 157, sharing a double century second-wicket stand with Roy Dias (98). This was the first Test hundred for a Sri Lanka batsman.

Then he scored a career-best 190 at Lord’s in 1984. He batted for more than ten hours and struck 21 well timed boundaries.

Two of his brothers also represented Sri Lanka in international cricket.

Brendon Kuruppu (WK)
Brendon Kuruppu and Amal Silva basically fought for this place. Both were opening batsmen-turned-wicketkeepers. Left-handed Amal scored an unbeaten 102 at Lord’s in the second innings, and then added a hundred against India in 1985. Kuruppu joined an elite group scoring 201 not out on his debut Test against New Zealand in 1987.

In the end I selected Kuruppu partly because I watched him bat quite a bit. He played in the third Asia Cup here in Bangladesh in 1988. And later in the season he played club cricket for the Surjo-Tarun Club in the Dhaka League.

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Back to his debut double hundred, it was a marathon effort. In Colombo, he batted for 777 minutes and faced 548 balls. This is the slowest first-class double hundred in cricket history.

His effort here was more remarkable given that he was often considered as an ODI specialist. During the 1983 World Cup, he was picked just as an opener for his aggressive batting.

He played only four Tests for Sri Lanka, but thanks to that unbeaten double hundred, his Test average is 53.

Cricket generic

(Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

Roy Dias
A stylish right-hander, he was also Sri Lanka’s most consistent batsman of the early years. In his 20-match career, he scored three Test hundreds, but it could easily have been six. He was dismissed in the 90s on three occasions.

Making his debut at the age of 30 against England in 1982, he was out for a duck in the first innings, but played a delightful knock of 77 in the second.

Then, in the tour to Pakistan, he scored 98 in the second Test in Faisalabad, narrowly missing a hundred. It came in the very next Test. His 109 was out of a team total of 240, and it was scored against a hostile Imran Khan (8-58).

He followed this tour with a successful short tour to India in the autumn. He scored two hundreds in the three-match ODI series and scored 60 and 97 in the only Test at Madras. He and Duleep Mendis looked completely at ease against the Indian spinners.

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During the 1983 World Cup, his patent 64 not out helped Sri Lanka to a three-wicket victory over NZ in Derby. It was Sri Lanka’s only success in the event.

But his happiest moment came in Colombo in September 1985. His solid 95 in the first innings combined with a quick-fire 60* in the second, as Sri Lanka looked for a declaration, played a big part in Sri Lanka’s maiden Test success.

Aravinda de Silva
Born in 1965, he represented the new generation of Sri Lankan batting. A natural stroke maker, he had all the shots in the book. A short fella, he preferred playing off the back foot as much as possible. He loved hooking and pulling, and this helped him greatly on Australia pitches.

He made his debut at Lord’s in 1984. After a slow start, he scored 75 in the second innings against India to set up a declaration, which led to the maiden Sri Lanka win in Tests. Then he scored 122 in Faisalabad and 105 in Karachi against Imran Khan, Wasim Akram and Abdul Qadir.

Then followed a lean period when he struggled to convert starts into meaningful scores. But he finished the decade with a bang, batting brilliantly down under in the 1989-90 season.

He scored 167 at the Gabba, and then added 75 and 72 in Hobart to finish the two-match series with an average of 104.66.

The Australia series established him as the premier batsman in the Sri Lanka team, a position he held for most of the ’90s.

Arjuna Ranatunga
He was only 18, when he was picked to play in Sri Lanka’s first ever Test. He ended his career in 2000. In a sense, he was the bridge between two eras of Sri Lankan cricket.

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His selection for the 1982 Test surprised a few people, but he wasted no time in justifying it. He scored 54 on the opening day and shared a 99-run stand with Ranjan Madugalle (65). Then, a year later in Kandy, he scored a classy 90 against Dennis Lillee, Rodney Hogg and Bruce Yardley.

He went in to the 1983 World Cup with a high reputation, but finished with three ducks in six innings. Some critics were questioning his technique against the moving ball. He silenced his critics by scoring 84 at Lord’s the following year. He shared a fourth-wicket stand of 148 with Wettimuny. He was looking set for a hundred before Jonathan Agnew bowled him.

He confirmed his position in the team by scoring hundreds against both India and Pakistan in the 1985-86 season.

As a left-hander, he belonged the group of Allan Border and Larry Gomes than in the company of David Gower or Brian Lara. He wasn’t an entertainer, but was very good in frustrating the opposition. His batting average of 35.69 over 93 Tests isn’t brilliant, but he did a big job as captain of Sri Lanka for long periods. The second-generation Sri Lanka was built under his guidance.

I was lucky to be present in the stadium when he made his captaincy debut. Ranjan Madugalle, the Sri Lankan captain, injured himself in the field in the first match of the third Asia Cup here in Dhaka. So Ranatunga took over for the next match against India. He scored a quick 49 not out from 32 balls as Sri Lanka won an exciting match by 17 runs.

Arjuna Ranatunga

(Photo by Chris Turvey/EMPICS via Getty Images)

Duleep Mendis
Short and stocky, Mendis was renowned for his ability to hit the ball hard off the back foot. He disappointed the Sri Lanka fans in his first four Tests against England and Pakistan. But then in the one-off Test in Madras against India, he smashed back-to-back hundreds to get his name in the record books. He scored 105 in both innings.

He shared a 153-run partnership with Roy Dias in the first innings. In the second outing they put on 110. Mendis was the dominant partner on the first occasion, Dias was more aggressive in the second. Together, they batted with ease against the Indian spinners. While their aggressive batting delighted the Sri Lanka fans, Sunil Gavaskar – the opposition captain – wasn’t amused. The match ended in an exciting draw.

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Mendis very nearly repeated the feat at Lord’s in 1984. He went in to this match in poor form. There were suggestions that the captaincy duty was affecting his batting. Here, he scored 111 and 94. He was in an aggressive frame of mind in this Test. His 111 took just 143 balls, and his 94 came off 97 deliveries.

In the autumn of 1985 he led Sri Lanka to their first ever Test and series victory over India. In Kandy, in the final Test, he scored 124 in the second innings, sharing a 216-run fourth-wicket stand with his old buddy Roy Dias.

He went into a total decline after this innings. Successive low scores badly affected his career average. At least he ended his Test career on a high, scoring 21 and 56 at Lord’s in 1988. He certainly enjoyed batting at Lord’s. In his four Test innings there, he scored 282 runs at an average of 70.50.

In 1986, he led Sri Lanka to success in the second Asia Cup. Ten years later, he was the manager when Sri Lanka lifted the World Cup.

Ravi Ratnayeke
Just like Sir Richard Hadlee, Ravi was an all-rounder who bowled with his right arm but batted with his left hand. His Test batting average of 25 was acceptable, but a bowling average of 35 would suggest that we shouldn’t take the analogy any further.

But, still, he was Sri Lanka’s most reliable all-rounder in their developing days. As a bowler, he used his height to get good bounce off the wicket, but perhaps he lacked the pace required to trouble the best batsmen of the world.

Still, on an under-prepared wicket in Sialkot in 1985, he ran through the Pakistan batting line-up, taking 8-83. One of his eight victims was the local boy Zaheer Abbas, bowled for four. This was Zaheer’s last Test innings.

Ravi scored five half centuries for Sri Lanka in Tests. His highest, 93, came as an opener against India in Kanpur in 1986. He shared an opening stand of 159 with Wettimuny. But generally he enjoyed batting down the order more.

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At Lord’s in 1988, the England seamers had restricted Sri Lanka to 9-130 before Ravi (59 not out) and his fellow quickie Graeme Labrooy (42) gave the innings some stability, taking the score to 194.

Then in Hobart in 1989, Ravi (75) and leg spinner Asoka de Silva (50) frustrated the Australian bowling for a long time on the final day. The two left-handers shared a seventh-wicket stand of 124. Only a late flurry of wickets in the final hour saw Australia win by 173 runs.

Surprisingly, this Hobart Test was Ravi’s last. He wasn’t even 30 at the time.

Somachandra de Silva
Sri Lanka’s premier leg spinner of the 1970s was almost 40 when he finally got his chance to play Test cricket. Still, he managed to get his name in the record books as the first Sri Lanka bowler to get a five-for in Test cricket.

In fact, his 4-103 followed by 5-59 very nearly took Sri Lanka to their first ever Test victory in Faisalabad in 1982. He received rich admiration from all Pakistan batsmen during this tour.

In his last Test at Lord’s, he bowled 43 overs in the England first innings, taking 2-85. All these while he was in severe pain due to an ankle injury.

He was also a capable batsman and finished with a Test batting average of 21.

Sri Lanka had to wait almost a decade to find their next quality slow bowler, named Muttiah Muralitharan.

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Ashantha de Mel
Sri Lanka’s fastest bowler of the time, he also possessed a natural out-swinging delivery. He used this weapon well in the 1983 World Cup in England.

In Sri Lanka’s historic debut Test in Colombo, he surprised the England top order. He dismissed Graham Gooch, Geoff Cook and Chris Tavare in quick succession to leave England tottering at 3-40 and only a fine 89 from David Gower saved the English blushes. De Mel finished with 4-70.

His first five-for came in Madras later in the year in exciting circumstances. After Duleep Mendis scored tons in both innings, India needed 175 runs in the fourth innings. And they needed them quickly. Despite changing their batting line-up, they were pegged back badly by the hostile bowling of De Mel. In fact, his 5-68 briefly gave hopes of a Sri Lankan victory. In the end India finished on 7-135.

He had a memorable World Cup in England in 1983. With 17 wickets he was the top wicket-taker in the group stages. His 5-39 against Pakistan was in vain as the Sri Lankan tail collapsed against the guile of Abdul Qadir. But his 5-32 in Derby helped Sri Lanka win their only fixture in the event.

Sadly for De Mel, his 1987 World Cup became a harrowing experience as he finished with figures of 1-97 in Karachi with Viv Richards making the boundaries at the national stadium appear too small.

He had a memorable 1985-86 season as he featured prominently in both Sri Lankan Test success. Against India in Colombo he took five wickets. Then he captured six Pakistan wickets in Sri Lanka’s win in Colombo as well.

Persistent injures hampered his performances from the next season and he left international cricket after the ’87 World Cup. He was only 28 then.

(Wiki Creative Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0)

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Rumesh Ratnayake
Rumesh was a useful medium pacer. He wasn’t very tall, but he had the ability to generate good pace with his whippy action. At the age of 19, he surprised the NZ batsmen with his pace in Wellington, taking 4-81 in the first innings.

But his most memorable effort came against India in 1985. His 4-76 and 5-79 helped Sri Lanka to their historic win. He struggled with injuries for a time, but then made a triumphant return against Australia in Hobart in 1989.

After skipper Ranatunga took the bold decision to field first, he bowled with plenty of hostility to take 6-66 as Australia was bundled out for only 224. This was the only time in that calendar year that Australia failed to reach the 350 mark in their first innings. The Australian bowlers wrested the initiative and they won the match in the end.

He took 5-69 at Lord’s in 1991, again for a losing cause.

Vinothen John
At Lord’s in 1984, John shared the new ball with De Mel as England started their batting on the third day. The Saturday crowd was greatly amused by their contrasting appearances as well as the run-ups to the wickets of the new-ball bowlers. De Mel looked like an athlete, and at the start of his run-up looked like a 100-metre runner just waiting for the ring.

John was badly overweight even at the age of 24. And in his run-up to the wicket he looked like a marathon runner towards the end of his run, almost gasping for breath. However, once into the bowling crease he was deceptively quick, as many top-order batsmen found out.

In Wellington in 1983, in his second Test, John (5-60) and Rumesh (4-81) bowled NZ out for 210 in the first innings to give Sri Lanka a surprise lead of 39. Sadly, the Sri Lankan batting collapsed against Hadlee and company in the second innings and the hosts won the match by six wickets.

He also bowled well in the home series in 1984 against NZ, taking 16 wickets in three Tests. And at Lord’s he bowled with plenty of heart in the only England innings, taking 4-98.

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Astonishingly, this Lord’s Test was his last, although he played ODI cricket for a few more years. His Test record of 28 wickets in six matches at less than 22 begs the question why he didn’t play more Tests.