When Little Kalu batted, time came to a standstill. Sanath Jayasuriya, his opening partner, was on the shorter side too, but he was a powerful package – powerful arms, powerful forearms, barrel-chested and the epitome of strength. Little Kalu, on the other hand, was a small man, a tightly coiled spring ready to take life, the proverbial pocket dynamite that exploded with warning, but exploded with such ferocity that the big, bad, mean fast bowlers around the world simply had no chance when he was in the mood, warning or otherwise.
So alright, Little Kalu is not his given name. He answers to Romesh Kaluwitharana, but from the moment Tony Greig immortalised him as Little Kalu, that is the name that has stuck.
“There’s a big story behind it actually,” Kalu tells you, his face breaking into a broad smile as he recalls Greig with great fondness. “What happened in 1995, when we toured Australia, we had a lot of issues, Murali’s (Muttiah Muraliratharan) issue with his action and all that. And all of a sudden, we (Jayasuriya and himself) changed the game. The transformation was dramatic. When we played, we both started whacking from both sides. It was a novel thing. In size, we both were small. We were playing against mighty West Indies and Australia, who are very strong in their soil. Tony Greig saw that change and that’s the time he started backing Sri Lanka. Fortunately for the both of us, we were the ones who changed it. And he started talking so highly of us two and with my name, he loved to say my name – Little Kalu, he had a way of saying it. People still try to say it the way Tony used to. He loved Sri Lanka. When he was here, he promoted the country like no other because he loved being here. He liked Sri Lanka. He had a lot of love for Sri Lanka, not only for cricket but for the country, and people loved him because he was one guy who really had that passion for Sri Lanka.”
Thus the legend of Little Kalu began. Greig, high-pitched and excitable, would extol Little Kalu and Jayasuriya, a partnership not made so much in heaven as by the astute cricket brain of Arjuna Ranatunga.
“Sanath and I did one thing, and that was to play the natural cricket we knew,” Kalu tells you in all earnestness. “That is exactly what we both did. That was to dominate the bowler, dominate when you are batting. We always went after the bowling, because we both had one mindset — our defence was to attack. That was the simple theory we both applied. To a certain extent, we did succeed. It wouldn’t have worked with all players. If you take this (current Sri Lankan) XI, they all play differently. It doesn’t work for everyone. For us, one was a left-hander, the other a right-hander. We both saw the ball early and we could manage to get the ball to where we wanted. We played all round the wicket. We were never scared of any bowling attack. If you compare it with the bowling today, those days you had a lot of good fast bowlers.”
As he speaks of Jayasuriya, Kalu suddenly gets a little cross-eyed. You almost have to shake him physically – but that is a no-no, he is after all the coach of the Sri Lanka A team now, Little Kalu or not – out of his reverie. “Sanath and I, we played our cricket almost together, right from school days,” reminisces Kalu of a friendship and a chemistry that has lasted nearly 30 years. “We are almost the same age. We had been playing with each other from the Under-13 level. We toured Australia, our first overseas trip, for the first-ever Youth World Cup in 1988. We both were 18. Before that, England came in 1987 and we played together there as well, so by the time we played together for Sri Lanka, we had already played alongside each other for some time in club cricket too.
“The luxury we have that India doesn’t have is that we all stay around each other. We all live in Colombo. Even if you are from elsewhere, if you want to play cricket, you have to come to Colombo. We had that benefit. We have always been good friends. That really helped in the way we batted as well. We always thought about what was good for the team. At times, I had to sacrifice my way when we were running between the wickets or when he was going well, my job was to give him the strike more. It was all about benefitting the team rather than we benefitting ourselves.”
“Greig loved to say my name – Little Kalu, he had a way of saying it. People still try to say it the way Tony used to. He loved Sri Lanka.”
Their communication in the middle, however, was minimal, Kalu reveals. “We didn’t speak a lot while we were playing, because we didn’t want to restrict the other person’s flair. Apart from when someone did something stupid or wrong, we never said anything. We only said, ‘Going is good. Let’s keep going like this’. We didn’t speak much otherwise. But we always played to our strengths, more than anything else. That was one key factor in our success and also what helped us gel together.”
Thanks to Greig’s near-frenzied, almost propaganda-style eulogising of Little Kalu and the sporadic but decisive success of the little fella in front of the stumps, the Kalu phenomenon grabbed the attention of not just Sri Lankans but cricket followers around the world. Was that too heavy a cross to bear, you prod him.
“Expectations were really high during that period because people were relying on both of us to get runs, and also individually to win the match,” he offers. “That’s the perception people had. Most of the people didn’t understand that time that we were a very good side. That helped the team to win. When somebody failed – (Asanka) Gurusinha, Aravinda (de Silva), Arjuna, (Roshan) Mahanama or Hashan (Tillekeratne), they all stood up. And we were taking up from the waters. It was a fantastic team (the 1996 World Cup). We were really united to bring victory to our country at that time. We (Sri Lanka as a nation) were really suffering with a lot of problems. The (civil) war was sort of at its height. And people only had cricket to enjoy. That’s the time we thought we should do something to make people happy.”
Kalu made fewer than 2,000 Test runs and though he did end up with 3,711 One-Day International runs, his average in both formats is in the 20s. He had a strike rate of 77.70 in ODIs which, in that age and given his high-risk approach, sat quite nicely alongside the otherwise modest average of 22.22. Even so, his popularity far outweighed several of the other Sri Lankans who had more impressive numbers at the top level.
“Fortunately in Sri Lanka, the people, they always have their good sides than bad sides,” he grins in a manner that makes you wonder if he really does have a 16-year-old son, as he claims. “When we played, we never had problems when we lost. We never had problems when we won either because it is always they who patted our backs and said ‘Don’t worry, next match, next match’. Or when you are doing well, ‘Well done’ in a very humble way and with a lot of respect for what we did. They understand, most of the people, they understand that cricket is only a game. It’s not life. If you give 100% and you don’t win, you can’t have regrets but if you don’t give 100% and you win, you still won’t be happy. That’s very simple and that’s what people know. Because of their knowledge about cricket, they have been very good supporters for Sri Lanka cricket.
“When I first scored my hundred, 132 not out against Australia, I lost my place one match after that,” recalls Kalu, making it clear without saying as much that popularity had only that much meaning and no more. “I was the 52nd player to score a Test debut century. But I was dropped straightaway. I accepted that, because I never complain. I just kept on trying. I must have made the most number of comebacks. I had that in me, the never-give-up attitude. I always kept things very simple. It made me look at things in a very simple way. I had a lot of respect for people, and that’s why they love me even today. Not only the character with which I built my cricketing background but also the character I became as a human being. Silently, I helped a lot of people without telling anyone. I believe sharing is caring, that sort of thing. That’s why it’s kept on going till today. And I’m happy for that.”
Little Kalu? Sharing is caring? Hello, did we miss something?
That, of course, is our fault. Sometimes, and especially in this image-is-everything age, we judge people based on our impressions, not on what they are. So when Little Kalu talks about nature and giving something back, you are taken slightly aback. But the fact that the consummate practitioner of the unorthodox is a certified and a professional coach should have given us some clue at least, one would think.
Some seven years back, between coaching stints, Kalu got into the hotel industry. Okay, so that sounds grandiose, but Kalu’s Hideaway isn’t quite that grand. It is a 14-room boutique hotel some three and a half hours from Colombo, not far from the Uda Walawe National Park.
“That’s my own,” he says with fierce price. “When I went to that particular area, there was nothing there. I was the pioneer in making that area a destination, actually. Today, there are many hotels that have come up there. From my childhood days, I have loved trees, I loved plantations. I love growing trees, I grow vegetables at home. I feel like I am giving something back to the world because we need trees. Soon, in time to come, we will have only deserts, going by the way people are chopping down trees. I thought the one thing I could contribute to the world was to grow trees. That’s one reason why I wanted to buy land and do something, not to make profits out of that. It became a very good sort of a cause, and gradually, the hobby turned into a business.
“From my hotel, it’s about 10 minutes to the national park and about 7-8 minutes to the elephant’s transit, the elephant orphanage. Nature, green, eco — that’s the theme I have there. I don’t get to devote much time to it but my wife runs it impeccably,” says Kalu, who bursts out laughing when you ask him about the name of the hotel which houses most of his cricketing spoils in a gallery that is accessible only by vision to the guests. “Actually, one of my friends came up with the name. He said, ‘During your time, everyone knew about Kalu but once you are done, it’s a good thing to have your own hideaway or something with your name’. Actually I didn’t like it because I don’t like being highlighted but then I thought that was not a bad idea because today, if a kid is shown Aravinda and asked who he is, he wouldn’t know. Or even (Brian) Lara. In another one year, it will happen to Sachin (Tendulkar) because that’s how the game goes. So I thought why not, it’s a good suggestion.”
“Sanath and I did one thing, and that was to play the natural cricket we knew. We always went after the bowling, because we both had one mindset — our defence was to attack. That was the simple theory we both applied.”
One of the reasons Kalu’s Hideaway sees so little of its owner is because of his coaching commitments. But unorthodox Kalu teaching players to play by the book? Isn’t there a contradiction there somewhere?
“I knew you would come there,” comes out of his mouth quickly, with knowing mischievousness. “After cricket, I always thought that when we played, we didn’t get much help from the coaches. We went through a lot. Not only bat and ball, even mentally. Mentally, you have to make a lot of adjustments. As a player, you definitely need that guidance – how to play in different situations and how to handle pressure, not just the technique part of it. Then I thought, if I want to do that, the only option was to directly get involved with coaching. Becoming an umpire might have had more benefits, but that didn’t help the cause.
“So I did my Level 1, 2, 3. I first started coaching the club I was playing for, Colts, and I had to really come down a lot of rungs. It’s different being a player. You have to come down to a very low level as a coach starting out. The glory days of playing cannot be brought up, and the ego has to be zero. That has been my passion always. I never had big thoughts. I never thought big of myself. It was very easy for me. I have always been sort of a behind-the-curtains guy, never flashy.” Except for batting, right? “Oh well…,” that laugh again.
His coaching pursuits took him to Malaysia and China – Little Kalu in China? – as part of the Asian Cricket Council’s development programme. “Sometimes, when you are in the same place for a long time and when you are not given a bigger part, you feel like you’re not climbing up the ladder and you feel disappointed. That’s how life goes,” he philosophises. “You have to box on and wait for the time or just give up. I have never been a person who has given up. So I thought if that day comes, it will come, or it won’t come. I am happy with what I am today, and will always be happy with what I finish with. I keep things very simple. This way of looking at life is very important. I expect very little.”
That’s for having asked him if he felt frustrated at the standards in those ‘lesser’ cricket nations. But what of today, when he is with the Sri Lanka A side? “Like all sides up to today, when cricket greats leave the game, we will suffer for some time,” he reasons. “Kumar (Sangakkara) and Mahela (Jayawardene) can’t be replaced that easy, like when Murali stopped. But someone will step into their boots. Maybe they won’t be the same calibre of Sanga and Mahela but things will move because we have a lot of talent. It’s just that believing in your talent and delivering is something they have to trust in and do. I can see we are heading in the right direction but I would have been happier if we had had resources, infrastructure to support the cricketers. Compared to England, even India, South Africa, New Zealand and Australia, we are far below with the things what we need to have — indoor facilities, swimming pools, gyms, proper wickets and a good domestic structure. Those are the key areas we need to get directly involved in for the betterment of cricket. To go higher up. Everybody is doing new things. It’s all about technology, applying it and making a balance and getting things right. If we don’t do that, the talent won’t go down. It’s just that we will remain static and the others will go up, and we won’t be on par when we play the other sides. But I think we are on the right track.”
“When I first scored my hundred, 132 not out against Australia, I lost my place one match after that. I was the 52nd player to score a Test debut century. But I was dropped straightaway. I accepted that, because I never complain.”
Since he brings up Murali, you can’t help but ask him about keeping to the great offspinner. “Fortunately, Murali and I started together,” he almost exhales in loud relief. “Unlike these days, we wicketkeepers spent a lot of time behind the wickets even during net sessions. These days, wicketkeepers rarely go behind the stumps during nets. Earlier, I remember keeping for hours in the nets, even the side nets. We would go behind the stumps and see how the bowler is going. That time, Murali was one of those bowlers who turned the ball almost across the wicket. And I had to make sure that I got adjusted to that.
“I adjusted with practice. And then he would always come and say, I found something new, and I looked at it to try and adjust to that as well. We never had signals, nothing, not one signal where he would let me know what he was bowling. I made mistakes, not that I didn’t. But there was never any signal or communication when he would change up his deliveries and bring in those variations. At that time, he rarely bowled the doosra, that came quite late in my career. But he did bowl legspin, the googly, the straighter one.” The googly? The legspinner’s googly? “Yes, the very same. Actually, Darrell Hair once no-balled him for bowling legspin!! That was very sad.”
Sri Lanka have always had bowlers with unusual actions, some necessitated through issues from birth such as the ones Murali had to contend with, others because they were part of one’s DNA, like in the case of Lasith Malinga, Ajantha Mendis, Tharindu Kaushal… “That is one good thing about the Sri Lankan structure, because we never change any bowler unless he can’t survive with his natural action,” Kalu sits up. “We always encourage natural ability. If that player succeeds consistently, then we make only very minor adjustments. Other than that, we don’t make too many changes. Not only bowling, even when it comes to batting as well. That helps the player adjust to playing better than going down with a lot of sameness.
“I love growing trees, I grow vegetables at home. Soon, in time to come, we will have only deserts, going by the way people are chopping down trees.”
“For instance, during our time, there were no Power Plays, you only had the 15-over rule. Often, it was a boring start. If in the first 10 overs you got 30-35 runs, it would have been wow, fantastic. 180-200 runs on the board was almost definitely a win. But that’s the time we brought about change. Today, you get a 300 but you still don’t know whether you will win. You don’t see exciting cricket. Alright, so it’s exciting but it’s become a habitual thing. Those days, people watched the Sanath-Kalu game and went, ‘What is this? What the hell is this’?”
By now, he is in total excitement mode. The hands make scything arcs, the eyes widen dramatically, not unlike when Murali was wheeling away. “And people didn’t like it, I can tell you. They were like, ‘What the hell is this’. They criticised us and said pyjama cricket was ruining the game. But now it has changed because everyone is doing it. You see more people play attacking cricket. But unfortunately, you don’t see them as freaks because they are all freaks.”
So if Little Kalu was a freak then, how does he feel about the format that unleashed the freak in him? “ODIs are going down as compared to T20s, it is because of so many reasons. People are getting tired of watching too much cricket. You get see 3-4 games on live television all the time. That was not the case earlier on. But people, unfortunately, not that they are losing interest, they don’t have that much time. People are getting busier, the world is getting busier. So this three-hour game, starting at 7pm, is a lot more convenient that watching a game from 10 to 5.30.
“It’s also more exciting, entertaining and you are guaranteed a result. People like it. More entertainment. The difference between the two short formats of the game, you don’t have that thinking cap on in T20 cricket. You just go on and on, and bang every ball from the word go. But ODIs is still 300 balls. That’s a lot of balls. You have to plan for every stage. That’s the difference. For a player, Test cricket should be No.1, then ODIs and T20s. But from a commercial perspective, it’s the other way around. That’s how the world goes. It’s changing. People are changing.”
“I would have been happier if I had the opportunity to play T20. But we actually played T20s when we were playing 50-over cricket.”
After all this, you wouldn’t think you would get away with asking Kalu if he regrets not being a player in the T20 era, given its potential, his popularity and the mega-bucks that would have come his way. But you give it a shot, just in case. “I do actually,” says the bundle of surprises and contradictions. “I never had the opportunity to play T20 for the country or IPL. Those days (if there had been IPL auctions), we would have had a very good chance of getting somewhere in the top-bracket. But unfortunately, God doesn’t give everything. You say ok to anything that you get. I would have been happier if I had the opportunity to play T20 as well to see whether we could do something different in that format. But we (him and Sanath) actually played T20s when we were playing 50-over cricket. It wouldn’t have made a lot of difference.”
Or it might have. One never knows. Suffice to say that Little Kalu made a big difference. As dynamic opener, competent wicketkeeper. And he is still aspiring to make a big difference. As a lover of nature, and as a coach shaping the fortunes of the hopefuls.