Arjuna – a born leaderAugust 4, 2012, 12:00 pm
by Ramakrishnan Kaushik
Just five countries have won the 50-over World Cup, in 29 years and 10 editions. Only eight gentlemen have held aloft the trophy that symbolises global supremacy in one-day international cricket, eight individuals who have worn pride and commitment on their sleeve.
Arjuna Ranatunga belongs to that unique octet, a players’ captain if ever there was one, a true leader who led by example, who stood by his team, no matter what, and who was always ready to take on the establishment, mostly for a just cause but occasionally just to stir up the pot.
As he grew from chubby teenager to chubby middle-age, Ranatunga’s aura remained undiminished. If anything, the passage of time lent him greater allure. The Australians loved to hate him, the rest of the cricketing world loved him because he stood up to the big bad boys of world cricket, and forced them to take a backward step. In a way, he was a pioneer; other teams took a leaf out of the Ranatunga book once they realised that while Australia were good at giving it to oppositions, they weren’t so good at taking it themselves.
A million thoughts flitted through my mind as I made my way to the Ranatunga residence to meet the man who led Sri Lanka to the 1996 World Cup, who changed the way the world viewed Sri Lankan cricket, who today is not merely a Member of Parliament but also the Deputy Leader of the Democratic National Alliance. I recalled that March night in Lahore, when Ranatunga, bathed in smiles, received the World Cup from Benazir Bhutto, then Pakistan’s Prime Minister. Scenes of undiluted joy at the Gaddafi Stadium in Lahore burst forth from the deep recesses of memory. Apart from the Australian squad, well beaten in the final, and their supporters who were clearly in the minority, the entire stadium danced and cheered when the winning runs were brought up, fittingly by Ranatunga himself. It was a night of celebration, a night of vindication – hadn’t Australia refused to travel to Colombo to play their league tie citing security fears? – and a night when little David chopped mighty Goliath down to size.
I was a little apprehensive of the security that would greet me at Ranatunga’s residence, my driver was even more apprehensive of the traffic at that time of the morning in Colombo. Both our fears were unfounded. We made the drive in just over a quarter of an hour, reaching our destination 45 minutes ahead of schedule, and when we did enter the house, there was no sign that a VIP resided there.
The everyday morning sounds and smells of a regular household greet me as I wait for Ranatunga, but the security personnel I had expected to see were nowhere to be seen. "There are a couple of them," Ranatunga tells me, "but do I look like I need security?"
It wasn’t said with the nervous laugh of a man looking over his shoulder, but with the conviction of a man who knows he has carved a permanent place for himself in the heart of every Sri Lankan. The World Cup triumph was a seminal moment in the history of Sri Lankan cricket, yes, but it was also critical for a nation in times of distress and anguish, caused by the long drawn civil war. That triumph put a smile on the faces of the people for a while as they forgot their sorrows temporarily and rejoiced in the momentous accomplishment of 15 driven individuals. Even today, as Ranatunga talks about an event that took place 16 and a half years back, his chest swells with pride, his voice chokes with emotion.
"Every time I leave home, and every time I return home, especially after a long, tiring day, when I look at it. It fills me up with indescribable joy," he says. The ‘it’ in question is a massive photograph of Bhutto handing over the World Cup to Ranatunga, the only cricketing touch to the house. The rest are paintings – with one of Mona Lisa the most prominent. "Nothing to do with me," Ranatunga clarifies, almost too quickly. "I don’t have any interest in art; my passions in life have always been cricket and politics."
Ranatunga was never pretentious when he played his cricket, and he doesn’t see any reason to be so now. Clad in a lungi and bare chested, he admits he hasn’t been taking care of himself because of time constraints, but is happy to laugh at himself, not unaware that even in his playing days, his weight generated much mirth. "Got the job done, didn’t I?" he says with a twinkle, ever the rebel with a cause.
The World Cup success wasn’t an accident. It was the happy consequence of two years of planning, of working out strategies and assigning roles to players – "Only Aravinda (de Silva) had no specific role. We always tried to keep him very happy so that he could go out and score hundreds!"
Ranatunga was the master of mind games, but not even he had bargained for the impact his remarks on Shane Warne, and the Waugh brothers, on the eve of the final would have on the Australian psyche. At the insistence of well-meaning but mischievous friends in the Indian media, Ranatunga said before the final that Warne held no threats for subcontinental batsmen, and that the Waugh twins were ‘overrated’. "Recently, Steve told me in Australia that they had been totally ratted by those comments," Ranatunga chortles. "It was worth it."
Many more tales, and a couple of cups of tea later, with the journey to the World Cup having been unravelled, he walks me to the door with "Come back again when you have the time." It’s an invitation too tempting to pass up.
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