Indians of a particular generation can recall the events of March 13, 1996 even today. After Javagal Srinath dismissed Sanath Jayasuriya and Romesh Kaluwitharana early in the World Cup semifinal, in front of a delirious Eden Gardens crowd, Aravinda de Silva’s counterattacking 66 sucked the juice out of India’s fight. His unbeaten century against Australia in Lahore then gave Sri Lanka their maiden World Cup and made de Silva only the second cricketer to win man of the match awards in both semifinal and final.
When we met de Silva on Thursday (February 16), it was the deputy chairman of a private firm, in a corner chamber of a posh office building in upmarket Colombo, who greeted us, in the middle of signing files and rattling out instructions to his secretary.
Passionate about cars from childhood , de Silva unsurprisingly works for one of Sri Lanka’s largest automobile dealers. Described by the staff as ‘employees’ boss’, de Silva’s door is always open for around 1000 people working under him. He is good at making people open up to him about their issues.
There are famous stories of the team management insulating de Silva from off-field hassles and keeping him in a space happy enough to score 448 runs at 89.60 in the World Cup. So for him to now be managing so many people is a remarkable transformation.
De Silva stepped down as the chief national selector last April to focus on work. His 9-to-6 job is a reflection of his urge to explore new territories rather than clinging on to past glory, and also of Sri Lanka’s no-stardom culture.
“I have been in business for a long time,” de Silva, who once owned a restaurant, told Wisden India. I have been doing various things from my playing days. Cricket teaches you how to work with people and analyse things. Business is also run in a similar way.”
Expectedly, the conversation veered towards those 66 runs, and his eyes lit up. “I always did well when there was a crisis as it made me aggressive,” said de Silva, who averaged above 50 in both Test and ODI wins. “That’s the way I played the game, and that’s what we teach some of the kids in my academy in Dubai, or when I talk to some cricketers now. Aggression is important. I think a lot of them worry about failure. You should try to eliminate that and just go out there and be positive. Being that made me successful.”
De Silva, Sachin Tendulkar, Brian Lara and Mark Waugh were among the premier batsmen of the early 1990s, like Virat Kohli, Kane Williamson, Steven Smith and Joe Root are now. De Silva’s thought process has parallels with Kohli’s. It sounds almost natural when de Silva, who watches little cricket now, rates Kohli as his favourite modern-day batsman.
“From the current lot, he is one guy I enjoy watching,” said de Silva, not a big fan of comparing eras and an admirer of Vivian Richards. “I like his positive approach and also when he was young, the arrogance he had. I think you need that arrogance to be successful, though sometimes people don’t like it. That shows the amount of confidence in himself. He is a very, very nice boy. I saw him during the Under-19 World Cup (in Malaysia in 2008) when I was in charge of Sri Lanka and Dav (Whatmore) was with the Indian team. When I saw him, I realised he is going to go places.”
Kohli, of course, has set new benchmarks with his recent form. But his ability to play freely without worrying about consequences is a byproduct of the Twenty20 format that demands innovation on the go.
De Silva was not dissimilar in his approach. Remember the blistering century for Kent in a losing cause against Lancashire in the 1995 Benson and Hedges Cup final at Lord’s ? Or the two consecutive sixes he hit off Brett Lee while making his last international half-century in a 2003 World Cup game at Centurion? His high-risk cricket, which would have made him hot property in T20 leagues, earned him criticism and the nickname of ‘Mad Max’.
“I would have loved to have played (in T20 leagues) because it is my kind of tournament,” said De Silva. “The concept really would have suited my style of playing, but I truly enjoyed Test and One-Day Internationals. I see now there are a lot of players going out and playing positive cricket. If they get out playing a bad shot, (it’s fine) whereas during my time if I got out playing a bad shot, then I would be dropped from the side and wouldn’t play for a while.
“But things have changed. People have realised that it’s far better to get out playing a shot than getting out playing a defensive shot. You are at least looking to make runs while getting out. It is far better than being defensive according to me.”
De Silva rattles off the names of Wasim Akram, Richard Hadlee, Malcolm Marshall, Michael Holding, Imran Khan, Kapil Dev, Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne as some of the best bowlers he faced through his career. Anil Kumble, who bowled him in that semifinal with a googly, dismissed him the most number of times (14) across Tests and ODIs.
“I always preferred faster ones because I did not have to use much force,” he said. “With their pace, it was easy to work on the ball. The bowler’s sustainability is not that great nowadays, whereas those days you would see some of these attacking bowlers at you for longer periods. Also, those fast bowlers played for a longer period.”
De Silva, though, attributes T20s for better quality spinners. “(Muttiah) Murali(tharan) and Warne had a lot more variation than most of the others,” he said. “Nowadays, with T20 coming in, you get bowlers with a lot more variations like (R) Ashwin. He comes to my mind straight away. (Lakshan) Sandakan has got a good future, and the South African leggie (Imran Tahir).”
Tahir took ten wickets in five ODIs as South Africa completed a clean sweep over Sri Lanka recently. It ended a full tour where they also lost three Tests, and won just the T20I series. De Silva minced no words in defending the team.
“South Africa is not an easy place to be successful, especially with a such young side like Sri Lanka. All in all, they have done pretty well, considering that two great players left and there was a vacuum that needed to be filled. It’s not an easy vacuum to fill with (Kumar) Sanga(kkara) and Mahela (Jayawardene) moving out.
“Obviously, it will take a bit of time to beat a team like South Africa in South Africa. To get to that level, they need to build up that confidence and experience. That will take a bit of time, but other than that they have done pretty well.”
De Silva, whose love for food continues, now has a “normal lifestyle” and plays cricket “on and off but nothing serious”. With a business meeting due, it was time for him to put his corporate face back on.