When Sanath killed it at the death…with the ball, that is!

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One of the most well-known unknown cricket facts widely shared on the Internet is that Sanath Jayasuriya has more ODI wickets than Shane Warne. It goes without saying that Sanath’s trailblazing exploits with the bat upstaged his bowling prowess during his time. Even though his prowess with the ball is widely acknowledged now, his bowling career still doesn’t get the nuanced recognition it deserves.

Take a look at his death bowling for instance. Since 2002, the year since which ball-by-ball data for matches is available, and until 2009, the year in which he last bowled at the death, he had bowled 142.2 overs between the 41st and 50th overs, a number that is only bettered by Muthiah Muralidaran among Sri Lankans. His economy rate of 6.19 during these overs is better than both Lasith Malinga’s and Chaminda Vaas’.

Given his ability to bowl flat and quick, and his canny variations in pace and the angle of delivery, Sanath was ahead of his time not only with the bat but also with the ball. At the death, he consistently clocked north of 100kmph, slinging the ball into the blockhole from his left-arm angle—a skill that would have made any modern shorter-format left-arm spinner envious. Accordingly, it is unsurprising that Sanath was one of the go-to men of his captains at the death.

As an homage to this less spoken-about skill of the Sri Lankan legend, here we recount five of his most memorable death-over masterclasses.

5. An Attempted Heist at Queenstown

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New Zealand came into the 2nd ODI against Sri Lanka at Queenstown in 2006 trailing the five-match ODI series by one match. After being sent into bat by New Zealand, Sri Lanka raked in 224 for the loss of 7 wickets, thanks to Kumar Sangakkara’s 89 off 122 balls. Needing 225 to square the series, New Zealand found themselves 9 down for 224 with one more over to go.

James Franklin had earlier rescued the home team with an excellent rearguard effort after the visitors had them 7 down for 175. However, with one more run needed for a win, he wasn’t the one on strike. Taking strike for New Zealand was Michael Mason who was yet to face a ball. Chaminda Vaas and Lasith Malinga had completed their quota of overs and Farveez Maharoof was the only seamer who had overs remaining. However, Sri Lanka’s skipper Mahela Jayawardene entrusted the veteran Sanath Jayasuriya with the responsibility of bowling the last over.

With fielders brought into the circle to prevent the batsman from dropping and running, Sanath began to do what he was well accustomed to—firing the ball in full and straight. Three balls almost into the blockhole meant that Mason couldn’t do much. With pressure mounting, the Kiwi batsman tried to belt the fourth ball, which ended up as a full toss, only to connect with thin air. After the fifth ball was also dug out to the short mid-on fielder for no run, New Zealand needed one run to win off the final ball with one wicket remaining. After having bowled 5 dots in a row, Sanath fired in another fuller one straight, hoping to make it 6 in a row. However, this time, Mason decided to use his feet and managed to smash the ball down the ground for a four, winning his side the match by a wicket.

Even though the veteran could not seal the game for his side, he did well to drag the game to the last ball.


4. Nailing the Coffin Shut in the Nidahas Trophy

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It was the 7th match of the Nidahas Trophy tournament in 1998 that involved Sri Lanka, India, and New Zealand. The rain had left wet patches on the pitch at the Sinhalese Sports Club in Colombo and the game was reduced to 36 overs each.

India won the toss and elected to field first and Sri Lanka ended up with 171 for 8 with Aravinda de Silva scoring 62 off 86 balls. Chasing 172 for victory, India found themselves 7 down for 162 at the end of the 35th over. They needed to get 10 off the last over with three wickets in hand and had their highest scorer Robin Singh at the crease, who had eked out 50 off 73 balls.

It was our man who captain Arjuna Ranatunga turned to to bowl the final over. He got Anil Kumble stumped off the first ball of the over. Venkatesh Prasad turned the strike over to Robin Singh second ball and it was now up to the well-settled Indian southpaw to get 9 off 4. However, Sanath did him for pace as Robin Singh could hit the next ball only as far as Mahela Jayawardene at wide mid-on. With just one wicket remaining, Harbhajan Singh stormed down the track the following ball only to be stumped by Romesh Kaluwitharana. Having to defend 10 off 6, Sanath completed his job with 2 balls to spare, giving away only 1 run and picking up 3 wickets.


3. Defying Dravid in the Coca-Cola Cup

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Sri Lanka and India locked horns in the 3rd match of yet another tri-nation tournament involving India, Sri Lanka, and New Zealand in 2001, this time named the Coco-Cola Cup. Sri Lanka elected to bat first after winning the toss at the R. Premadasa Stadium and posted 221 for the loss of 9 wickets, thanks to Avishka Gunawardene’s 63 off 107 balls. In response, India found themselves 4 down for 71 before being salvaged by Sourav Ganguly and Rahul Dravid. Ganguly’s dismissal on 69 off 105 triggered another mini-collapse and India reached the 49th over needing 17 off 12 balls with three wickets in hand.

Even though all of Sri Lanka’s seamers had overs up their sleeves, Sanath, who was Sri Lanka’s captain at that time, decided to take it upon himself to bowl the penultimate over. As you may have already guessed, the Indian batsmen had to contend with a salvo of fast yorkers in excess of 100kmph. Sameer Dinghe survived a stumping chance when Kaluwitharana failed to collect a yorker as India managed to pinch 5 off the first 4 balls. Dravid, who was on 47 off 76, now had two deliveries to face and India still needed 12 off 8.

However, 12 off 8 soon became 12 off 6 as Sanath fired in a couple of more yorkers and Dravid could do zilch. In fact, off the final ball, Dravid advanced down the pitch and missed a wide yorker but Kaluwitharana would fumble once again to lend Dravid a lifeline. Sanath gave away only 5 runs off that over and India entered the final over needing 12 more runs. Kumara Dharmasena would bowl another 5-run over to help Sri Lanka win by 6 runs.  


2. Averting Azharuddin in 1997

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Following the fateful Test series between Sri Lanka and India in 1997, during which Sanath scored 340, which was the then-highest score by a Sri Lankan in Tests, and Sri Lanka scored 952 in an innings, which is the highest a team has scored in an innings in Tests, the two teams engaged in a five-match duel in ODIs.

India won the toss in the first match at the R. Premadasa Stadium and invited Sri Lanka to bat, and Sri Lanka responded majestically by plundering 302 off their 50 overs for the loss of 4 wickets. Sanath struck 73 off 52 balls while Marvan Atapattu scored 118 off 153 balls. Chasing a stiff target, Ajay Jadeja’s 119 off 121 balls and Mohammad Azharuddin’s 106 off 114 helped India to 294 for the loss of 5 wickets in 49 overs. This meant that the visitors needed 9 runs to win off the final over.

Captain Ranatunga once again vested the responsibility of bowling the last over with Sanath. Nayan Mongia was run out off the first ball as he tried to give Azharuddin the strike. Rajesh Chauhan managed to turn the strike over next ball but Azharuddin could only manage a single off the third ball. With 7 needed off 3 Rajesh Chauhan failed to middle his slog against a low full toss and was caught at point. However, Azharuddin managed to get back on strike while the ball was in the air and he needed to get 7 off 2.

Nonetheless, Sanath bowled two back-to-back yorkers and Azharuddin managed to take only two off each ball. This meant Sri Lanka won the close-fought game by 2 runs and Sanath added another feather to his cap.


1. Felling the Helicopter at Rajkot

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Sri Lanka toured India for a four-match ODI series in early 2007. The first ODI was washed out and Sri Lanka scored 257 for the loss of 8 wickets on the back of Kumar Sangakkara’s 110 off 127 balls in the 2nd ODI after being put into bat at Rajkot. In reply, India were in a position of strength by the 46th over, requiring 24 off 30 balls with 5 wickets in hand. However, Lasith Malinga’s yorker dismissed Dinesh Karthik in the 46th over to pry the game open. A combined effort from Malinga, Farveez Maharoof, and Sanath thereafter meant that India needed 11 off the last over with 3 wickets in hand.

Captain Mahela Jayawardene threw the ball to the veteran Sanath. But taking strike was MS Dhoni, one of the greatest finishers of all time in ODIs. You thought Lasith Malinga slipping his yorkers under Dhoni’s helicopters in the 2014 WT20 final was cool? Well, Sanath did it even before it was cool by bazooka-ing Dhoni’s helicopters with his yorkers and clever changes of line.

Anil Kumble was run out off the first ball as Dhoni tried to come back for a second to retain the strike after slamming a yorker to long on. Sanath cramped an advancing Dhoni for room next ball by firing the ball into his pads and followed that up with a perfect yorker, making it two dot balls in a row. Even though Dhoni managed to come down the track and hit the fourth ball for a four, bringing the equation down to 6 off 2, Sanath fired the ball wider when Dhoni attempted an encore off the following ball, and an excellent catch by Maharoof brought his innings to an end. Sreesanth faced the final ball, but he could not get bat on ball to a fast wide yorker and Sri Lanka won the match by 5 runs. Sanath gave away only 5 runs off the over despite bowling 5 of his 6 balls at Dhoni.