They called him Mad Max as much for his driving of the cricket ball as his love for fast cars, but Aravinda de Silva was as brilliant a batsman as they came – correct, orthodox, easy on the eye and with so much time on his hands that you could not but marvel. The man who put Sri Lankan batting on the world map – with all due respect to Duleep Mendis and Roy Dias – conjured a brilliant 66 in the 1996 World Cup semifinal against India and followed it up with an unbeaten century in the final against Australia in Lahore to cement his place in the pantheon, the primary force behind the tiny island nation’s surge to the title even though he himself downplays his role.
Post retirement in 2003, de Silva has been involved with Sri Lankan cricket in various capacities including as chairman of selectors and head of the cricket affairs committee, but resigned from both positions because of ‘wavelength’ issues with the men running the show.
When de Silva talks batting, among other things, in that wonderfully measured, almost apologetic, fashion, everything comes to a standstill. Gregarious and fun-loving, he is also a veritable treasure trove of knowledge which he is willing to share all too readily. He follows cricket with keen interest, unsurprisingly, and has thoughts and ideas that merit close attention.
Virat Kohli has quite obviously caught his fancy. Him, and Kohli’s great mate, AB de Villiers. “I think these two guys, Virat and AB de Villiers, for me, I would pay money to go and watch them,” de Silva, now 51, croons. “Those two guys are the best players in the current era.”
“My approach was simple when I realised that my way of batting was being aggressive. I decided not to worry about failure. Also not worry about criticism. Just learn through my mistakes. That way you bring the best out of the individual and their natural ability.”
Why, you ask him.
“The way they play the game. It’s entertaining, they play proper cricket shots,” he offers, simply. “AB probably is sometimes a bit unorthodox but they bat with a lot of confidence and arrogance. They take on any attack, whether it is spin and pace, both versions of the game, they play good cricketing shots. And they are both consistent. Consistency is very important. Of course, (Steven) Smith and (Joe) Root and (Kane) Williamson, they have done well but for me, these two have something a little more special.”
There has been some talk in cricket circles that Kohli is slightly vulnerable to the short ball. De Silva almost chortles. “I don’t think he is weak against anything,” he laughs. “He might get out once or twice, but that doesn’t mean anything. He is an overall accomplished player. He had a little bit of a weakness outside the off-stump but I think he has worked on it. I saw him bat after that (England series in 2014), the cover-driving also has developed now. Obviously, when a lot of people start bowling to your weakness, you automatically tend to develop those areas. Sourav (Ganguly) was one main example. Because he was so strong on the off-side, they started bowling straighter and then he became so much stronger through the on-side towards the end of his career. Those are the kind of players who work hard and get better.”
De Silva made his mark at a time when the Sri Lankans had no great pace resources to fall back on. Sticking to his theme of working hard to get better, he offers an insight into his preparations during his halcyon days. “My approach was simple when I realised that my way of batting was being aggressive,” he reveals. “I decided not to worry about failure. Also not worry about criticism. Just learn through my mistakes. That way you bring the best out of the individual and their natural ability.
“We did have coaches brought in from various countries – Peter Philpott and Daryl Foster from Australia. Though we didn’t have fast bowlers, some of the drills that we did were very useful,” he goes on. “What we did was we went indoors and put a machine at almost 100 mph and kept on facing that. I realised that some of those sessions which we had were probably the fastest sessions I have ever faced in any sort of cricket. Your eyes and reactions get used to that sort of speed, then it becomes so much easier out there. Those guys (the coaches) chucked on a cement wicket with a wet tennis ball… Those were things which we used to do, and we used to enjoy doing that. It was always a challenge trying to play against that sort of thing. It became a game when we went on tour, sometimes we even did that in the corridors of the hotel! That’s probably how, I guess – I don’t know. Maybe in the modern day, they don’t have to do that because you get opportunities to face these guys day in and day out. So it’s nothing new and the kind of sustainability for most of these fast bowlers is less unlike those days because they play so often that there is hardly one guy who will be able to bowl 90 mph right through the day.”
De Silva on Kohli:
“I don’t think he is weak against anything. He might get out once or twice (to a short ball), but that doesn’t mean anything. He is an overall accomplished player. He had a little bit of a weakness outside the off-stump but I think he has worked on it.
Arjuna Ranatunga, de Silva’s close pal and the captain of the World Cup-winning side, has said several times that the key to Sri Lanka’s success in 1996 was to keep de Silva happy. “I am still happy,” he laughs again. “Arjuna kept me happy. No, no, I don’t think it was just Aravinda, it was a great team effort. People say that it was Sanath (Jayasuriya) and Aravinda who won the World Cup but that is rubbish as far as I am concerned. It was a great team effort, there were contributions, very vital contributions which came in very critical situations. To name one was when Upul Chandana came onto the field for two overs (as a substitute) and got a run-out. (Graeme) Hick and (Alec) Stewart were batting in the quarterfinal game and it was a crucial moment, that was the start of the knockout stage and they were building a very good partnership. Chandana came onto the field, got a run-out and that changed the complexion of the game and we were able to contain them and then we got the score easily.
“Kumar Dharmasena made some useful contributions, Roshan (Mahanama) down the order made some useful contributions. To have Arjuna, Roshan and Hashan (Tillakaratane) bat after me, gave me that much more confidence to go and play my natural game. Kalu’s (Romesh Kaluwitharana) stumping of Sachin (Tendulkar) in the semifinal again changed the whole situation. Vaasy (Chaminda Vaas), Murali (Muttiah Muralitharan) coming in and bowling those vital overs and getting those main breakthroughs. Those were the important parts that made winning the World Cup possible. It is not about one or two players but about the team contribution. Having Duleep (Mendis as manager) there, the surrounding environment of the team, with Davey (Dav Whatmore, the coach) and Alex (Kountouris, the physio) was fantastic. Their contributions will not be forgotten. Davey gave the youngsters the boost they required. Alex made sure that the players were fit and strong and Duleep made sure that everyone was relaxed and that the comfort levels were high.”