Rarely has one player so profoundly influenced the fortunes of their country’s cricket team as Arjuna Ranatunga did for Sri Lanka. When he took over as captain in 1988 he inherited a team that had failed to make an impression in either one-day international (ODI) or Test cricket, despite having some very talented players to call upon. Ranatunga knew that he had cricketers with great ability, but that they lacked conviction in that talent and had not performed as a team. His task was to forge a competitive unit from these gifted players and to imbue them with the belief that they could not only compete, but win. By the time he retired as captain Sri Lanka had the reputation of being tough to beat in both ODIs and Test matches and had won the 1996 World Cup. How the fiery left-hander achieved such success in his eleven years in charge is one of recent cricket’s most remarkable stories.
Ranatunga played a key role for his country right from the start of his career, making his international debut against England on Valentines Day, 1982, aged just eighteen. There was no massacre, but Sri Lanka did win to level the series and the young Ranatunga scored a vital 42. It was significant that his first game should end in victory and must have given the future captain a desire for more success. Just three days later Ranatunga made his Test debut, along with all ten of his team-mates, in Sri Lanka’s inaugural Test match against England at the P.Saravanamuttu Stadium, Colombo. England won the match by 7 wickets, but the Sri Lankans gave them a scare early on, and Ranatunga scored his country’s first Test fifty, a fluent and assured effort for one so young. It was clear to all those who saw him that day that Arjuna Ranatunga was a player to watch.
Forging a team
The state of Sri Lankan cricket when Ranatunga was appointed captain was grim. A cricketing nation which boasted some very promising players had failed to develop, despite having played in all four World Cups and in Tests for six years. Their dismal record illustrates this perfectly. In 27 Test matches Sri Lanka had managed just 2 wins and 10 draws, losing the other 15. They had fared even worse in ODIs, notching up just 16 wins in 87 games, losing 67, with 4 no results. Something radical was needed and the twenty four year old Ranatunga was not, perhaps, the obvious remedy. However, those who knew him and that, presumably, included the Sri Lankan cricket authorities, were sure that he could turn things around. Perhaps, even his most ardent supporters, though, could not have imagined just how far he would take the team.
Ranatunga’s first task was clear – he had to mould a group of individuals, some of whom had immense talent, into a team and engender that team with a fighting spirit that would keep it strong whatever it had to face. It must have helped that Ranatunga himself was a brave and strong-willed man, who did not back away from a fight and who was willing to go as far as he thought necessary to protect his players. Those who played under his captaincy must have felt confident that he would back them if they needed it and that all they had to worry about was performing on the field. Such leadership is not always easy to gauge, but cricket is a game played so much in the mind, that knowing you are protected must help you to relax and play your best. In this way Ranatunga was able to get the maximum out of his players as individuals and Sri Lanka as a team.
A well-knit team with a competitive edge is often hard to beat in sport, but the captain of a cricket team also needs intelligence, tactical ability, good instincts and the strength of character to follow those instincts, even when they go against perceived wisdom. Ranatunga had all of these and he demonstrated them each time he took the field. Like all good leaders he had some bad days, when his plans went awry or players let him down. But these were the exceptions, and they were heavily outnumbered by the good days. That did not always mean Sri Lanka won, because they were often up against better teams, but it did mean that they competed and made sure that if they were beaten it was not without a fight.
The statistics confirm Sri Lanka’s remarkable improvement under Ranatunga’s captaincy. Of the 61 Test matches he skippered 12 were won, 25 drawn and 22 lost. The turnaround in fortunes was even more marked in ODIs, where 96 of the 215 matches he captained were won, 109 lost and 9 ended with no result. This means that 47% of ODIs were won under his leadership, compared to just 19% before he took over. However, no matter how good these numbers are, they cannot compete with Ranatunga’s crowning achievement as Sri Lankan captain, claiming ODI cricket’s greatest prize.
The ultimate triumph
There could be no more resounding confirmation of just how far Ranatunga had taken Sri Lankan cricket than the winning of the 1996 World Cup. For a nation which had so woefully underperformed in this showcase of one-day cricket it was a dramatic transformation. The talented Sri Lankan players finally gave full expression of their ability under the astute leadership of Ranatunga.
Tactically, Ranatunga and his team were spot on. Like several other nations in the 1996 tournament they employed pinch-hitters at the top of the order to exploit the field restrictions in the first 15 overs. However, in Sanath Jayasuriya they had one of the best exponents of this role, a player who hit the ball so far and so often that he could tear opposition bowling attacks to shreds in just a few overs. By the time the first 15 overs were completed Sri Lanka were often already well on their way to setting a big total or had made significant inroads into the runs they were chasing. There was no better evidence of the destructive nature of Jayasuriya’s batting than the quarter final against England, when he struck 82 from just 44 deliveries, including 13 fours and 3 sixes, making light of Sri Lanka’s chase for victory.
Ranatunga’s role was to motivate his players, as well as make the tough tactical calls. None could have been more difficult than when he won the toss in the final against Australia. Many could not believe his decision to put the Australian’s in, least of all Mark Taylor, the Australian captain, who must have felt that he had won the toss, as he would have batted anyway. Ranatunga went with his instinct, backing his players to restrict their opponents and chase down another total. It was a brave decision, which flew in the face of conventional thinking, as no team had ever won the World Cup final batting second.
After a very good start Australia struggled as the Sri Lankan bowlers put the pressure on. In the end they only managed a below-par 241, defendable, but far less than they would have expected. For once the pinch-hitters failed for Sri Lanka and the match was in the balance. However, Aravinda de Silva, a player possessing sublime batting skill, stepped up and scored a magnificent century. His innings was built over two big partnerships, the first a superb 125 with Asanka Gurusinha, the second a quick fire 97 with Ranatunga. It was fitting that the captain, who had so ably led his players throughout the tournament, should secure the trophy by scoring the winning runs.
Defending his own
Throughout his time as Sri Lankan captain Ranatunga had never shirked from his responsibilities as a leader. This led him through some hostile waters, which he negotiated seemingly without fear. Arguably, his toughest challenges came when he saw his players threatened and knew it was he who had to stand up and defend them.
In the modern era no player has courted more controversy than the great Sri Lankan off-spinner, Muttiah Muralitharan, whose bowling action has been questioned in some quarters from very early in his career. These suspicions have always been particularly strong in Australia, culminating in the only occasions when Muralitharan has actually been no-balled for throwing, or ‘chucking’ as the popular vernacular would have it. Each time Ranatunga was the Sri Lankan captain and was called upon to act in defence of his player. Two of those occasions are worth considering in further detail, as they highlight Ranatunga’s deep concern for his players and the lengths he was willing to go to protect them.
The first incident occurred in 1995 at the high profile Boxing Day Test Match, played against Australia at the Melbourne Cricket Ground. The Australian umpire, Darrell Hair, no-balled Muralitharan 7 times for throwing in his first 3 overs. The young bowler was naturally distraught and his captain, Ranatunga, stepped in to defend him, arguing with Hair over his call, before leaving the field to consult with Sri Lankan team management. On his return Ranatunga argued again with Hair, before later switching Muralitharan to the other end, where New Zealand umpire, Steve Dunne, did not no-ball him for throwing. It is worth noting that when Muralitharan’s action was later tested by experts appointed by the International Cricket Council (ICC) no problems were found with it and he was cleared to carry on bowling in the same way he always had.
However, the controversy over Muralitharan’s bowling action did not go away and in 1999, on Sri Lanka’s next tour of Australia, another, even more explosive, incident took place. It happened in a one-day match with England played at the Adelaide Oval, where Australian umpire Ross Emerson no-balled Muralitharan for throwing. This time Ranatunga was so incensed that he decided to protest the decision by taking his players to the edge of the cricket field, just inside the boundary, where he again consulted with Sri Lankan team management. Play was held up for 12 minutes, before resuming. The aftermath saw questions raised over Muralitharan’s action, Emerson’s umpiring and calls for Ranatunga to be banned. In the end the Sri Lankan captain was fined and given a suspended ban, which meant he had to be very careful over his future conduct. Though Ranatunga's actions may have been extreme and were deplored by many, it sent a clear message to his players that their captain was willing to put his own career on the line to protect them.
When Ranatunga departed as captain of Sri Lanka he left a team that had a reputation for being tough to beat and that played some very attractive cricket. They were no longer considered underachievers and expectations for the future were high. Results since Ranatunga left suggest that Sri Lanka have continued to improve, maintaining their position as difficult opponents, particularly at home. This applies to both formats of the international game, but particularly to Test cricket, where Sri Lanka have become much stronger. I imagine that the current generation of Sri Lankan players, as well as those of the past, would highlight the major influence Ranatunga had on building the spirit of Sri Lankan cricket, forging a team that could become a force in the international game.