Asanka Gurusinha was the least glamorous of Sri Lanka’s top order at the 1996 World Cup. He finished his international career, prematurely at 30, with seven Test hundreds – only Aravinda de Silva among Sri Lankans had more Test centuries at that point – but is best remembered for the sedate, steadying presence during the successful World Cup run. His solidity at No. 3 allowed the stroke-makers to flourish; Gurusinha’s strike-rate during a campaign that netted him 307 runs at 51.16 was a modest 75.24, but especially in that era it was only modest in comparison with de Silva (107.69), Arjuna Ranatunga (114.76), Sanath Jayasuriya (131.54) and Romesh Kaluwitharana (140.38).
A little over six months after that epochal campaign, Gurusinha quit international cricket and Sri Lanka, moving to Melbourne where he spent two decades in various cricketing and non-cricketing capacities. It was only earlier this year that he returned to Sri Lanka, to take over as the cricket manager of the national side.
“I left 20 years ago for Australia, I lived in Melbourne for 20 years with my family. Do I have regrets? I don’t think so,” he tells Wisden India. “If had you asked me as soon as I went, I would have said yeah, I regret it. But not now.”
There was talk of him and Ranatunga drifting away after the World Cup, the reason many said he had given up cricket. Ranatunga and Gurusinha were and are the best of friends, and without going into specifics, the left-hand batsman with the golden right arm that accounted for many a top batsman in world cricket says, “There were a couple of things. One was, I wasn’t enjoying the game here. And politics is part and parcel of cricket in Sri Lanka. It will not go away, it will always be there. And it was there before us as well. I wasn’t enjoying playing around that environment and I thought that was the best time for me to move away.
On his batting role in the 1996 World Cup
“People were even sometimes booing me when I was batting well… End of the day, I played a role for the team. The team needed me to do so at that time and I don’t regret it at all because end of the day, hey, we won a World Cup. I would do it again if I have to. That was my job, my focus was there, I could block the crowd out.”
“I got a three-year contract with the North Melbourne Cricket Club there. And that particular board at that time made my life a little bit difficult. I can sit back and complain, but now it’s 20 years gone, it’s history and it’s in the past. I am pretty happy. I enjoyed my life in Australia, I achieved a lot in cricket, in the administration side. I am a Level 3 qualified coach from Cricket Australia, I have done coaching. When the current board president who is a very good friend of mine – Thilanga Sumathipala is a schoolmate — and Aravinda said we want you to come back and take over this position, I thought this is the right time to go back and help this young, inexperienced side. If Sanga (Kumar Sangakkara), Mahela (Jayawardene) and them were there, I wouldn’t have come because you don’t need me there. When you have (Tillakaratne) Dilshan, Sanga, Mahela, you don’t need any people like me. But this is a team I believe needs someone like me, to try and guide them, get them mentally tough.”
Many years back, Ranatunga had told this correspondent how Gurusinha had come to him to complain about being booed at the World Cup for his go-slow approach as the rest around him were playing flashy strokes. Gurusinha starts to laugh heartily even before you complete the sentence. “It is correct, yes,” he manages between more controlled chuckles. “People were even sometimes booing me when I was batting well… End of the day, I played a role for the team. The team needed me to do so at that time and I don’t regret it at all because end of the day, hey, we won a World Cup. I would do it again if I have to.
“That was my job, my focus was there, I could block the crowd out. I was lucky that I had that strength and I still have the strength of focussing and blocking things out and working through that. That helped because when you go to the middle, you are pretty much on your own. With your partner, yes, but you just battle everything on your own and that’s the way I did it. I had a plan and I executed it, no issues.”
The role assigned to him during the World Cup – where, paradoxically, he also hit 11 sixes – had no impact on his enjoyment or otherwise of cricket, Gurusinha quickly points out. “No, not the game part of it. It was the administration and myself, the things that were going on was something I wasn’t enjoying. It came to a stage — I will never say I made the right decision, jumping up and retiring early, I was only 30 – where I don’t think that I would have enjoyed keeping on going, or that I would have performed. If I wasn’t happy, I wouldn’t be performing and that’s where I had to make the decision.”
The World Cup triumph hasn’t been an end in itself, it has since become a means to several noble middles. “It was the highest point in cricket not just for me, but for the whole team that played,” he offers. “We had an experienced team and that was the main secret behind that title. The top-seven players had 1,000 one-day games between us and in those days, that was a lot of games. Our batting was very strong, we had played for about 10 years, the top five players, and that helped. It was a preparation that was probably started around 1992, and then with Dav Whatmore coming in in 1995, things started changing. Our attitude started changing towards the game, we changed the culture inside the team, which was an enjoyable, winning culture.
“Even 21 years later, we still catch up and have some fun. We celebrated the 20-year anniversary last year; we played a T20 game in Colombo and we had a nice dinner, and then I actually brought the team to Melbourne and Sydney in October-November. We had two T20 games and two functions to raise funds.”
“If he scored more runs than a batsman, he would come and say ‘Now I can bat above you in the batting order’. He never wanted to lose, he would do everything possible to win. In October-November in Melbourne and Sydney, we played just fun games. He was so competitive. This guy hit him for four the first ball, this Pakistani guy, not an ex-cricketer or anything. Murali told Romesh in our language, ‘Just watch the next five balls’ and that guy couldn’t lay bat on anything. That’s his competitiveness. Suddenly at that level, playing a fun fundraising game, he just came and said now see what you can do. That’s Murali.”
Raise funds? You wonder for whom, and where the idea germinated from.
“One of the things the team started to do was create a fund for past cricketers, who are struggling in life. A lot of cricketers don’t have money to even pay their medical bills, and these not players who played with us but those who played way before us, who are in their 70s and 80s. They played a part in Sri Lanka winning the World Cup. The idea came from Arjuna, Aravinda and Roshan (Mahanama) initially, and then the team got together and said we will back it. That is the only charity that – if I can call it a charity – the team works together on. We don’t want to do any other fund-raising or anything like that. But that’s something the team believes in and we collected just over 4 million rupees in Australia that we donated to the fund. We have already contributed to 6-7 struggling past cricketers who go through their life with medical issues, and it is a good feeling that we can do that.”
Being in a position to do something for others is probably as satisfying as winning the World Cup, Gurusinha agrees. “Absolutely. When you win it, it is a different feeling but now when you look back, our brand is not going to stay there for a long time,” he reasons. “There is an expiry date and most probably, 25 years is where we believe it will expire. We’ve got about four more years to do what we can do to try and help this fund. We are continuously looking at things; we are actually just about to start an apartment project in Colombo and part of that apartment project is we are brand ambassadors but the project owners will give us some money to go into this fund. Everything we do as a brand, we try to put into this fund and support people. It is like an honour that we can do this. Our children are big, one guy (Mahanama) is a grandfather already! It is a nice feeling now of having a fund when you don’t have to that pressure (of having to take care of your own family).”
That is in the here and now. In the then, in the immediacy of the World Cup success, the mood of a nation changed. Sri Lanka was in the middle of a prolonged and nasty civil war; the World Cup triumph came as a balm to the people, it united them and brought them closer, even if only for a brief while. “It took about a week for it to really hit us, because we finished the game in Lahore and we flew back that night itself. And then we had these major welcomes in Colombo. To see so many people, we didn’t expect that crowd. It was millions on the road. Those days with the police escort, there was no traffic, you would take 30-40 minutes to Colombo from the airport, it took us nearly three and a half hours because the crowds were pushing in. And to see the smiles of the people… I think that day, the country changed. People who were scared to live with the war going on and all that, the country really changed with happiness and was really looking forward to life. I believe we put Sri Lanka on the world map. When you look that, to put a smile on a lot of people is a great feeling.”
There is a trace of an Australian accent, but innately, Gurusinha is a proud Sri Lankan. And like any Sri Lankan who has heard or knows of Muttiah Muralitharan, much less someone who has shared numerous dressing-rooms with him, the very mention of the word Murali draws out a smile. So, was Murali the nuttiest cricketer he has played with. “Yeah, without a doubt!” Gurusinha titters. “He had funny things to say, absolutely. If he scored more runs than a batsman, he would come and say ‘Now I can bat above you in the batting order’. But he’s competitive. He never wanted to lose, he would do everything possible to win. I told you, October-November in Melbourne and Sydney, we played just fun games. He was so competitive. This guy hit him for four the first ball, this Pakistani guy, not an ex-cricketer or anything. Murali just told wicketkeeper Romesh (Kaluwitharana) in our language, ‘Just watch the next five balls’ and that guy couldn’t lay bat on anything. That’s his competitiveness. Suddenly at that level, playing a fun fundraising game, he just came and said now see what you can do. That’s Murali.”
“He is the toughest captain anybody has played against and the best captain I have played under. He supports his players right to the end. He could have walked away from the Murali being called incident and said we will fight it out later. But he never does that, he will never do that to anybody. People say there are great captains; to me, I am looking for great leaders. I want people who will stand up and say things and have strategic knowledge but also protect the team, fight for them and really lead from the front. Arjuna was tops in that regard.”
The Boxing Day Test developments of 1995, when Murali was called for chucking and Ranatunga remonstrated with visible ire and indignation, was to be the driving force behind Sri Lanka’s World Cup surge. “I wasn’t wondering what the hell was going on because we had some messages before saying that certain things might happen,” Gurusinha recalls of that Melbourne Test. “Our team was always together but we then gelled better to protect Murali. That brought us very, very close. That’s probably the best thing that happened to us because we were always a very close team. But this incident of gelling and supporting Murali, it then gave us that inner belief. ‘We are going to give it to you, we won’t let you push us, that’s enough.”
Gurusinha readily agrees that having Ranatunga as the captain then was a wonderfully happy coincidence. “He is the toughest captain anybody has played against and the best captain I have played under,” volunteers Gurusinha. “I have played a lot of club cricket as well with him in the same club, so I know how he thinks. He supports his players right to the end. He could have walked away from that incident and said we will fight it out later. But he never does that, he will never do that to anybody. People say there are great captains; to me, I am looking for great leaders. I want people who will stand up and say things and have strategic knowledge but also protect the team, fight for them and really lead from the front. Arjuna was tops in that regard.”
There was a mean bowling streak to Gurusinha that probably hasn’t got its due. He was no express right-arm quick but a gentle wobbler of the cricket ball who could do a fair bit with the cherry if there was some help around. “Ah yes, that’s something I enjoyed right through!” Gurusinha’s excitement shines through. “I used to go after Arjuna and ask for the ball. I opened (the bowling) in 3-4 Test matches as well in Sri Lanka. I think I got about 20-odd wickets (exactly 20) and I was actually telling someone last night that my first Test wicket was Sunil Gavaskar in 1986 in Nagpur. I have taken Ravi Shastri, I have taken Dean Jones, Ian Healy, Steve Waugh, so I have got a lot of good wickets. Even Michael Atherton was out in Colombo off me, so I enjoyed that.
“Arjuna would always tell me, ‘I will only give you five overs with the new ball and don’t ask anything else. Do what you can do’. And it was a challenge for me. I was pretty good at accepting challenges. Even in one-dayers, I used to bowl on certain pitches and again I think I got about 20-odd (26) wickets. I can’t remember Sachin (Tendulkar) but I know I definitely got Brian Lara in a one-dayer. If I have taken Sachin, then I will be happy.” Not quite, Gura, but you did catch him off Jayasuriya’s bowling in Colombo, 24 years back.
The bowling, Gurusinha concedes, was a release for him. “Yes, absolutely. When you are batting, you are enjoying but it is a different kind of thing — your focus, your concentration, and when you finish your innings, you are mentally tired. But when you go out there with the ball, you come and bowl knowing you are not the main bowler. At the same time, I knew I could bowl a bit sharper than people thought. Every time I bowled, I was looking for a wicket. I wasn’t bowling to stop runs. I could do it, but Arjuna, when he gave me the ball, he was always looking for that breakthrough, and I think a lot of the time, I got him the breakthrough. That’s what I enjoyed. I agree with you, it was a release in that I can do what I want, just to have fun, no pressure.”
There is pressure on him now in his capacity as cricket manager and selector, especially with Sri Lankan cricket in not the best of health. The man who loves challenge faces easily his biggest challenge post retirement; how he responds will be interesting to watch.