For the first century of its existence, the Taj Mahal was unknown outside India. If there was a cricketing equivalent of this monument it would be Aravinda de Silva. For much of his career, Aravinda was not recognized abroad. The World Cup victory changed that, but not enough.
The Indian cricket historian Ramachandra Guha has argued that Sunil Gavaskar was a superior batsman to Viv Richards. Though Viv Richards was much more destructive, he never had to face his own bowlers. Gavaskar not only faced Garner, Marshall and Holding, but he mastered them. He scored a scarcely believable 13 centuries against the feared West Indian bowlers. That is by far the highest number of centuries against the Windies, which was the leading attack of that era.
By the same token, Aravinda was a superior batsman to Brian Lara and Sachin Tendulkar. Not many are aware that Aravinda is the top century scorer against Pakistan, the leading team of his time. As the scorer of 8 centuries against Imran Khan, Wasim Akram, Waqar Younis and Abdul Qadir, Aravinda should be placed on a pedestal.
Lara and Tendulkar never had to wallow in the darkness of playing for a minnow. So, their aggregate runs will be higher than Aravinda. But, neither of them have won the World Cup with their own bat.
The clincher in the comparison is that Aravinda vanquished the top team of his time. Sri Lanka has six test wins in Pakistan, most of them engineered by Aravinda’s brillance.
I first heard whispers of Aravinda’s batting in 1983, when I was 10. My coach was in awe of the merciless hitting of this tiny prodigy. Though he played for a minor school DS Senanayake MV, his batting was already the stuff of fables.
It was only in 1985, when Aravinda hit his first hundred against Pakistan that I understood why I managed to watch the highlights on tape. There was no live coverage of the series in India, where I then lived.
He was cavalier but correct. The pint-sized Aravinda batted with an upright elbow, that ensured a straight swing of the bat. He could also play the cross bat shots with savage power.
Imran Khan was at his peak at that time. He was fast, with an exceptionally fluid runup. Imran not only generated pace from his exaggerated jump, but he always landed the ball on its seam.
Aravinda ravaged him. Aravinda, then only 19, brought his first century by swinging him over mid-wicket. It was the first test in Faisalabad. Aravinda de Silva recalls expecting a bouncer as he neared his century in his autobiography (co-authored by Shahriar Khan):
"Sure enough, when I was on 94, a bouncer from Imran came my way. I could do nothing else but hook it for six. The ball cannoned back from the stands at about the same time Imran’s flowing locks came to rest in his follow through. He grunted a "well batted" as Asantha de Mel came down the wicket to shake my hand."
Abdul Qadir, the foremost spinner of his time, was at top of his game. The teenaged Wasim Akram could swing the ball at a rapid pace. But, Aravinda defied them. Another century followed in the series, though Sri Lanka were trounced 2-0.
Later in mid 1986, I caught my first glimpse of Aravinda close at hand. It was at the SSC nets in Colombo. Somebody was throwing the ball to him from a distance of 10 yards. The ball must have been coming to him at almost 100 mph. His reflexes were quick and devastating. He had all the time in the world for his shots. The SSC nets had to be cleared because the power of the shots was a threat to the onlookers!
Like George Headley (the Black Bradman), Aravinda was burdened by the fact that he was a maestro in the weakest team. The Sri Lankan batting in those days was vulnerable and impulsive. Aravinda stood out. He was not just a gifted batsman, but he had the gall.
George Headley averaged 60 in his test career, but like Aravinda he was often on the losing side. Aravinda and Headley careers are distinguished by the contrast between their batting prowess and their team’s stature.
Like the West Indies in its first decades of test cricket, Sri Lanka played infrequently. They were treated like poor relations.
The poor relation conquered cricket’s Mount Everest by winning the 1996 World Cup. There was only one result possible when Aravinda arrived at the fall of the first wicket. I vividly remember his trance-like concentration on that night.
He opened his scoring with perfect on-drive for 3. His footwork was nimble against Shane Warne. Warne huffed and puffed, but went wicketless. It was his stroke play against McGrath pin-point accuracy that sealed the match.
Soon after the 1996 World Cup, I got to know Aravinda. He was always courteous and humble. He spoke with a soft voice, that was completely unlike his batting.
Perhaps, the most fitting compliment given to Aravinda was by the physiotherapist Alex Kontouri. Kontouri was the Sri Lankan physio for many years and is now with the Australians. He said that "Aravinda is his best friend in the world and also the best batsman in the world".
Highest number of centuries against Pakistan
Centuries Highest Score
Aravinda de Silva 8 168
Alan Border 6 153
Greg Chappell 6 235
Rahul Dravid 5 270
Sunil Gavaskar 5 166
Polly Umrigar 5 117
Mohinder Amarnath 4 120
Ken Barrington 4 148
Ian Bell 4 119
Sanath Jayasuriya 4 253