It has been 25 years since the streets of Canterbury found a new hero. Kent was a county that usually played second fiddle to stronger outfits such as Middlesex, Surrey, Lancashire and Yorkshire but was suddenly found to be in the limelight thanks to one man –Aravinda de Silva, the county’s overseas signing for the 1995 season.
In the pre-Test era, many Sri Lankans had gone onto play county cricket – Dr. Churchill Gunasekara, Stanley Jayasinghe and Gamini Goonasena to name a few. But post Test era, the opportunities were few. In the summer of 1995 there was a breakthrough.
West Indian Carl Hooper had a long association with Kent. But in 1995, Hooper was unavailable as the West Indies’ Test team was touring England. So the county sought a replacement and their Head Coach Daryl Foster recommended an identical replacement! Hooper is six foot one whereas Aravinda is only five foot three, so not identical in that sense, but a middle order batsman who could bowl a bit of off-spin.
Aravinda travelled to Canterbury in April for the pre-season camp and struggled to find his feet early season. But once the sun was out, the runs started coming. Half way through the season, (July 15), he had scored 1,226 runs in the County Championship at an average of 68. Along came six hundreds including two double hundreds, one more than what Hooper had managed in the previous season.
His best knock probably came in a losing cause – a superb hundred in the final of the Benson & Hedges Cup at Lord’s. Aravinda’s battles with the opposition’s key fast bowler Wasim Akram were a treat to watch although Ian Austin suffered most at his hands. The video of the final is available on YouTube. Not often at Lord’s do you find a player from the losing side walking away with Man of the Match award, Aravinda did, after Lord’s had given him a standing ovation.
Foster, a reputed cricket coach having spent over 20 years with Western Australia was over the moon with his recommendation. “Ari is a marvelous influence on the Kent boys. I think they all look up to him. Somebody coming in to replace Carl Hooper is stepping into pretty big shoes, but Aravinda has been a superb ambassador for Sri Lankan cricket and not only is he a very fine player, he is also a very fine gentleman. He is a fun-loving guy and he has the best sense of humour of all time. I am absolutely amazed at how well he has fitted in,” Foster told British daily The Independent at the time.
Aravinda had first impressed Foster during the 1989 Gabba Test. Him putting the Australian attack to the sword when the rest of the batsmen had little clue is an absolute treat to watch thanks to the YouTube. “I saw him in the first Test in Brisbane in 1989. Sri Lanka had virtually been written off, and then Aravinda (167) came in and absolutely destroyed what, at that time, was a reasonable Australian attack.
“I thought at that moment that I was witnessing a very special player in action and I have not changed my opinion one bit since. He has a distinctive style, and I think the young fellows at Kent are learning a lot just from the way Aravinda loves to bat.”
Kent captain Mark Benson, who later went onto become a successful Elite Panel Umpire, had an interesting tale about Aravinda’s signing.
“When we signed Aravinda, I got probably 120 letters from members saying what an idiot I was signing a guy with a terrible Test record. At least a few of those members have written back saying that maybe my judgment isn’t so bad after all. I just wish they all would,” Benson said at that point.
“Ara was sensational for us. He kept telling me, you guarantee me the weather, I will guarantee you the runs,” remembered Benson.
Aravinda couldn’t get a second stint at Kent as Hooper returned to Canterbury next season. He never played county cricket again but it opened new opportunities to a host of other Sri Lankans – Sanath Jayasuriya (Lancashire and Somerset) Muttiah Muralitharan (Lancashire, Kent and Gloucestershire) Chaminda Vaas (Middlesex, Hampshire, Worcestershire and Northamptonshire) and Kumar Sangakkara (Durham, Warwickshire and Surrey) played for multiple counties.
But as for Aravinda, conquering all English counties gave him new found confidence and made him more consistent. He returned for national duty for the Test series in Pakistan and made a decisive hundred in the second innings in Faisalabad to earn the team a rare Test match win away from home. It set up a memorable Test series win as well.
Aravinda went from strength to strength from thereon. The following year was a breakthrough one for him as he played a key role in his team’s World Cup win. Soon he translated the success into Test cricket hitting a purple patch in 1997.
He still remains a hero in Canterbury. The image of him returning to the pavilion after his hundred at Lord’s in the Benson & Hedges finals with all members giving him a standing ovation is worth being framed and put up at your home.