Illustration- Vasim Maner
Illustration- Vasim Maner

With 355 wickets in Tests at an average a shade below of 30, Chaminda Vaas is widely considered as the best Sri Lankan pacer of all-time and as it turns out, he is also Sri Lanka’s highest impact pacer. Hardly any hidden fact about that. What the conventional numbers fail to show though is just how big a role Vaas played in creating history for Sri Lanka in this classic format.

Pacers are a rare variety in the subcontinent, especially in Sri Lanka where only four have played in more than 30 Tests and only one more than 50 – Vaas himself. It tells a story in itself on how hard it is to be a successful pacer.

When Vaas made his debut in 1994, Sri Lanka were just about turning into a formidable unit, but more so in ODIs. They had won only four Tests out of their 58 since receiving the Test status. Sri Lanka lacked a quality pacer. The rest of the team was steadily getting into shape with Arjuna Ranatunga, Aravinda de Silva, Roshan Mahanama and Hashan Tillakaratne shepherding the batting responsibilities. The bowling attack though wasn’t quite upto the mark and it was also a reason why Sri Lanka failed to win Test matches. Muttiah Muralitharan had made his debut two years back in 1992 but still wasn’t at his best. Kumar Dharmasena and Ravindra Pushpakumara were there as well but could hardly be termed as ‘world class’ in this format. What Sri Lanka needed were match-winners with the ball. Chaminda Vaas was their answer. It was a glorious opportunity as well. Given their relatively new entry into the international scene, the chance of making history for his country was on the horizon and Vaas grabbed it with both hands.

SRI LANKA’S FIRST OVERSEAS WIN (1995)

Sri Lanka toured New Zealand in early 1995 and were bundled out for 183 in their first innings in the first Test at Napier.

Playing only in his fifth Test match, Vaas contributed a crucial unbeaten 33 runs after coming into bat at 88 for 6.  New Zealand, in reply, were jolted by Vaas as he picked up 5-47 to skittle them out for a paltry 109. The Sri Lankan batsmen fared much better in the second innings and scored 352. Vaas contributed again with the bat, scoring 36.

Chasing an improbable 427, New Zealand were bowled out for 185 with Vaas and Muralitharan sharing five wickets each—an indicator of many such future partnerships. This was Sri Lanka’s first overseas win in their Test history and Vaas was the highest impact player in it.

The second Test match at Dunedin ended in a draw which also gave Sri Lanka their first overseas Test series victory and meant Vaas’ first series-defining performance as a bowler. Vaas and Muralitharan became only the fourth and fifth bowler in Sri Lankan Test history to produce a series-defining performance but it was Vaas who overwhelmingly played the lead role. History was made.

SRI LANKA’S FIRST SERIES WIN AGAINST AUSTRALIA (1999)

By 1999, Australia had established themselves as the best Test team in the world. Sri Lanka had never won a Test match against them, let alone a series.

Australia, batting first in the first Test at Kandy, found themselves at 16 for 4 courtesy of a Vaas triple strike. Muralitharan and Zoysa wiped off the rest of the batsmen as Australia managed only 188. Sri Lanka, in reply, scored 234.

Australia, in their second innings, managed only 140 as Vaas bowled 15 overs for his 3-15. Chasing 95, Sri Lanka won with six wickets in hand. The remaining two Tests in the series ended in draws as Sri Lanka wrapped up a series victory. With this performance, Vaas became the first Sri Lankan pacer to produce two or more SDs in Tests and till date remains the only one to have achieved that.

SRI LANKA’S FIRST SERIES WIN AGAINST SOUTH AFRICA (2004)

Unlike Australia, South Africa performed really well in the subcontinent, winning Test series against India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. In fact, before their tour of Sri Lanka in 2004, they had lost only one series in the subcontinent (against India in 1996).

The first Test of South Africa’s Sri Lankan tour at Galle ended in a draw before the action shifted to Colombo for the second and final Test. Batting first, Sri Lanka posted a massive 470, thanks to Kumar Sangakkara’s 232. South Africa were hit as early as the third ball of their innings when Vaas accounted for Gibbs and the tone was set. South Africa could manage only 189 as Sanath Jayasuriya raided them with figures of 5-34. Sri Lanka further consolidated their position by scoring 211 in their second innings and then declaring.

Chasing 493 or more importantly four sessions to bat out for a draw, South Africa were treated, or rather, subjected to, a masterclass in seam bowling by Vaas, who took three of the top five as South Africa stuttered to 36 for 5 with the fate of the match effectively sealed. Vaas went on to take three more to finish with figures of 6-29 off his 18 overs as South Africa lost by 313 runs. This was Sri Lanka’s first Test series win over South Africa and Vaas registered a series-defining performance here as well. In the process, he became only the fourth Asian pacer to register three or more series-defining performances after Imran Khan, Kapil Dev and Wasim Akram.

Even though majority of Sri Lanka’s wins in the late 90s and 2000s revolved around the genius of Muralitharan, it was Vaas who ably supported him from the other end in non-conducive surfaces. Apart from being an excellent support bowler, Vaas’ contribution in crucial Test wins changed Sri Lankan history—something for which he doesn’t normally get the credit for.

The conversations surrounding Vaas need to be about this legacy he left rather than the initials in his name.

 

 

Soham Sarkhel

NOTE: This piece is up-to-date as of August 2016