Five years ago, when India were in Australia, I was intrigued by the manner in which so many cricketers from around the world had made that country their second home. One such was Asanka Gurusinha, one of the stars of Sri Lanka’s 1996 World Cup win.
Even though he was overshadowed by many of his team-mates, Gurusinha’s contribution through that tournament cannot be underestimated. When I sought an appointment to meet him in Melbourne, the only time that worked for both of us was lunch on Christmas day.
With restaurants, pubs and everything in between closed, we were stuck for choices and met at a McDonald’s. Not your typical Christmas lunch, but then Gurusinha is not your typical story.
Not only was he generous with his time, he was also friendly and helpful in a typically Sri Lankan way, insisting that he drop myself and my friend and colleague, Madhu Jawali of the Deccan Herald newspaper, off to a point from which we could find our way back to our accommodation.
While he looked a little less intimidating than during his batting days (as you will see in the photo below), he recalled every little bit about that World Cup with clarity. Take a stroll down memory lane with this edition of MyCricketPhoto:
It’s the afternoon of Christmas day in Melbourne. The streets are utterly and truly deserted. The locals are all indoors, not so much sheltering from the scorching sun but recovering from having washed down a big lunch with the odd gin and tonic. You can hop on a tram, bus or train for free, but you’ll be quite alone. It’s a day spent with family, or friends, or both.
Unless, of course, you are a stranger in a strange land.
And that was precisely what one Indian and one Sri Lankan were. Meet Asanka Gurusinha, the forgotten hero of Sri Lanka’s golden run to glory in the 1996 World Cup. Each of his teammates from that win, from Arjuna Ranatunga to Aravinda de Silva, from Roshan Mahanama to Muttiah Muralitharan, are big men in the world of cricket, holding important posts in administration or cushy jobs that came to them because of their success on the field. Gurusinha has had nothing to do with cricket for more than a decade. Instead, he spends half his week travelling interstate, working in sales for a company that publishes extremely niche magazines, dealing with trucking or agriculture or fertilizer.
Gurusinha pulls up to our meeting in his Jaguar, and the man who steps out is nothing like what you might remember from 1996. A burly left-hander who wielded his bat like a club, concentrating fiercely, eyes blinking exaggeratedly to punctuate every second he had to wait as the bowler set off from his mark, Gurusinha was a bearded warrior in every sense.
The man who greets you with a cheery Sri Lankan hello in 2014 is clean-shaven, perhaps a few pounds lighter, soft-spoken and sensitive. When you begin with a question about the 1996 World Cup, you suspect he’s tired of repeating himself, but, no.
“To be honest, I don’t think we’ll ever get tired of talking about that. That brings back a lot of good memories. And, with the World Cup coming up in a couple of months, it has brought back thoughts of what we did,” says Gurusinha. “If I look at Sri Lanka, I think they have a really good chance. There’s a balance to the team that is better than the 2011 team. Batting is getting strong, the middle-order issues are getting sorted, the bowlers are coming through. Because of that I want to watch a few games and see how things are going.”
In the 1996 World Cup, Gurusinha was given a specific role. “There were five senior players in that line-up. Arjuna, Aravinda, Roshan, Hashan (Tillakaratne) and myself. One of things we realised was that you can’t tell Aravinda anything. He’s an unbelievable player, so you just let him be, let him go and do his thing. My job was to bat 50 overs. These were my instructions, and they said to me: “We don’t care what happens, what other people say or think,” says Gurusinha. “The openers had a licence to attack, with the guarantee that they would not be dropped, irrespective of what happened. We had to give them that confidence, because we knew, if they clicked, it was going to be an unbelievable day for us.”
Funnily enough, though he was told to focus on batting time, Gurusinha ended up hitting the most sixes in the tournament. In fact, in one game, when he was specifically told to seal one end up, he went berserk anyway. “That was against Kenya. In the first game against Zimbabwe, I didn’t know that the World Cup record then for sixes in an innings was six, Viv Richards (Richards actually hit seven sixes in their win against Sri Lanka in 1987). I didn’t have a clue. When I got out and came people said I could’ve just got one more six … Against Kenya, I was going after that,” he says. “I was told to calm down, but I decided that I was going after these guys. We were on a good wicket, so it wasn’t a worry.” (He hit three sixes against Kenya.)
Barely six months after winning the World Cup, when everything changed for cricket in Sri Lanka, just when he should have been soaking in the adulation and cashing in, Gurusinha left the country to move to Australia for good. “There was a temptation to stay. But it got to the stage where I wasn’t enjoying the game. There were a lot of politics and it reached a stage where Arjuna and myself were not seeing eye to eye. And it’s very difficult as a player when that happens with your captain,” recalls Gurusinha. “I’m someone who has never put up with politics. And that’s probably why I am not back in Sri Lanka working with the board, even though I’ve had a lot of offers. I’ll struggle if there’s politics. I can’t get involved with that. I got a contract here and I came down. The board made it very difficult for me even then. We had a tour of New Zealand. I had three months’ playing and was selected to go to New Zealand. It’s a 3.5-hour flight from Melbourne to Auckland. But they wanted me to fly to Sri Lanka, which is about 24 hours door-to-door, spend just one day there and fly to Auckland. I said that was a joke. They said I had to do that if I wanted to be on that tour. I was a bit arrogant as well, and I just said, ‘no’. They said they wouldn’t select me if I didn’t come. I sent a letter saying I was withdrawing, for personal reasons. Straight after I wrote a letter to the board and released it to the media, announcing my retirement.”
Gurusinha suggests that the fact that Dav Whatmore, Sri Lanka’s coach at the time, insisted he drop to No. 3 was the source of his problems. Gurusinha’s move one spot down from opening meant he had taken Sanjaeewa Ranatunga’s place, and this did not please the elder Ranatunga overly.
After moving to Australia, Gurusinha played for North Melbourne and Prahran, as captain and coach, and there was a short while when Darren Berry pushed for his inclusion in Victoria’s one-day team. But when it became clear that an overseas player would not be allowed to represent the state, Gurusinha packed it in.
Going back to the 1996 World Cup, Gurusinha remembers that black day for cricket when fans at the Eden Gardens expressed their disgust at India’s performance so vehemently that the semifinal could not be taken to its logical conclusion. “In a World Cup, one of the things you need to do is play according to your strengths. The Indians didn’t do that. I know the pitch was re-laid and all that, but they played to neutralise our strength, which was chasing. They put us in just on that basis,” says Gurusinha. “When we walked into that game, we knew two things: it was going to be the toughest game of the tournament for us and that if we beat India, we would go on to win the World Cup. It’s sad the way it ended. The scoreline shows we were ahead, but you never know. Kambli was still at the crease, and you never know in cricket. Two people get runs, we struggle to get wickets, the Indian crowd gets behind its players … anything can happen. It was sad, but it was one of the best games I have played, simply because there were at least 1.1 lakh people watching us. The memories are really good, but it was sad to see the crowd get involved the way they did.
“But, when you live in our parts of the world, you know what to expect. We were not scared, to be honest. When we won that game, we knew we were good enough. When you beat India in India twice in a World Cup, you’re going to beat everyone else. But, we felt sorry for people like Anil Kumble, who actually came back to the team hotel in our bus. You could see he was hurting. We felt sorry for these guys that it ended like it did, because we were quite close as teams.”
Gurusinha insists there was more to that inter-team friendship than simple fraternising. “You must remember the time India and Pakistan sent a joint team to play in Sri Lanka after Australia and others refused to come. I always talk very highly about that. They didn’t have to do that. And they didn’t send a second-string team. They sent their best players … Wasim (Akram), Azhar (Mohammad Azharuddin) … I remember that Sidhu (Navjot Singh Sidhu) did not have a passport, but the Sri Lankan government made an exception and cleared him through immigration to play the game,” he recalls.
“When West Indies pulled out of the Indian tour recently, and Sri Lanka were to go and play, some of the players were grumbling about how they were not ready and how their preparations were interrupted. I simply said, ‘You need to go back 18 years and look at what India did for us. Forget everything else, you’ve got to do it just for that.’ Back in 1996, India could’ve easily said it was affecting their World Cup preparations to come and play that game in Sri Lanka, but they did not.”
Gurusinha, who remains Sri Lanka’s youngest Test centurion, having got across the line as a 19-year-old almost 30 years ago, is also the only player from his country to score a Test hundred at the Melbourne Cricket Ground. “It’s a special place. I got one of my Test hundreds here against, (Glenn) McGrath, (Craig) McDermott, (Shane) Warne and (Paul) Reiffel, guys who hunt in a pack, on a pitch that was bouncing,” he says. “Those memories are special. To get a hundred in Melbourne is as big a deal as scoring a century at Lord’s. This is one of the great venues. I loved that game, despite the fact that it will be remembered for Murali being called for chucking.”
Gurusinha is now comfortable with how his life after cricket has panned out, but it was not always this way. “It was exciting to move here, but I’ll be honest, for three or four years, I really struggled. It’s a great country, Australia. But I struggled to adjust to Australian culture, the Australian way of doing things. I’m a Sri Lankan, so I’m not accepted here as a local cricketer might be,” he says. “But, I had made the move, so I had to make things happen. When I look back, I don’t have regrets, but it was really tough.”
Gurusinha stifles a yawn, having had a bit of a late night catching up with his old mates Roshan Mahanama and Kumar Dharmasena, both of whom are ICC match officials. Aside from these three, there were at least a dozen other former Sri Lankan cricketers living in Melbourne, and all that catching up led to thoughts of home.
“I believe I can contribute to cricket in Sri Lanka. I’m not talking about the national team. That is a different set up these days. The junior sides are where I can add a lot more, the Under-17s and 19s. The standards of school cricket, which used to be the lifeblood of Sri Lankan cricket, have dropped. The board is trying to get that standard up again. If you look at our generation, Arjuna, Aravinda, Roshan, myself, we all went from school to the Sri Lankan team. I’m told that’s not happening anymore,” says Gurusinha. “When I was told recently that I’m still the youngest Sri Lankan to score a Test hundred, I was shocked. I was 19 and that was in 1986 … it’s coming up to 30 years, and if a record like that is still standing, it pretty much shows our school cricket standard.”
The prospect of a better life might have brought Gurusinha to Australia, but a piece of his heart is still in the back alleys of Colombo.