Wednesday, 21 October 2015

A New Crop with a New Attitude

Sri Lanka v West Indies, 1st Test. Galle

A bright ray of sunlight glistens upon the ramparts of the Galle fort. Lengthy shadows loom over the players, a cool evening breeze relaxes them while also giving a slight chill. It sets the tone for Sri Lanka cricket's current state of affairs. The sun has set. Shadows of retired legends loom over the younger generation. A calming, yet fear inducing breeze of responsibility blows over them. But as often as the sun sets, it also inevitably rises the next morning.

A charismatic left hander crunches artistic cover drives to the boundary. An equally flamboyant right hander aesthetically guides the ball down to third man. The West Indian fast bowlers run in to bowl, and walk back towards their marks in almost a cyclic procession, most of the time with hands on their hips. The lone spinner is being carted to every corner of the ground. They have put on over 200 runs together. Both go on to make 150+ scores. Only a few months ago, only one such pair existed in the Sri Lankan batting line up. Sangakkara-Jayawardane would have been the only name that would be able to follow up to that description. But on this day in Galle, it was Dimuth Karunaratne and Dinesh Chandimal who had lit up the city by the sea.

Dimuth is an artist with the bat. A kind of artist who you know can paint as well as Picasso, but never seems to finish his work. But on the off day that he does, it is a sight to savor. To watch such an innings is a pleasure that needs to be cherished and relished. He has made his highest test score, and perhaps the most enjoyable knock so far in his relatively short career. It could be argued that his century in New Zealand, on a 4th innings pitch, against what probably is the best new ball pairing in the world was a much more tougher, grittier and a more crucial innings, but simply on pure aesthetic brilliance, this innings trumps all that has preceded it. 

Chandimal is a contrast. His approach batting is one of authority. Of dominance and aggression. Take nothing away from his stroke-play, but his sheer ability to take the attack to the bowler overwhelms any technical skill he can ever showcase. Russel Arnold mentions in the commentary box that Chandimal has evolved in to an attacking player. From having changed in to a technical, and a steady batsman, he has found his comfort zone as an aggressor and has returned to it. Although this maybe news to Russel, if he asked any Anandian who watched their 1st XI cricket team between the years of 2007 and 2009, they will tell you that this is the Chandi that they know, and the only Chandi that they have ever known. Chandimal is a top 4 batsman. He is also an attacking top 4 batsman, who has strokes to reach any corner of the ground, to any bowler. Chandimal knows it. So does anyone who has followed his career closely. It is the selectors who needed to realize it. 

Most of all, the pair look relaxed at the crease. The whole team looks relaxed. In the dressing room, and out on the field.

Nuwan Pradeep has bowled a long, tiring spell from the fort end. He takes a rest at fine-leg, but is called back to his mark to bowl one more over. He wipes the sweat from his brow, huffs and puffs towards the crease, and delivers a peach from round the wicket to the left handed Darren Bravo, just outside off, on a length. Bravo has to play at it, and the ball just about leaves him, but kisses the edge. It is a picturesque dismissal for a fast bowler. "SIRAAAAAAA", screams Mathews at first slip as he runs in to hug Pradeep. Sira is short for Sirasa, Pradeep's nickname he earned by being picked in the national side via a soft ball competition organized by Sirasa TV. At the other end, Milinda Siriwardane is pushing darts through to the batsman's pads. Kusal encourages him on. "Come on bambara!". It is a reference to a music video Milinda was a part of. Everyone is on a nickname basis. It is not a privilege being used by just the seniors. From captain Mathews, to Kusal who is only playing is 2nd test, refers to his team mates in their nick names. They are a bunch of friends playing together. Relaxed. And enjoying the game.

After a long standing era of ayyas and mallis,
Sri Lanka cricket has evolved in to a team of equals.
A bunch of friends, enjoying the game.
Sri Lanka's cricket culture has always been built on a bilateral relationship between the "Ayyas" and the "Mallis". From junior levels, through club and provincial, right up to the national team, the ayya-malli relationship is what defines the outline of the team's culture. The Ayyas have all the authority, and demand respect. In turn, they take care of the mallis, groom them, and help them in difficult situations. It is a rather symbiotic relationship, but a very daunting one for a youngster. Something that expects more from him than just cricket. With the ayyas now having retired, the ones that are left are all only separated by a couple of years. They have almost all played in the schools circuits during the same 3-4 year period between 2006 to 2009. They represent a more easygoing, impulsive and brash generation. And it shows in their cricket. Above all, it shows in their team spirit.

But not all the team members are as young and brash. Rangana Herath is only a few games away from retirement. He is the last remaining "ayya" of the team. He warms up to bowl the next over. "Range ayye, welawa aran adaganna. Hadissiyak na", says Mathews. He tells Herath to take his time and stretch, and that there's no rush. There is respect in those words. Also concern, towards a champion bowler, and a senior citizen in the team who needs to be looked after. Herath prods to the crease, swivels his body weight as slowly as a Leyland lorry taking a bend, and bowls a rubbish half-tracker. Marlon Samuels tries to hoick it in to the Indian ocean, but he misses the ball altogether, and it strikes his thigh pad and rolls on to the stumps. Kaushal Silva at short leg jumps on to him in delight. Herath winks. He knows it's a rubbish ball. But is reaction is what brings a smile to the team's face. In a team full of energetic, fun loving, youngsters, this old soul is no misfit. 

Sri Lanka's win against West Indies was rather an easy one, and also an emphatic one. It will only make their team spirit stronger. But tough times are ahead, and defeats will be inevitable, with tours to England and South Africa in the vicinity. Yet the thing to most look forward to, about this new crop of players and their new approach towards the game, is that when you are playing with your friends, at the end of any series or tournament, regardless of whether you win or lose, your friendship will still remain, and you will continue to be the same bunch of friends. These friendships will spark enough enjoyment for them to be inspired to be better, not just as a team, but also as individuals.

Tough tides, yet bright skies ahead.

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