Asantha De Mel’s moment of glory

Classic World Cup Moments

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If you attend the ‘Who wants to be a millionaire’ competition and they present you with a question as to who has claimed the most number of five wicket hauls for Sri Lanka in World Cup competitions, you would believe it’s an easy question.

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The options that they are giving to you are – Muttiah Muralitharan, Lasith Malinga, Chaminda Vaas and Ashantha De Mel. The bowler you would expect least to be the correct answer is Asantha De Mel. You will lose because the correct answer in fact is De Mel.

Malinga has only one five wicket haul and so does Vaas while Murali never claimed a five wicket haul in World Cups. He does have four four wicket hauls though, having featured in five World Cups from 1996 to 2011.

Selectors everywhere in the world invariably get criticized no matter how much hard work and planning they put into selecting teams. Sir Don Bradman when he was Chairman of Selectors apparently told one scribe, ‘My job is to select teams and your job is to criticize them.’ De Mel is no different and he has come under the pump since announcing the World Cup squad last week.

A proven performer and a successful Chairman of Selectors over the years, you wouldn’t want to challenge his cricketing knowledge. De Mel was the first Sri Lankan to take a five wicket haul in Test cricket. His best performance came in the 1983 World Cup in England where his performance overshadowed that of many other fast bowlers.

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De Mel finished the 1983 World Cup with 17 wickets at 15. He was the second highest wicket-taker in the competition, just one behind India’s Roger Binny, who claimed 18 wickets at 18 apiece. Binny, however, played two more games than De Mel, as India went onto win the final, beating West Indies and creating the biggest upset in the sport at that point. De Mel’s was a commendable performance. To outshine the likes of Malcolm Marshal, Richard Hadlee, Imran Khan, Andy Roberts, Michael Holding, Kapil Dev, and Ian Botham was no mean task.

De Mel took five wickets against Pakistan at Headingley as Sri Lanka went down fighting by 11 runs. He finished with five for 39 in his 12 overs. The first three World Cups were of 60 overs duration. Then two days later, he took another five-wicket haul in Derby. This time, however, Sri Lanka tasted victory overcoming New Zealand by three wickets.

De Mel’s five for 35 helped Sir Lanka restrict the Kiwis to 181 all out and Roy Dias with an unbeaten 64 helped them complete a tense run chase. That was the only game that Sri Lanka won in the 1983 World Cup.

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Sri Lanka was coached by Sir Gary Sobers at that time and De Mel gained much knowledge talking to Sir Gary during his time with the national cricket team. Rumesh Ratnayake and Vinothan John were his fast bowling partners at that point and all three would go onto retire prematurely. Had the opportunities and medical facilities are given to modern players been available then, they would have had long careers too.

De Mel bowled at a good pace during his early days. There’s a youtube clip which shows how deadly he was as he hits Richie Richardson on the jaw during the World Series cricket in Australia, forcing the West Indian to retire hurt.

De Mel’s career, unfortunately, ended prematurely after he suffered a serious knee injury in 1987. He was only 28 at that point and had much to offer the team.

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He has been involved in the game since retirement in various capacities and was a member of the initial Interim Committee appointed in 1999. He has also served in several selection panels and was Chairman of Selectors on four occasions. De Mel also represented Sri Lanka in Bridge.