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Is Atapattu up to the job?

Marvan Atapattu, who has recently come to occupy the number three spot in the Sri Lankan batting line-up, seems to be one who flatters to deceive. There was much talk of him before he displaced Asanka Gurusinghe during the one-day tournament in Sharjah in 1996. Most of it revolved around his cricketing abilities; most former cricketers like Ranjit Fernando and some of his teammates found it necessary to put in a good word for him.

Some of that praise was considered to be in order when Atapattu returned to Sharjah this year. He came up with one or two efforts which showed that he is occasionally capable of getting some runs. However, he appears to have failed at the very next hurdle, the ongoing Test series against Pakistan, that too against a depleted team which is running on reserve bowlers. Were it not for the fact that everybody else made runs, his performance may have gone unnoticed. But in the second and last Test, especially in the second innings, when even newcomer Russell Arnold got a half-century, all that Atapattu could manage was four miserable runs.

Apart from the one knock of 94 in Sharjah -- his other 50-plus knock was a painful affair -- Atapattu has done little to justify being picked as a replacement for Gurusinghe. The latter had been treated shabbily and this has formed the subject of articles before. But how long will Atapattu be able to stay on as an incompetent replacement for a man, who despite not smiling at all and sundry, made his bat speak and quite often rescued the team in moments of difficulty?

Admittedly, Gurusinghe is not the best batsman in the world. Neither is he the fastest scorer, the most attractive player to watch or the most consistent. But the fact remains that he has come up with a number of match-saving innings for his team and done more than enough to retain his place in the team. Everybody agrees that in the World Cup final, his knock of 63 was crucial to the final winning effort; De Silva may have been the hero in the end but he has been known to settle for a while and then have a sudden rush of blood and get out. Gurusinghe provided the steadying influence in this case and in numerous other instances too. To be unceremoniously dumped in favour of someone like Atapattu leads to speculation that there are reasons other than cricketing ones for his exclusion.

Some say that there is bad blood between many members of the team and the captain, Arjuna Ranatunge. But, say these sources, everybody except Gurusinghe has kept his mouth shut and not gone public about it. The same sources say that senior members of the team like Tillekaratne and Mahanama are disturbed about the way Gurusinghe has been treated but have held their peace. Gurusinghe is the only one who has spoken out, first about his being dropped from the team in Sharjah in 1996 and then about his exclusion from the team to tour New Zealand when the only crime he committed was to ask that he be afforded the same privilege that was being extended to Aravinda de Silva; the latter who was playing club cricket in New Zealand asked that he be permitted to join the team directly instead of going back to Colombo and doing so, and his request was granted. Gurusinghe, who is playing club cricket in Australia, asked that he be permitted to join the team directly but was refused.

It is well known that Ranatunge has a great deal of clout in Sri Lankan cricket circles. One of his brothers is a board official. He himself is said to harbour political ambitions after he is done with the game. The fact that another brother of his is married to Atapattu's sister is not widely known but the connection has figured in the Sri Lankan press in the past. And there were accusations made once that Gurusinghe's house was stoned while he was in Sharjah with the team some years ago under Mahanama's captaincy -- Ranatunge and De Silva did not make the tour following a row over fitness tests. Gurusinghe's wife is said to haev filed a police complaint, alleging that Ranatunge was behind it. These facts may or may not have a bearing on what is happening now but as Sherlock Holmes once said, it is better to know all the facts and then get rid of the dross.

Questions have not been raised about Atapattu simply because Sri Lanka have had the upper hand in the ongoing Test series against Pakistan with De Silva and a host of others getting enough runs to keep the team afloat. During the New Zealand tour, the media tended to focus on De Silva's lack of form and Atapattu escaped any scrutiny. But these things are bound to be noticed sooner or later. And then the skipper may have to answer a few awkward questions.