Transcript: Couch Talk with Asanka Gurusinha

Couch Talk 141 (Play)

Guest: Asanka Gurusinha

Host: Subash Jayaraman

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Subash Jayaraman (SJ)–  Welcome to the show, Asanka!

Asanka Gurusinha (AG)– Thank you!

SJ– It is an absolute pleasure having you on. I want to begin the conversation with your school cricket. You played alongside another Test cricketer – Hashan Tillekeratne from a very young age. Could you talk about the schools cricket in Sri Lanka, which is pretty huge? And also, your playing relationship with Hashan from that young age?

AG– It is. Hashan and I started playing together from the age of 7 in the schools. So, we go a long, long way back. I was captain in u-11 team and he was the vice-captain. Even at that age, I saw him scoring 100s for the school side. Hashan and I put on a partnership when we were 10 years old – opening partnership of 200-something, we both got 100s. Our families know each other very well. That friendship kept going, until even now. It is something that we each other saw, that we can achieve something later on. But I don’t think when you are kids you think of Sri Lanka cricket as such. When we were young we didn’t know Test cricket. When I was playing school cricket, there was no Test cricket in Sri Lanka. I always wanted to play cricket and I know Hashan always wanted to play cricket. It is something that we both cherished. Over 40 years, the friendship has been just fantastic. I am very happy that I had the opportunity to play school cricket as well as continue playing cricket with Hashan for Sri Lanka.

SJ– In SL, the school cricket served to be the fertile ground to identify future talent. But, at the time you started playing cricket it was still young as a cricketing nation, with not a lot of opportunities to play first class cricket. How did you go about developing you batsmanship? You came to be known as a patient no.3 batsman…

AG– In school cricket I was batting a lot in the middle order – nos. 4 or 5. I used to listen to the radio, and most probably you guys did in India as well, because we didn’t have TVs initially; and Ashes used to be played. We used to play in the backyards, playing England vs Australia. There were players whom I knew and I thought I wanted to do this one day. I never dreamt, to be honest, to play for Sri Lanka and win a World Cup. That was never there.

I was in the middle order, but more aggressive. When in school cricket I was a very aggressive batsman, but after coming into the national team and then in 1986, when I was asked to bat at no.3, I think that is when I changed my style a lot.

SJ– Who were some of your batting role models and the people who helped you with your game, as a youngster?

AG– I think my role model was David Gower. I loved to see him. He was so relaxed that sometimes [people said] he was too relaxed. The record speaks for that as well. He could have been like Mark Waugh who had a fantastic record. I enjoyed watching him.

The people who helped me… Hashan and I both can say one person right at the start of our career – a gentleman by the name Raja Athukorala, who from the age of 7 when we were in school, picked us up and trained us, and disciplined us. All that was really helpful at that age. A gentleman by the name Nelson Mendis actually took me under his wing in school and that is when I improved a lot. Outside school, I had two people who helped me throughout my cricket career, until I retired from international cricket – Mr. W.A.N. Silva from Sri Lanka who was the manager and coach, and a few times the assistant coach in the 1980s and early 1990s, and Mr Ranjit Fernando who is  commentator as well. Ranjith and W.A.N. helped me a hell of a lot to where I am now after getting into the Sri Lankan team. They knew me as a kid as well. For them it was very easy to look at my batting. If I am not scoring well, they will get me into a net. They were always available. Whenever I go to Sri Lanka, I go and see Ranjit Fernando. Recently, when I was out there 6-7 months ago, I walked into his home, and he didn’t even know I was [in Sri Lanka]. W.A.N. Silva is in New Zealand and I spoke to him once in a while. Those two gentlemen helped me a hell of a lot.

SJ– I want to talk about your Test career. Even though you debuted in 1985, it was in 1991 during the tour to New Zealand was when you hit some sort of purple patch, where you scored 2 100s and 2 50s and a total of more than 350 runs in just 3 Tests. What was the maturing process as a batsman like – from 1985 to 1991? What went right for you on that tour?

AG– I think when I made my Test debut in 1985, I didn’t take it too seriously. It was just another game for me, I don’t think I understood too much about the importance of the Test match. In my first Test against Pakistan, I played against Imran Khan, Javed Miandad, Zaheer Abbas’ last game was my first game. So, I go back a long way with those guys [Laughs]. People like Mudassar Nazar, Mohsin Khan, Qasim Omar, those were the guys I played with. The Indian side – I was privileged to play against Sunil Gavaskar. To sit next to him, talk to him – I enjoyed that part.

But then, I had a stint in Australian district cricket in 1988-89, where I scored heavily in that season in Melbourne. After that, I changed my attitude. It helped me with the bouncing ball, I knew how to handle the short pitched bowling. District cricket in those days was very strong. I played against Merv Hughes and Tony Dodemaide in district cricket when I played in 1988/89. That was the change. I think I do well when people are bowling fast at me, and NZ against us played on green tops with Danny Morrison and Chris Cairns and all those guys, Martin Crowe was captaining. That helped me a lot, because I love people bowling fast at me. I was always good against pace right at the start. When I am settled, I handle spin pretty well. but I think I was always good against pace.

SJ– You mentioned about district cricket in Australia and how tough it was. Eventually you went on to play there again, after international cricket. Could you talk a bit more about the set-up there?

AG– These days it has changed a lot. There is so much cricket happening, you never see a Australian Test cricketer playing in a district game any more. That is what is missing in district cricket. But, the training, coming from the subcontinent – India, Sri Lanka, Pakistan players – we didn’t push too much on fitness and everything. But, coming and playing the district season – I realised that these guys train very hard. we practice for 3 hours and then we do 1.5 hours of fitness works straight after that, till about 9.30 – 10 in the night. I realised the commitment needed. They trained so hard in the middle, when we sometimes take it easy in our club cricket. That changed my attitude to training. It changed me a lot, I became fitter after that tour, and I spent more time on my fitness since. That was the set-up. They had their fitness trainers and they had gyms. In Sri Lanka, we didn’t have a gym like that to walk into in 1980s. The state of the art gymnasiums in the club that I played in Australia which is North Melbourne – they had their own gymnasium right next to the pavilion, and they had real good quality gymnasium in those days too. I think that the environment changed a lot, the way I handled pressure. I will be honest, that changed my career.

SJ– I want to talk a bit more about your Test career. You have the record for one of the slowest Test hundreds and we just talked about that NZ tour. Outside that NZ tour, what are some of your fondest memories from your Test career?

AG– My first Test 100 is always something that I will cherish a lot. I got that against Pakistan who had Imran, Wasim (Akram), Abdul Qadir – I thought that was one of the best bowling attacks that I had faced on turning wickets. That 100 at the age of 19, I still cherish. That was a great moment for me in Test cricket.

NZ has been a happy hunting ground for me. I have about 3 Test 100s and a couple of 50s in NZ. You mentioned my slowest Test 100 – I think that I was coming back from injuries and a lot of people didn’t realise that. Zimbabwe was bowling a foot and a half outside the off stump in the Test match with 8 fielders on the off side-  bowler and the fielders stay, and only 1 fielder in the leg side who was positioned at mid on. We lost wickets because Aravinda (de Silva) and others started chasing the balls outside the off stump. We just had to bat on. That was the start of [Zimbabwe] Test careers, the bowlers weren’t quick or difficult. I won’t say that that was one of the greatest innings, but that showed my mentality, how tough I am to mentally handle it. i think I have the third slowest Test 100 in cricket history. I look back and wonder, “Why the hell did I bat for so long?”

The last one that I would talk about is the 100 at MCG. At that stage, no Sri Lankan had scored a 100 at MCG in a Test match. I was the only one. I played against probably two of the world’s greatest Test bowlers – Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath, with Craig McDermott, Paul Reiffel and Mark Waugh bowling. I scored 143. I think I played pretty good because I can still remember that by lunch i was in my 70s. I scored pretty quickly as well.

Another thing I will mention is that Shane Warne has never gotten me out in Test cricket. I have two Test 100s against Warnie, when Warnie was playing for Australia. I think I have played about 5 Tests against Warnie, and I am proud to say that I am not one of his 700 victims. But I must mention that I never went after Warnie. I realised what his strengths were and didn’t let him get to me. I don’t think he bowled well against left handers. If you look at his career, he didn’t like bowling to left handers because he didn’t have a good googly. Where as, Mushtaq Ahmed and Abdul Qadir bowled fantastic googlies and that’s how they troubled the left handers. Warnie had the flipper, leg spin and all that, but the googly – he always flighted it in those days and you straight away knew it was the googly.

SJ-The 1996 world cup was a high water mark for Sri Lanka as a cricketing nation. It turned completely around Sri Lanka and you had a significant role to play in it as well. You were the 6th highest run getter in the tournament, averaging over 50. You had so many attacking batsmen around at the top of the order – Sanath Jayasuriya, Romesh Kaluwathirana and Aravinda de Silva. With those three around you, was it Arjuna Ranatunga’s plan to let you bat in your own way and how did you keep yourself under control even as you see the other batsmen going hell for leather from the other end?

AG– We had a plan from the start. We knew that we had the most experienced batting line up in the ’96 world cup. If you take the top 7-8 players, we had more than 1000 ODIs between us where as none of the other sides had that. We knew our batting line up had a lot of experience of handling pressure and we knew we had 5 players – Arjuna, Aravinda, myself, Roshan [Mahanama] and Hashan – who had a lot of experience in one dayers. Sanath and Kalu were giving the green light to go for leather. My job was to bat around them. I was never worried about going after the bowlers, I knew the job I had to do. As long as I was doing my job, I wasn’t worried about how many balls I faced or something like that. I knew if I batted 50 overs, I can get a hundred because I can be aggressive if needed. We were lucky that I think – not think – the top order scored in every match in the world cup for us, and we didn’t have to use the lower order at all. Aravinda and I had three 100+ partnerships, Sanath and I had two 100+ partnerships in 6 games. So, that showed that I can bat around them and those were Arjuna’s instructions which was, “I don’t care what anybody else says but this is your job.”

I heard something recently when Stephen Fleming when he was recently in Sri Lanka promoting the 100 days to Cricket World Cup 2015,  Arjuna said that I had carried the team. It’s good to hear that from the former captain and a good friend now, but at that time I didn’t think like that. I was supposed to do a job for the country and as long as I did it, I was happy.

SJ– Sri Lanka went unbeaten in the tournament. In the final, you faced Australia and chased their total down. I want to get your thoughts going in to the finals and also as the match unfolded.

AG– Going in to the final, I thought we were very relaxed. We were not really putting ourselves under a lot of pressure and we kept playing the way we’d been playing. Each person in the team knew the job they had to do. When I say relaxed, we were still serious and absolutely focused on what to do but we were still joking around and relaxed in the dressing room and the hotel. We trained hard as we had three days before the game. We did a night session when we realised there was dew at Lahore. But, that didn’t change anything since our tactic was always that we can chase and win. The dew had no role in us batting second. We were going to bat second no matter what happened.

In the semi final, we lost the toss and India put us in. To be honest, if we had won the toss, we would have chased in Calcutta as well.

In the final, we went in with a really good plan. When you look back, Sri Lanka executed their plans very well in every game of the world cup.

SJ– You would have played the Aussies in the round robin stage but they chose not to come to Sri Lanka along with West Indies. Was there any added motivation while facing the Aussies in the finals to get back for that?

AG– Absolutely. It was added motivation. I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t.

The things started in Australia with Murali’s chucking incident, we were accused of ball tampering which we didn’t do, and we proved it wrong. So many things had happened in Australia. We had that motivation of wanting to beat them in the world cup. Especially, when they didn’t come to Sri Lanka, it wasn’t good for us, but at the end of the day, it’s all history now and we won the cup.

Beating Australia was always on our minds, but I wouldn’t say it was “getting back at them”, it was that they were the best side in the world, and you wanted to beat them.

SJ– I want to talk about that semi final against India in Calcutta. You had the best seat in the house as Aravinda unleashed on India even as there were early wickets of Sanath and Kalu. Could you talk a bit about that innings of Aravinda, and was it part of the game plan that he would continue to attack even if early wickets fell?

AG– I don’t think we told anything to Aravinda, to be honest, throughout the tournament. The batting plan was around Arjuna, Roshan, Hashan and myself. Sanath and Kalu knew they go out and put pressure. They were great batsmen and we didn’t have to tell them anything.

Aravinda to me is a legend and the best batsman Sri Lanka has ever produced. I know a lot of people will say Kumar Sungakkara, but he is a very close second, to me. Most probably I am biased because I played along with Avi for so long, and I am good friends with him. We didn’t tell him anything. He could play any game he wanted when he went out to bat and our plan was to worked around whatever game he was playing. That world cup, he was in unbelievable form and that really helped us. I haven’t seen anybody play the way he did, on that Indian wicket. Every ball was hit from the middle of the bat. I can still remember him hitting some shots of [Anil] Kumble, just left and right of the fielders and they were rocketing to the boundary. His 60-something and Roshan’s 50 took us to a total which we always knew was going to be difficult for India. As I said, we each had a game to play and we played it very well. We didn’t panic in the game even though Sachin [Tendulkar] was in unbelievable form. We knew if we took Sachin and Azhar(uddin), couple of wickets like that, we could get on top. We knew the wicket was difficult, since we struggled on it when we were batting. It was not an easy wicket to play on.

A lot of people might say that India should have batted first. If we were India, I would have done the same and put Sri Lanka in, because Sri Lanka were always wanting to chase, why should you give them that opportunity? It was one of the greatest games I’ve played in and it was sad that it ended the way it did. 100,000 people screaming, that atmosphere, that’s the best place in the world to play.

SJ– You had mentioned Arjuna earlier. He was instrumental in many ways, in turning Sri Lanka as a cricket team in to a cohesive, fighting unit. There is a question from listener Dennis: What was Arjuna like, as a captain and as a person? Wasn’t there a period when things weren’t smooth between the two of you?

AG– Yeah, everyone knew about the few things that were happening between the two of us.

I had played under about 4 captains for Sri Lanka, and to me, Arjuna was the best. One thing I knew was that once inside the field, he would back me. His game plan, and the way he plays with you during the game, I’ve never played with anyone who played like that.

As a person, he was a very nice person. He’s got a very good heart, prepared to help any time. We were very close friends from age of 17 or 18. We played for SSC together. The Ranatunga family and my family are very close. We have gone on trip together with both families. We go a long way back, with all the Ranatunga brothers. I was more close to Nishantha, who is the current SL board secretary, than to Arjuna. While playing, Arjuna and I had a fantastic relationship. Both of our wives were pregnant at the same time. Our eldest sons are just 18 days apart. There were a lot of things like that but certain things changed and Arjuna and I were not seeing eye to eye from about the middle of 1995 or early 1995, I think. Sorry, I think it started with Dav Whatmore coming to Colombo. But inside the ground, I knew he would back me and he knew that I’ll give him everything I have. We both had that confidence in each other but it was sad at that time there was no trust between us [off the field]. It was after the world cup it got worse. I came to a stage when I didn’t enjoy playing. When I got the offer to play 3 seasons with North Melbourne, I took the offer and the rest is history.

Since our earlier friendship was strong, we since have talked and met a long time ago and have got back our friendship. Whenever Arjuna comes to Melbourne now, he stays with me. Whenever I go to Sri Lanka, I’ll always meet him. He’ll pick me up from the airport if it’s needed. We’ve gone back to that old friendship again and I am very happy about that and Arjuna, I know, is also as well.

We were both doing the world cup promotion in PNG and spent seven days together. There was a period of 2 years when a lot of things happened. I am not blaming Arjuna for my early retirement. At the end of the day, it was my decision but I didn’t think it wasn’t a pleasant place for me to play. It wasn’t just Arjuna, it was the Sri Lankan cricket board as well.

SJ– After the 1996 world cup, a lot of your team mates are now back in cricket as administrators, in media and some of them are in Sri Lankan politics. Do you ever revisit that decision of completely walking away from SL cricket, and do you feel you could have been associated with it? Is there a chance of you being associated with SL cricket any time in the future?

AG– Absolutely. I’ll never say no to anything. To me, I would always want to give something back to Sri Lanka. There were about 2-3 times in the last 10-15 years, the board was talking to me about some positions. We discussed in detail but it didn’t materialise because we couldn’t agree on certain things. Currently, I have had some discussions with Nishantha Ranatunga about a few things I could do from Australia. You never know…

I’m a Level 3 qualified coach in Australia, and I have a lot of business experience as well. I’m managing the sales for a German company here, about $40 million business. So, I have two sides of it – cricket and business. My children are grown up now, 25 and 21. My wife and I would like to retire in Colombo, and would love to do something for SL cricket. But it has to be something that is mutually beneficial for both parties.

I’ve enjoyed looking at what Nishantha Ranatunga has done for SL cricket. Whatever others might say, he has done a hell of a lot for the game there. The other person I’ve folowed with interest is Sanath Jayasuriya as Chairman of Selectors. When he first came in to that position, I thought that was the wrong position for him and he wasn’t going to do well. But he proved me wrong. Bringing all those youngsters and rebuilding that team, and their playing, fitness etc., you have got to thank him for that. I think these two guys are the reason I might go back one day. I trust them and I know what they have done for Sri Lanka cricket. If I can grow the cricket from where they are now to another level, well, I’ll be the happiest.

SJ– On that note Guru, Thank you so much for being on the show. It was a privilege talking to you and I wish you all the best.

AG– Thank you very much. You have a good day!

SJ– You too. Bye.


Episode transcribed by: Bharathram Pattabiraman