On a certain level, I don’t really get the Asia Cup. I mean, there is something to be said for a tournament bringing together the nations that represent the biggest cricketing region on Earth. But really when it all gets down to it, it is a mere sideshow, forever in the shadow of the World Cup. The Asian nations play so much ODI cricket, in a sense it doesn’t matter who win the Asia Cup because an opportunity to exact ‘revenge’ on them is just around the corner. Sure you get a nice fat trophy at the end of it, and you get to call yourselves the ‘Asian Champions’ but being the best team in Asia is only an ounce of the prestige and honour that winning the World Cup or even just being the top ranked team in world. Despite it’s name, the trophy has only been won by three nations in it’s (soon to be) 30 year history. Historically, in terms of competitiveness the match-ups between India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka have been the only ones worth keeping an eye on.
Having said all that, the Asia Cup does have a special place in my heart. It was at the 2004 Asia Cup where I watched my first Sri Lanka match in person. For Sri Lanka it was a dead match, having already booked their place in the final and India needed a win to join them there. At 14, I was somewhat older than when most kids get to watch their first international game, but living outside SL meant that the fortunes of the national team was something to be enjoyed through the television and not in person. Our frequent holidays to see friends and relatives had never transpired in going to see any matches until that summer. To be honest, I wasn’t even that fussed about that Asia Cup. It was just more cricket to watch and since watching SL matches was something of a novelty, I just binged on cricket all tournament long. So I jumped at the chance to go to the Premadasa to watch us take on the Indians.
The side had had a busy 2004 at the time. Australia toured in February, won the only Test and the ODI series. Then we went to Zimbabwe for two Tests and ODIs and then over to Australia for two Tests. John Dyson was coach, and along with the emerging captaincy of Marvan Atapattu, was shaping a decent and competitive side. The Australia series had sort of passed under my radar, I remember clearly the media reaction in the aftermath of that series. The drawn 2nd Test in Cairns had seen us record what was and still is our highest score in Australia (455) and Upul Chandana’s Test career had reached an all-time high as he took career-best match figures of 10-201, comfortably out-bowling Shane Warne. However that was not what was causing a stir. That series had also seen the emergence of one Lasith Malinga (who looked like this)who took 8 wickets in the second Test and scared the bejeezus out of Ricky Ponting and the Australians. There was obvious excitement about us finally finding someone to share the new ball with Chaminda Vaas. Having only followed that series via Ceefax (R.I.P), I’d never seen Malinga bowl until SL’s first match of the tournament against the United Arab Emirates. Sri Lanka proceeded to beat them, India, Pakistan and Bangladesh to book their place in the final, so with the result of that match was going to see not mattering, I was allowed to just enjoy the occasion, even though Chaminda Vaas and Muttiah Muralitharan were going to be rested.
At the ground, I was surprised to see just how big the Premadasa was. Much bigger than the only other ground I’d been to at the time (Hove), the atmosphere was fantastic. The match had already started by the time we got there and the papare bands were playing and the crowd was buzzing as my first glimpse of international cricket was Lasith Malinga fielding at fine leg. My uncle, cousin and I walked into the ground as Nuwan Zoysa was running in to bowl at Virender Sehwag and Sachin Tendulkar. It was only at this moment that I realized that I was going to see Tendulkar, Dravid, Ganguly and Anil Kumble play as well. I knew that Sachin wasn’t a big man, but he looked tiny in real life, especially when facing the 6 ft 4 Zoysa. And when Zoysa trapped him lbw with a delivery that looked so fast that I was surprised that Tendulkar hadn’t ended up somewhere by the wicket-keeper. Looking at the replay on a tv screen (an actual tv which was placed on a plastic chair in front of us) it looked like any other Zoysa delivery that Sachin just happened to miss.
By this stage, I was completely engrossed in the match, Which annoyed me greatly, as I watched Sehwag and Ganguly put on a scintillating partnership of 134. And further still when Yuvraj came in and smashed a quick-fire 50. I also saw just how fit professional sportsmen actually are. You don’t really appreciate it on the television, but I saw Avishka Gunawardene chase a ball to the boundary with a ferocious grace of a rampant wildebeest. Even a chunky sort like Avishka could tank it if he wanted to. I thought that that was impressive. But not nearly as impressive as what Sanath Jayasuriya did next.
Sanath was just coming out of a lean patch that had people calling for him to be put to pasture. He’d go on to endure many more of that whilst scoring big innings. He’d hit a century in the previous match against Bangladesh in which the Bangladeshi bowlers were very helpful in awakening the sleeping giant of his batting prowess by putting the ball neatly in his hitting arc. When he came over to field near us on the backward square-leg boundary, the crowd started giving him the sort of light hearted stick that someone of his stature tends to get. He didn’t say anything back, but gave us a sort of gesture that seemed to say “pipe down, you lot,” but looking back it might as well have said, “chill, I got this…”
Chasing 271, the match seemed to be heading towards a quick end as India had us at 76-3. That became 134-5, but all the while Sanath just kept hitting the ball with his usual mix of flicks and slashes that before the Bangladesh game had not been seen for a while. I appreciated just how powerful he was. His bat looked as if it were made of lead and not willow, it’s movements slow and deadly; not quick and agile as Ganguly’s had looked in the first innings. The sound of the ball hitting it sounded like a more substantial collision, more solid and pronounced. At the other end, we were handing out catches like they were going out of fashion. There is no suspense in cricket like the one when a ball is in the air and a fielder is positioning himself under it. If your side is fielding, your eyes are on the ball making sure it hasn’t gone into the stands. If your side is batting your eyes are on the fielder. or rather the empty patch of green on the field where you hope the ball will land. On television the camera only brings the fielder into view at the last moment but at the match you can see the trajectory of the ball and see the moment the fielder shudders into action as he realizes that he is in play. I watched batsman after batsman miscue deliveries into the Colombo night sky, focusing on the fielder who was about to take the catch as if by sheer will power this would be the one chance in about ten that professional cricketers tend to drop.
The drops never came, but Sanath just carried on. A chanceless innings of 130 highlighting every aspect of his game that had made him the superstar that he was. Atapattu, Sangakkara, Jayawardene came and went but he was going to this on his own. Because he could and because these bowlers. these Indian chancers who had decimated the rest of the SL batting lineup were an insignificance, something to be discarded and treated with disdain. The uncle I was watching the game with used to and still annoys me with how much he whinges about the SL team. Nothing could ever live up to his expectation of them. Murali was always bowling it too straight. Vaas was never quick enough and Atapattu didn’t know what he was doing. Even he could not help but be impressed with Sanath’s performance though. It came as somewhat of a surprise when instead of dispatching an innocuous ball from Sehwag to midwicket, it few up in the air and travelled all of 10 yards where the bowler took the catch. He had taken us within 14 runs of our target in the 47th over and even though Upul Chandana did his best, we fell 4 short.
As irked as I was at the narrow defeat, nobody leaving the ground could deny that they had witnessed Sanath Jayasuriya the sort of mood that made him a force of nature. Most of them would have witnessed plenty of it before but it being my first experience of international cricket, has been engraved in my memory ever since. As a result, I’ve come to respect the Asia Cup for it. We went on to meet India in the final a few days later and beat them in a lower scoring game. We even went on to hammer the visiting South Africans after it in an ODI series. The first match of which was my second SL experience. Kaushal Lokuarachchi hit Shaun Pollock for six to seal the win but that’s another story. I also got myself on TV which was odd.
I don’t expect much out of this Asia Cup. I don’t expect us to win it and I’m OK with that (as long as India don’t win it instead). I just want to see some good cricket from us. I hope one of our batsmen plays an innings as glorious and awe-inspiring as Sanath did that night. An innings that encapsulates the principles that Sri Lankan Cricket likes to pride itself on. A sense of fearlessness in the face of adversity against quality opposition that makes them rethink their gameplan. There is a bigger question of our record in ‘choking’ in international tournaments where we have lost the plot in the face of someone playing exactly the kind of role that Jayasuriya did. Gilchrist, Yuvraj, Marlon Samuels the list is long enough. This Asia Cup won’t erase any of those painful memories but it is an excuse to rescue some bragging rights from our dearest rivals. Just to give them a reminder a year or so from the World Cup, if they needed one, that Sri Lanka are still alive and kicking.