It’s 1992. Upul Chandana is a little nervous. He is a wet-behind-the-ears rookie facing Allan Donald in a three-day game at the Premadasa. Snap. A couple of regulars barge into his sports shop. They discuss lamination, banners, rupees and logistics. The former leg-spinner speed-dials his friends. A deal worth lakhs is struck. He swings back to the 90s.
He returned nearly two and a half years later, and faced up against the might of Virender Sehwag, Gautam Gambhir, Rahul Dravid, Sachin Tendulkar, VVS Laxman…
Donald is sneering at his face. Snap. An overzealous father and his wannabe-cricketer son barge in. They discus wood, leather and kitbags. The kid pulls out a kit taller than him. His father wants an even bigger one. Chandana carefully picks a medium one. The entire conversation oscillates between the past and the present.
Chandana’s cricket shop, which goes by the same name, is located inside Nondescripts Club. But as opposed to what the name suggests, it also sells table tennis racquets, jogging shoes and tennis balls. He has another down the corner. He seems to make brisk business. “Just enough to pull along,” he interjects.
Eyes contorting, a little like the famed spin partner of his, Muttiah Muralitharan, Chandana says there were two reasons he set up the stall. The first, of course, was financial. For a major part of his career, his “close friend” Muralitharan kept him out of the team. It was only after he reinvented himself as a bowling all-rounder that his stock improved.
ශ්රී ලංකා ක්රිකට් ආයතනය විසින් සංවිධානය කරනු ලැබූ වයස 23න් පහළ අන්තර් පළාත් ක්රිකට් තරගාවලියේ හොඳම පිතිකරුවා…
Even then, he was limited to short-form cricket, ODIs rather, for it was the only prevalent short-form game those days. He was not one of the glamour boys, so commercials and endorsements were not forthcoming. He then made an ill-advised move to the Indian Cricket League. He was not only slapped with a ban but also didn’t get the full amount in the contract. “It was a stupid decision. The next year, they started the IPL, and they still owe me 60,000 USD,” Chandana says.
So to make ends meet, he decided to open a sports goods store. “There are so many cricket clubs around and there weren’t too many good sports stores in the locality. So I thought I’ll start one,” he says. The club he played for allocated a room inside the compound, which he now wants to take it out of, as “people don’t spot it easily. Only if you come inside the club will you notice it,” he says, not as a grouse, but matter-of-factly.
The second reason was more emotional. “In my childhood in Galle, we played with one ball for months. There was no sports store and we had little money. Even the schools couldn’t afford it. The first time I held a cricket ball, my fingers almost went inside the ball. It was almost two separate pieces. So I decided one day when I grow up I’d open a sports store,” he says.
He did, but after a rather impressive but unsung career. So understated was he that only when you verify the stats that you realise he played 147 ODIs and 16 Tests, his uncanny leg-breaks purchasing 151 wickets at 31 runs apiece, and all the while scoring breezy half-centuries and effecting sharp catches and run-outs, like his bullet sling from deep cover that once got rid of Azhar Mahmood.
What’s more, he outshone Brian Lara’s century and Chris Gayle’s 94 while orchestrating a 300-plus chase in Bridgetown with a hard-hitting 92. But he was unlucky to be one of only two players in the 1996 World Cup-winning squad who didn’t get a game. The other was Marvan Atapattu.
But Chandana nurses no grouses. Even early in his career, he was resigned to the reality that his career had coincided with an all-time giant. He had to out-bowl Muralitharan to command a regular place in the side, which he says was impossible.
“We started together at the Tamil Union, and the amount of hard work he put in was unbelievable. He would slog the entire day. The first half of the day will be spot bowling. The second half was devoted to batsmen. I was not that hard working, or had that amount of talent,” he admits.
Arjuna Ranatunga will always be amongst the first names associated with Sri Lankan cricket…
A rough childhood had him acquainted with adversity and the courage to bounce from it. “I lost my father when I was seven. Ours was a big family of 10, relying entirely on my eldest brother’s income. He was into making furniture in Dambulla and up north. You endure all those hardships and you get that mindset to take everything positively,” he says.
Rather than carping at the lack of opportunities, he kept counting the blessings. “A poor boy from Galle playing so many matches is an achievement, don’t you think so?” he asks. “I can at least tell my children and grandchildren that I was in the World Cup winning squad and played with all the greats of Sri Lankan cricket. I’ve bowled to Tendulkar and Lara,” he says.
His only regret is not playing the IPL. “Not because it pays you so well, but it was the sort of cricket I liked. Non-stop hitting, aggressive bowling and sharp fielding. It would have been perfect for my style of..,” he laments, for the first time in the conversation. But before he can complete the sentence, a phone call comes and he’s on his way, gliding himself into a wind-beaten tuk-tuk.