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A tribute to Arjuna

The grand-daddy of Sri Lankan cricket has finally called it a day. Arjuna Ranatunge will play out the series against South Africa and then take a bow. The man who played in both his country's inaugural and 100th Tests will not longer be around to bat in that lazy, casual but vastly experienced manner, stroll through for his singles and rile the opposition no end by his mannerisms.

Ranatunge was given the captaincy in 1989, succeeding Ranjan Madugalle who is now a respected ICC referee. He lost the captaincy in 1999, after he failed to defend the World Cup title which the team had won in 1996 under his leadership. The Lankans failed to even make the second round and somebody had to pay for it.

Lanka had a rough time during its early days in international cricket. It had to wait a long time before being granted full Test status. The team was rarely able to play Tests against the established nations. (Even now, England does not deign to give the Lankans more than a one-off Test. The Poms could earlier allege that Lanka were not worth more than a single Test. But nowadays, it must be seen more as an excuse to avoid defeats at the hands of the Lankans; the last two one-off Tests have seen decisive Sri Lankan victories.)

And at such a stage in the cricketing life of a country, an aggressive captain was needed. Sri Lanka were known for playing attractive cricket but always went home the losers. In their first 32 Tests, the Lankans won just two, while losing 18. Ranatunge was skipper for the next 56. There were 12 wins against 19 losses.

Until Ranatunge was made skipper, Lanka had won just one Test series -- at home against India in 1985-86. That was the team's first Test win as well. They drew one against Pakistan the same year by winning one Test and losing one in a three-match series but had been beaten by the Pakistanis earlier the same year, losing two of three Tests. Ranatunge led the team to their first series win against Pakistan at home in 1994-95 (2-0) and then repeated his success in Pakistan with a 2-1 series victory in 1995-96.

In all, he led the team to series wins over England, New Zealand, and Zimbabwe. Under him, Lanka played their first Tests against the West Indies and South Africa. His experience has taken the team to heights which it could not achieve before that. And Sri Lanka, it must be remembered, had a great many exceptionally talented players in their ranks before the Ranatunge era. The present lot look like amateurs in front of players like Roy Dias, Duleep Mendis, Sidath Wettimuny, Ravi Ratnayake, Rumesh Ratnayake, Ranjan Madugalle... need I continue?

He is second only to Aravinda de Silva in terms of runs; he has 4908 Test runs to date at an average of 35.30 and 7456 one-day runs at 35.83. Sixteen wickets in Tests and 79 in one-dayers testify to the fact that despite his girth he can twirl his arm around when needed.

One controversy which he could have avoided during his tenure was the Gurusinghe affair. Asanka Gurusinghe who had been a highly effective player for a long time and shown his worth during the World Cup of 1996 in no uncertain manner, was pushed out. Gurusinghe had questioned why Aravinda de Silva, who was then playing cricket in New Zealand, was allowed to join the team directly for a tour without attending the usual camp, while he, Gurusignhe, who was playing cricket in Melbourne, was asked to join the camp and not given the same treatment. The fact that Gurusinghe's replacement turned out to be Marwan Atapattu, a relative of Ranatunge's by marriage, did not cast the captain in a very good light.

Ranatunge had numerous spats with the cricketing establishment in his country and also with more than one coach. He was often contemptuous of the advice doled out by people and ran his own show. He was both a democrat and a dictator and had he not been able to play both roles, it is unlikely that Lanka would be where it is now in the cricketing world.

These controversies apart, Ranatunge ran a tight ship. He was tremendously loyal to his players and for proof of this one has only to turn back the pages a few years to the Australian tours of 1996 and 1999 when Muralitharan was called for throwing. Without the support of a strong captain, the young spinner would have surely gone to pieces. But he had a captain who took an extremely proactive role in supporting him. Murali is still very much around and 13 wickets against South Africa in the first Test which finished on Sunday this week show that he has gone from strength to strength.

Ranatunge was a prickly character but his aggressive nature helped the cause of cricket in his country no end. The Sri Lankans became a tough fighting outfit and lost any semblance of an inferiority complex which they had suffered for many years. Ranatunge led the way; I recall how he played down the threat which people felt Shane Warne would pose to the Lankans in the World Cup final, by saying that the leg-spinner was highly overrated. Then, when he came in to bat, he twice went down the wicket and viciously smashed Warne to the boundary over his head. And the looks that followed those strokes spoke more than the strokes themselves.

His legacy is a team which has found its feet in international cricket, a team which has gone from being nice guys to a very competitive bunch, a team that knows how to give as good as it gets. There are classic cricketers aplenty; Mahela Jayawardene and Mutthiah Muralitharan come to mind right away, both proving their ability in the first Test against South Africa in no uncertain way. Under Ranatunge, the vestiges of class-consciousness among the selectors have been whittled away and background no longer determines whether a man makes his debut for Sri Lanka or not.

His replacement, Sanath Jayasuriya, is a soft-spoken but hardened cricketer, one who has learnt well at the feet of the old master. There is no doubt that Ranatunge will continue to exert some influence on the team much as people like Sunil Gavaskar and Imran Khan do. He has, however, earned the right to do that. His absence on the field will be felt.