13430 runs, 323 wickets. The fourth-highest run-scorer of all time. The 11th-highest wicket-taker of all time. Statistically, Sanath Jayasuriya has to be in the discussion for the greatest One-Day International (ODI) cricketer ever because of his incredible all-round achievements. Stats, alone, don’t tell you the whole story though. Jayasuriya not only produced great numbers, but his influence on the ODI game was immense.
During the 1992 World Cup, New Zealand’s innovative captain Martin Crowe had used Mark Greatbatch as a pinch-hitter during the start of the innings when fielding restrictions were in place. The tactic was a success as the Blackcaps topped the league table after impressing spectators with their enterprising brand of cricket.
Four years later, Sri Lanka would use similar tactics to even greater effect. Jayasuriya had begun his career as someone who batted predominantly in the lower middle-order. In late 1993, he opened the batting for the first time and thus came a period when the ODI game would change forever.
While New Zealand and Greatbatch had exhibited the advantages of playing aggressively when the fielding restrictions were on, it’s fair to say that it was Sri Lanka’s opening duo of Jayasuriya and Romesh Kaluwitharana who popularised the strategy during the 1996 World Cup. After their displays at the marquee tournament, every team realised the potential of a quick start and followed suit.
Before 1996, Sri Lanka had never qualified for the semi-finals of a World Cup. In the previous edition which was held in Australia and New Zealand, they had finished eighth in a nine-team tournament, having secured only two wins from seven completed matches.
In one of those two wins, they successfully chased down a target of 313 against Zimbabwe which was then a world record – it was also the first time that a team had scored 300+ while batting second and won the match. In that game, a 22-year-old Jayasuriya – batting at number six – played a crucial knock, scoring 32 from just 23 deliveries. This displayed not only his batting talent, but also his ability to score at a high strike-rate which was not a common trait among batsmen in those days.
Ahead of the 1996 World Cup, Jayasuriya had established himself as an opener. While Sri Lanka were not considered to be one of the favourites entering the tournament, their performance against India during the group stage made everyone take notice of how good they actually were. Chasing 272, the Sri Lankan openers scored 42 off the first three overs and there was only one direction the match went after that start. Jayasuriya starred with a brilliant 76-ball 79.
One match later, against Kenya, Jayasuriya scored 44 from just 27 balls – with the partnership between Kaluwitharana and him racing to 83 runs in no time. On the back of that sublime opening stand, Sri Lanka went on to score 398/5 – a then-record for the highest team total in an ODI innings.
It was in the quarter-finals, though, when Jayasuriya produced his best knock of the tournament. Sri Lanka were set a target of 236 by England and Jayasuriya and co. made a mockery of it, with the Matara-born cricketer scoring 82 from 44 deliveries to guide his team to their first-ever World Cup semi-final.
While Jayasuriya didn’t star with the bat in the semi-final and final, he chipped in with the ball – taking three wickets and one wicket in those matches respectively. In the semi-final against India at Kolkata, his wicket of Sachin Tendulkar turned the match on its head, leading to an extraordinary batting collapse from the hosts.
Before the tournament, few had given Sri Lanka a chance of lifting the trophy. But at the end of it, they were deserving winners, going through the entire tournament unbeaten. And one of the biggest reasons for their success was Jayasuriya. He was named the Player of the Tournament, having scored 221 runs at a strike-rate of 131.54 and taken seven wickets – a splendiferous effort.
A few weeks after the World Cup triumph, Jayasuriya further enhanced his reputation with a 65-ball 134 against Pakistan – whose bowling line-up consisted of Waqar Younis and Saqlain Mushtaq – during a tri-series in Singapore. During this knock, he broke the record for the fastest ODI hundred (48 balls).
And a few days later, he notched up the fastest fifty (17 balls) in ODIs against the same opposition – a record that stood for nearly 19 years. There’s a screenshot that goes around social media at sporadic intervals which shows Kaluwitharana dismissed for a duck and Sri Lanka’s score reading 70/1 at the time. That’s how extraordinary Jayasuriya’s knock was. While the left-handed opener managed 76 from 28 deliveries, the rest of Sri Lanka’s batsmen could only make 81 from 173 as they were bowled out for 172.
Jayasuriya and Kaluwitharana’s quick starts during this period changed the way ODI cricket was played. Batsmen were no longer willing to see off the new ball, it was more important to benefit from the fact that only a maximum of two fielders were allowed outside the 30-yard circle.
This obviously had a domino effect with run-rates increasing in ODIs across the innings. As you can see in the graph below, in the first five years after Jayasuriya became an opener, run-rates greatly climbed up every year.
When Jayasuriya played his final ODI on 28 June 2011, it was not only the end of a great cricketing career but also of one of the most influential in the history of the one-day game.