In a way, it could be argued that Sri Lanka played a key role in the genesis of T20s which eventually lead to cricket becoming more glamorized and commercialized than ever before while the approach to the game, the technics involved, attitudes and strategies took a paradigm shift, both making certain sections of the fandom hooking themselves onto the game more fervently and making others wistfully retrospect the nostalgic past.
Though Mark Greatbatch was the first opener to exploit the field restrictions early on in the innings to counter attack the oppositions, it was the pair of Sanath Jayasuriya and Romesh Kaluwitharana who made this bohemian tactic mainstream. What followed was a proliferation of ODIs which coincided with BCCI commercializing broadcast deals that resulted in cricket becoming a cash haven.
The ODIs begot T20s and now we have a format that is conquering new frontiers and has a possibility of becoming an Olympic sport. In T20Is, Sri Lanka has been one of the most consistent sides, at least until the last WT20, winning one title, becoming the runners-up twice and entering the semi-finals once in six WT20s thus far.
But by the time T20s became a vogue or even before the very idea of a shortened version of the game was conceived, some of Sri Lanka’s hardest hitters, fastest bowlers, and wiliest spinners had retired from the game. Though Jayasuriya lived long in cricket to terrify bowlers in T20s, batsmen like Aravinda de Silva and Gurusinha had hung their boots before the first T20I was played.
So let’s board the magic carpet of fantasy and try to paint in our wild non-compos mentis imagination what would it have been like, had the best of Sri Lanka’s bombastic cricketers played T20.
So, here is an attempt to construct Sri Lanka’s All-Time T20XI, that took no part in any T20Is.
#1 Opener: Romesh Kaluwitharana (WK)
It was rather unfortunate that Kaluwitharana’s career was cut short before the advent of T20s while his partner-in-crime Sanath Jayasuriya went on to stamp his authority during the latter stage of his career.
The right-handed, wicket keeper batsman had an emphatic beginning to his career as he stroked his way to a sprightly 132 versus Australia in his debut Test match in 1992. However, he had difficulties in replicating his early success, but a move to the top of the order helped him make use of his rambunctious nature later in his career. Together with Jayasuriya, Little Kalu tore into bowlers during the field restrictions, redefining modern day cricket.
The world-cup winning player was quick to put away anything that was slightly off line or length and was very reliable behind the stumps. He opens the batting and keeps wicket in our team.
#2 Opener: Asanka Gurusinha
Even though a career ODI strike rate of 60.88 naturally renders a batsman unsuitable for T20s, Asanka Gurusinha was undeniably one of Sri Lanka’s cleanest strikers of the cricket ball. For a very long time, Gura was Sri Lanka’s troubleshooter- a man for the crisis who waged lone battles to hurl his team out from the burrows of mortification.
For the most part of his career, he was a rock solid number three, but having opened for Sri Lanka a few times, a promotion up the order in a format as short as T20 is least likely affect the portly built southpaw.
Initially called into the team as a wicket-keeping batsman, Gurusinha was well-known for his gritty gutsy innings which anchored the Sri Lankan batting lineup. However, when the time was right and if he was in the mood, Gurusinha had the ability to switch to the top gear sans warning and unleash his brutal self on bowlers.
#3 Number 3: Aravinda de Silva
The first player who is likely to come into the minds of Sri Lankans when asked to pick a T20 lineup, Aravinda de Silva is a kind of a batsman who would make the whole world rue the fact that there was no T20 during his time. Dotingly called the Mad Max, the right-hander was a destroyer.
With wrists made of steel and eyes of a hawk, de Silva often batted like an erudite demon- wrecking bowling attacks with savagery laced with class.
He was also a shrewd bowler with the three wickets he picked up in the 1996 World Cup final being his most notable performance.
#4 Number 4: Mahadevan Sathasivam
Yet another Ceylonese batsman who was lost to history thanks to Ceylon’s lacks of official test status, Sathasivam’s batting drew parallel to that of Don Bradman’s. Ghulam Ahmed, a former captain of India and a spinner had to say the following about the Lankan maestro: “I have bowled at Bradman, Harvey, Hutton, Denis Compton, Keith Miller, The Terrible Ws — Weekes, Worrell, and Walcott. If you ask me who is the most difficult batsman that I have ever bowled to, I will mention a name that you (may) not know. He is M Sathasivam of Ceylon. I will never forget how he thrashed me in Chennai.”
Much like Aravinda de Silva, Satha, as he was called, was a bellicose batsman who is said to have pulled even the fastest of bowlers out of the ground off his front foot. Sir Garfield Sobers once described the Ceylonese batsman as “the greatest batsman ever on earth.” Frank Worrell would go on to call him the “greatest batsman he had ever seen.”
A right-handed batsman who was a product of Wesley College, Colombo, Satha went on to captain Ceylon. The hard-hitting Ceylonese legend is destined to do well in T20s.
#5 Number 5: CI Gunasekara
Conroy Ievers Gunasekara was a hard-hitting right-handed batsman who played for Ceylon from the 1940s to the 1960s. Born in 1920, Gunasekara went to Royal College, Colombo, and began his cricketing career there. Despite not receiving a formal coaching, the right-handed batsman filled in stadiums with his swashbuckling strokeplay.
His magnum opus was his innings of 135 in 1952 that came against the Marylebone Cricket Club for the Commonwealth XI. The Ceylonese batsman notched a gargantuan partnership with the Australian all-rounder Keith Miller, which eventually helped his side inflict an innings defeat on the touring English club.
Gunasekara was entrusted with the responsibility of leading Ceylon in 1960 at the age of 40 and in 1961 he hit the Australian spinner Lindsay Kline for three sixes in an over, effectively ending the chinaman bowler’s career.
Gunasekara was also a canny leg spinner and in T20s, a leg spinner always brings a certain x-factor.
#6 Number 6: Duleep Mendis
Known as the Black Prince of Sri Lanka cricket, Duleep Mendis along with Roy Dias nursed Sri Lanka during their incipient Test period. A burly right-hander, Mendis had the ability to ravage bowling attacks of all standards.
In 1984, in a test match against England at Lord’s, Mendis scored 111 off 143 balls including three sixes in the first innings and followed that up with a 97 ball 94. Ian Botham, unable to mollify the rampage of the Sri Lankan, resorted to bowling spin.
Duleep Mendis’s strong built and his towering sixes make him a perfect choice for a T20 team.
#7 Number 7: Gamini Goonasena (C)
Gamini Goonasena, while being only a net bowler, was picked to debut for Royal College in their annual encounter against St. Thomas at the age of sixteen, sending the cricketing fraternity into a state of shock. However, any doubts about his ability was laid to rest when he picked up four wickets in an innings to help his side triumph over the arch rivals St. Thomas College.
Being a promising leg-spinner, Goonasena left for England to pursue a career in the Royal Air Force but had to give up his ambitions and play for Nottinghamshire from 1953. During his stint there, the Sri Lankan spinner evolved as a middle order batsman.
He began an academic career at the Cambridge University and won the cricket ‘Blue’ each year. In 1957, he went on to captain the University of Cambridge against the University of Oxford, with his deputy being Ted Dexter, who would lead England in the future. Goonasena stroked 211 in the first innings of his team, which is till date the highest score by a Cambridge player and took 4 for 40 runs in the second innings of Oxford to help his team win by an innings and 186 runs. He also became the only Asian other than Ranjitsinhji, Duleepsinjhi and the Nawab of Pataudi Sr. to represent the Gentlemen of England team.
Goonasena performed the double 1000 runs and 100 wickets for Nottinghamshire twice in his career. Gamini Goonasena- a capable batsman and a shrewd leg spinner at number seven gives his team the much-needed balance.
Goonasena’s cricketing brain was also unparalleled as he was considered a captain head and shoulders above his contemporaries which included scholarly leaders of the ilk of Collin Cowdrey. Thus, he captains our side.
#8 Spinner- Abu Fuard
Abu Fuard was once the best off spinner in Asia. A product of Wesley College, Abu’s loopy, flighted, dipping off breaks were a tough proposition to handle. He was a tenacious man, whose 40 runs against India in Ahmadabad helped Sri Lanka win its first unofficial test in India.
His spin bowling was so good that Australia’s Ritchie Benaud once said that “we like to take this bloke, Abu to Australia.”
Abu Fuard was also a valiant administrator who played a key role in taking cricket to non-elite schools.
A tough man, a canny spinner and a useful batsman- Abu Fuard is the only specialist spinner in our team.
#9 Fast bowler: Rumesh Ratnayake
A strapping fast bowler with a slightly round-arm action, Ratnayake had the ability generate swing and pace alike. In a career plagued by injuries, Ratnayake managed stellar performances in New Zealand, Australia, and England. He hitting West Indies’ Larry Gomes on the face with a bouncer is a testament to how lethal he was.
The right arm fast bowler was also a useful lower-order batsman, whose cameos can turn T20 matches on their heads.
#10 Fast bowler: T.B Kehelgamuwa
T.B Kehelgamuwa was probably the fastest bowler produced by Sri Lanka, who played cricket during the pre-test era. A police officer by profession, Kehel was famous for running through batting line-ups through his sheer pace.
Educated at Dharamaraja College after having been spotted throwing down tins with a tennis ball at a break-neck speed, Kehelgamuwa rose to prominence when he picked up 8 wickets for 8 runs touring India to play against Indian schools. The fiery bowler also won the Best Bowler award at the Schoolboy Cricketer award in 1960 and 1961.
He was so fast during his peak that he clean bowled England’s Tom Graveney twice and Geoff Boycott once. Witnesses say that the English batsmen hardly had any time so much as to sight the ball.
#11 Fast bowler: D.S Jayasundera
Don Jayasundera was arguably the first fastest bowler Sri Lanka ever produced. Playing cricket for Ceylon during the 1930s and the 1940s, Jayasunadera was exceptional at clean bowling batsmen with sheer pace.
He consistently performed well against the Marylebone Cricket Club and teams from Madras.