Pallekele: Arjuna Ranatunga is a man of many parts. He made his international debut when still in school, was Sri Lanka's first half-centurion in their inaugural Test as a teenager, graduated to become the captain, led them to the 1996 World Cup and was, briefly, the chairman of the Sri Lankan cricket board.
His tenure as chairman was tempestuous and lasted less than a year, after which he has thrown himself full-time into politics. Now a Member of Parliament from Kalutara district, Ranatunga reflects on his journey in this chat with Wisden India, and says he has few regrets so far as his cricketing career is concerned. Excerpts:
Now that it's only politics for you, don't you miss the buzz of cricket?
I do, actually. When I got into the cricket board in 2009, I had a plan to get the administration clean. Various people wanted to do different projects. I said the projects should be for the country, not for individuals. I think that's the reason I couldn't stay for a longer period. Yes, I miss cricket but whenever I get the opportunity, I watch a little bit. I don't go to the ground but if I go to someone's house for lunch during my political day and if a match is on, I will take my plate and sit in front of the TV for at least half an hour. I don't enjoy the shorter version anymore, I love to watch Test match cricket. I was not well during the first England-South Africa Test. I watched three good days of cricket, I was very happy that I was sick, that I didn't have to go out. I really enjoy the way Test cricket is thriving in England. In my constituency, I have started ten new schools playing cricket, all really poor kids, fishermen's children who can't afford to play cricket. I feel that if kids get involved in cricket, they will stay away from cigarettes or alcohol or drugs because when you are a proper sportsman, you don't get into that.
You were the Board chairman when you committed to the tour of Pakistan. How did the Lahore attack on the Sri Lankan team impact you?
Before the tour, I personally inspected the security in Pakistan, it was the best I have seen. I was also the ACC chairman then, and we played the Asia Cup in Pakistan without incident. The Sri Lankan tour of Pakistan was over two legs - we played a one-day series, came back home, and returned to Pakistan for the Test matches. During the one-dayers, we were monitoring the security system and never had a problem. But between the two tours, I was removed as chairman and new people came in. There was a similar situation at the Pakistan Cricket Board with new people coming in, and I am told the security was very, very lax during the Tests. My feeling is that the Sri Lankan team was not the target because in our part of the world, not even a terrorist will target a sportsperson. Then again, I might be completely wrong. I don't regret making the commitment; during the one-day leg when I was the chairman, there was never an issue. But when they went back for the Tests, the players told me that the security had gone from Grade A to nothing. It was a very unfortunate incident. Thankfully no one got seriously injured. But the way I look at it is, Pakistan and India helped us when we were trying to host the World Cup in 1996, and we have to show our gratitude. Even today, if I am at the cricket board and if I am convinced the security system in Pakistan is good, I will tell the boys to go and play there because if the Asians are not together, we are going to face major issues in the future.
Going back to the start, your memories of your first Test...
I was doing pretty well in school cricket and then I was invited to the national squad. I played a few trial games, got a couple of hundreds and they picked me to play in a one-day game in which I got 43. They were looking for a left-hander in the middle order and I was so lucky I got the opportunity, being the only left-hander in the squad and getting runs consistently. No one expected me to perform. They all thought here comes a schoolboy, this is for the future and not for this particular game. I never had pressure. I was protected by the seniors at that time - Bandula Warnapura, Duleep Mendis, Roy Dias, Ajit de Silva, Lalith Kaluperama. I had never experienced Test or international cricket, I thought it was just another school game. Only after I played the Test match did I realise that it was a totally different ball game.
Different in what sense?
When you play in school cricket, you get 3-4 loose balls an over. Here, you had to wait a couple of overs to get a loose ball. You get a 'life', you can go on to get a hundred at the school level. But here if you offer one catch, you have to pack up and go back to the pavilion. I also learnt the importance of planning. We never had any plans. It was more like going out there, enjoying our cricket and coming back, it was like West Indian cricket. But the best thing that happened to me was that no one expected me to perform, so I never felt any pressure. We controlled the Test (against England) for three days, then lost it in one hour when we lost something like six wickets. But it was a huge break for me, I was lucky to get into the side.
What did you take away from that experience?
When the match got over, my first thought was I had to go back to my school again! From Test matches, I went back to playing for my school. Then I was picked to go Pakistan. I used to get 100s in schools cricket, then struggle in Test cricket. There was a huge gap between club cricket in Sri Lanka and international cricket. I played club cricket when I was very young, but between school cricket and club cricket, there was no difference in Sri Lanka. I realised that if you want to compete at the international level, you should have commitment, the training should be different. We never had proper trainers those days. There were these trainers from Army, Navy, Air Force, they used to come and train us. It was running 20 rounds, 100 stomachs and 100 sit-ups and the entire PT session was over. If we had these present trainers, most of the cricketers would have been different. But I personally felt that the time we played, we played really good cricket and we enjoyed it. It was more a game than a profession. We were more keen on playing cricket than trying to earn money from cricket. Money was secondary, playing for the country was the best thing. We had a lot of pride in playing for the country. I can't remember how much we got for winning the World Cup, but I still can remember 30 years down the line what happened in the first Test match, what happened in the first one-dayer.
Looking back at your cricketing career, do you have any regrets?
As a batsman, yes, I do. Especially when people ask me how many hundreds I got in Tests or how many in one-dayers - four each. I remember my daughter, who was then 10, asking me how come I got only 8 hundreds in 20 years? I said go and check how many 90s, how many 80s I have. But yes, I do regret not making more hundreds, that's something I missed out on. But I am not a guy who looks at records. I don't judge a cricketer on the basis of his records. I judge a cricketer on his talent and his ability. But I have no regrets on the commitment front. The entire country knows my commitment. I am glad I could bring the best thing from a cricketing perspective to my country - the 1996 World Cup.
Where exactly was the genesis of Lahore 1996 - was it at Melbourne 1995 when Muralitharan was called for 'chucking', or even earlier?
Gamini Dissanayake was the Board president in 1994, and when we played matches at home or overseas, he would tell me, Arjuna, these are just normal tours, think about the World Cup and plan a proper team. By 1994, I had a vision, the incidents in Australia in 1995 merely toughened us. We knew that when we start winning, a lot of obstacles will come our way. It wasn't easy to keep a team together. You had different types of people and mentally if they are not happy - not not strong but not happy - then you won't be able to get the best out of the players. I think a lot of things happened for the good. I always felt Murali's issue was a blessing in disguise, as was the ball tampering issue. It kept us together. But I think we really started to believe we could win the World Cup when we beat India in Delhi. India had made a big score, Aravinda (de Silva) did not get runs, and we still beat India in India. After the match, Ravindra Pushpakumara, the youngest member of the squad, asked me, 'Aiyya, don't you think we can win this World Cup?' I said no, no, don't even talk about it, but he was insistent, saying if we can beat India in India, we can win the World Cup. I asked him to broach the topic at the team meeting. Everyone sort of agreed, but the seniors pointed out that we have a ladder to climb. 'Let's take the ladder, let's not think of taking the lift' was the consensus. To win without Aravinda contributing, that gave us a lot of confidence. We all had different roles, everyone knew what his role was and everyone was perfect at his job. In that sense, it was very easy for me to handle the team. We had five senior cricketers - Aravinda, Roshan (Mahanama), Hashan (Tillakaratne), Asanka (Gurusinha) and myself. I always said those were my five fingers. The senior group - all except Aravinda — used to control the other guys. Aravinda, we just wanted him to be happy. Whatever you want, we will give you, get us a hundred - that was the plan!
Have you always been a rebel with a cause?
I suppose you could say so, even in my school days I was like that. That's something I got from my father (Reggie Ranatunga). Whenever he saw something unfair, he used to fight. I admired that a lot. I used to think if I can be one-tenth of what my father is, I would be a very successful man. That carried over to cricket as well. I always wanted to protect my team. My priority was my country and the cricketers who played with me. I always said don't worry, when I give you a job, even you fail in trying to perform that job, I am there to protect you. The players respected me a lot, but they were scared of me as well. I remember going to Australia when I was 19. We had a really tough time. I was told by someone that if you give it back to their players, they will panic, but if you keep your head down and they know you will crumble, they will jump all over you. With our culture, we are not used to giving back. But I felt let's give it back and see what happens. We adopted that tactic in Australia and it really worked. They went on the back foot most of the time. And I think it helped cricketers from other countries as well to see that you have someone who takes tough decisions, and isn't scared of making those decisions.
Aravinda and you swapped the captaincy many times. Did it ever affect your relationship?
Not really. Everyone knew I always wanted to maintain discipline in the side while Aravinda was not a strict disciplinarian, he was a happy-go-lucky child. He liked music, he liked going out in the night but I was more keen on staying in the hotel, planning, sleeping early. I always felt when you represent your country, you have a commitment to people back home. But I am not blaming Aravinda. When he was 14, he was given a motorcycle. He got a car when he was about 16. His father wanted him to be a cricketer only. But in our case, it was totally different. My father - we were six boys in the family - always said studies should be No. 1. As far as Sri Lankan batsmen are concerned, I feel Aravinda is the best I have seen. I feel very lucky to have batted alongside him. Sometimes, when the rest struggled, you could see that he was in a different class. Lot of people have compared Mahela (Jayawardene) and (Kumar) Sangakkara with him, I don't think they can even get close to him. He was a superb batsman. He could see the length much better than most batsmen, it was a gift he was born with.
What's your take on Twenty20 cricket?
I always felt that with T20, it is all about the power rather than the talent and the mind controlling the game. It's entertainment. I won't say stop T20, but priority has to be given to Test cricket and one-day cricket. In T20, you have to take instant decisions and even if you lose, people will say that's the way it goes. You don't need intelligence for T20, you don't need talent for T20. You don't need skills for T20. You need only power and a strong head. I am very scared that if we implement this at the junior level, we will lose proper cricket. India might have won a World T20, Pakistan might have won a World T20, but give a little time and ultimately, T20 will be ruled by those with power rather than those with skill. That's my issue with it. I personally feel that Under-15s should not play T20. At the Under-19 level, because of the World Cups, we might have to bring in T20 but we should know where to draw the line. You should not sacrifice Test cricket. We Asians like quick results. We prefer to go to a movie with music and dancing rather than watch a classic. Twenty20 is like that. A couple of years back, I went to an Under-12 schools championship. I met this kid who was about eight, and I asked him what his favourite shot was. 'Uncle, Dilscoop', was the answer. I got so angry, I told him that is not a cricket shot. He said, 'You don't know uncle, Dilshan plays that shot'. I told the father, don't allow him to watch any of the short versions. Get videos of Sunil Gavaskar batting, David Gower batting, Geoff Boycott batting. We should understand these are kids, they are not mature enough. When it is nice and different, they tend to follow those things. We need to understand that, we need to educate them. Apart from that, I have no issues with T20 cricket.