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The emperor at 50



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Arjuna Ranatunga celebrates the greatest moment of Sri Lankan cricket after scoring the winning runs on the 17th March 1996 in the World Cup final against Australia. (Files)


by Rex Clementine


Some sportsmen are still remembered fondly although they are long retired. The thrills they provided the fans through their exceptional skills could be forgotten as time passes by, but the things they stood for in life are long revered. Strong leaders aren’t the most popular ones. The decisions they have taken in life for the common good have their admirers and critics. As a captain and later an administrator Arjuna Ranatunga was such a leader. The Emperor of Sri Lankan cricket turns 50 today and looking back at all those years he has few regrets.


Earmarked for greatness by the greatest cricketer on earth Sir Garfield Sobers and nurtured by the visionary Gamini Dissanayake, the surprise would have been only if Arjuna hadn’t made the grade.


Perhaps the greatest tribute to Arjuna was paid by Steve Waugh. During one of the famous Sirasa Cricket Shows when Brian Thomas needled the legendary Australian captain about the Aussies’ crude sledging, Waugh came up with an interesting remark. "Arjuna Ranatunga is the worst sledger in the world, mate," Waugh said. "One Ranatunga is equal to 11 Australians. So why are you complaining!?"


Arjuna sees it differently. "We knew Australians sledge. When we toured Australia in 1995 we adopted an eye for an eye strategy. We were ready to sledge whoever who sledged us. Then we found something very interesting. We realised the Aussies were very good at giving (sledging), but they were very bad when we sledged back. They weren’t used to it and more importantly didn’t expect it from us," Ranatunga recalled.


The competitor he is, Arjuna from a very young age enjoyed seeing the opponent cracking under pressure. Naguleswaran from St. Patrick’s, Jaffna was an impressive seam bowler. He was brought to Colombo to play for CCC. During an SSC – CCC clash in Colombo in early 80s, Arjuna was facing Naguleswaran. Arjuna had just got out of school and Naguleswaran was stunned when Arjuna called him, ‘Ado Kotiya!’ Nothing further was said. But Nagulewaran was off target that day and lost the battle.


Naguleswaran and Arjuna met again when they were team-mates at Maharajas. And they were best of buddies. A close relationship developed between the two and Naguleswaran who migrated to New Zealand remembers how Arjuna went out of his way to make him feel comfortable during his time in Colombo.


"After the first meeting, I thought this chap was a racist. But far from it. When we came close I realised what a fine person he was. He had some remarkable qualities," says Naguleswaran, whose son Niranjan has represented New Zealand Under-19.


How Arjuna would have played the modern game? Would he have skipped international games to earn more money in IPL? Would he have come up with petty excuses for missing international matches? Would he have called up the help of politicians to skip a Test Match at Lord’s because IPL money was at stake? Would he have had a player agent?


"People look up to us as cricketers. People have lot of respect for cricketers in this country. We have to be role models. Soon after the 1996 World Cup I was offered a ridiculous sum to appear in a television commercial. I was father of two kids and the game wasn’t financially rewarding. I took a tough decision to not to appear in the commercial and I am happy about it."


"Player agents are a curse," snaps Arjuna. But would he have had one if he were playing today. "Well, I don’t think player agents would have got attracted to be with me. There’s no financial gain for them as I don’t do any television commercials."


"There’s nothing bad in T-20. I would have enjoyed that format. But my concern is that T-20 is going out of control and it is harming the game," notes Ranatunga.


The principles Arjuna has stood for in his life don’t seem to be attracting the same reverence it did a decade ago.


Arjuna’s beloved SSC surprised many fans when they voted against him during a Cricket Board election. This was a few months after naming a gate after him along Maitland Place. Angered by the move, SSC membership stood up and voted out the SSC Ex-Co at the club’s next AGM.


Modern day cricketers tend to skip one format so that they can continue to earn lucrative sums playing in various T-20s leagues around the world. Fans seem to endorse that too. One of the arguments put forward by player agents is that cricketers have short careers and they need to maximize their earnings during their careers.


The very players whom Arjuna nurtured when he was captain of the national team turned against him when he was Board Chairman in 2008. Those players earned the maximum from their IPL contracts, but Sri Lankan cricket suffered severe setbacks from which it will never recover.


Some players and their agent worked round the clock to oust Arjuna as SLC chief. They teamed up with a politician to achieve their goal. Arjuna was ousted. With SLC in disarray, the politician on his own entered into television deals with companies blacklisted by SLC. The board suffered losses to the tune of millions of dollars. The players brought in their near and dear ones as cricket administrators. Today both the game and the players are suffering due to the shortsighted decisions of the very men whom they brought into administration. Karmic forces seem to be at work.


When Arjuna entered politics in 2000, respected Indian cricket writer Ayaz Menon wrote, ‘politics is not Arjuna’s cup of tea.’ It has proved right. Never a man to compromise Arjuna failed to toe the line with the projects of his political bosses.


In 2001, soon after entering politics, Arjuna’s party was using his popularity and got him to address a rally. He was told to run down the Opposition Leader. He agreed to speak in the rally, but refused to run down the target for he saw no valid reasons in doing so.


Once when he was captain, a political colleague of Reggie Ranatunga wanted to speak to Arjuna on something. Reggie, a veteran politician, informed his son the political standing of his colleague and see whether he could help. Arjuna received a call from the politician, who asked whether certain compromises could be made in selecting a player who was close to him. Arjuna was angry. He chose some unprintable words to tell off the politician and hung up the phone. Perhaps Arjuna should have taken a leaf out of some other Sri Lankan cricketers who have entered politics and compromise on selections.


What’s next for Arjuna is an interesting question. No one knows what political party he represents now. There was a move sometime back to bring him as the Manger of the national cricket team. The move was shot down quickly.


Arjuna continues to do what he likes. He enjoys his simple lifestyle. He spends lots of time with his two children – Dhyan and Thyangie. He continues to show loyalty to institutions despite setbacks and backstabbing. On Thursday he was in India. He arrived in Colombo on Friday and drove up to Kandy the same day to represent Old Anandians in a cricket match at Pallekele on Saturday. That evening he was involved in an alms giving. Until recently he continued to represent SSC in Division III cricket.


What Arjuna achieved as a leader will be quite tough to match. Winning the World Cup was only part of the success. The hope he instilled and the confidence he gave the players are hard to be matched. The patriotism he instilled in the team went a long way in Sri Lanka’s World Cup success. He offered Sri Lankan cricket many things. But his greatest contribution was taking away the fear factor.


His attention to minute detail was something unique to him. The day before the World Cup final the Sri Lankans took a look at the wicket at Gaddafi Stadium. It was flat. The seniors were adamant that they should bat first. The wicket was tempting, but Arjuna wasn’t prepared to go by the gut feeling. Later that night together with Duleep Mendis, the Manager, he travelled to the ground and took a further look at the conditions and realized the dew factor was going to play a major role. On that historic day of 17th March 1996, the Australian bowlers struggled to grip the ball due to the dew. Arjuna had called correctly.


His kids find fault with him for not making more hundreds. But Arjuna is content. "The great game is not about numbers," he says.


Mahela failed, Sanga failed, but one day one captain will lead Sri Lanka to a World Cup win. However, there will be no leader like Arjuna. He wasn’t merely a leader. He was the Emperor of Sri Lankan cricket.


 


 


 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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