By Champika Fernando
It would be an overstatement to place him in the class of Chaminda Vaas, one of Sri Lanka’s finest left-arm seamers with an unparalled impact on the game which includes 520 wickets across all formats.
Isuru Udana was brought in as Vaas’ replacement for the 2009 T20 World Cup in England. While he did reasonably (five wickets in four matches), his career did not flourish as expected. He played just seven matches till 2017, the year which saw the ‘second coming’ of a more aggressive and determined Udana.
Since then, he took major strides, becoming a potent weapon in white-ball cricket both as a seam bowler with a clever variation and as a clean-hitting lower-order batsman. Udana has played in the Bangladesh Premier League,
Afghanistan Premier League and the Mzansi Super League before getting into the Indian Premier League, the most sought after in T20. Captained by Indian skipper Virat Kohli – a man he describes as “aggressive” on the field but “very nice” off it – Udana represents Royal Challengers Bangalore (RCB) in the current IPL season.
Although he was picked at his base price of INR 50 lakh during this year’s auction, he was not expected to be part of the playing XI given the strength of their bowling unit which includes Dale Steyn, Chris Morris and Mohammed Siraj. But with Steyn misfiring early in the tournament, the team management turned to Udana.
His statistics of seven wickets in eight games at 9.91 so far may not project the true picture of his impact. Yet, he has played a part in RCB’s success in the series, bowling mostly at death overs when batsmen are in their beast mode.
“I was bit nervous but the transition was smooth,” he admitted, speaking to the Sunday Times from United Arab Emirates (UAE) where the IPL is being played owing to pandemic concerns in India. “It was because of the stature of this tournament. I have played in various other leagues around the world, but this is the mother of all leagues and the level of professionalism they maintain here is unbelievable.”
While all countries except Pakistan have considerable representation at the IPL, Udana is the only Sri Lankan at this year’s edition after veteran Lasith Malinga pulled out citing personal reasons. Udana is cherishing the opportunity to play alongside the cream of cricketers.
“This is the best experience that one can get,” he enthused. “So much brilliant brains around you. For instance, when we are setting a plan to David Warner, the Australian opener who plays for Sunrisers Hyderabad, we usually base our strategies on video analysis. Here, we can get the first-hand experience from the Australian captain Aaron Finch. This is the beauty of this set-up. There is so much knowledge to pick up.”
What makes Udana unique is that he has a clever variation in his armoury – a well-disguised slow bouncer as well as a slow ball. He believes the exposure he receives will stand in good stead for the future.
“As a cricketer, I can learn a great deal through this experience, about the players, their strengths and weaknesses, etc,” he reflected. “As much as I benefit from this, I am sure the national team too will benefit, because I have a better understanding of the players. This is why Lasith Malinga is so dangerous in the shortest format. The years of experience he has had in the IPL has made him one of the best, if not the best bowler in the format. The experience you get here is unbelievable.”
However, unlike in the past where Sri Lankan cricketers were hot picks, they are hardly noticed at recent IPL auctions with franchisees reluctant to sink their money into them. Udana is only the 27th Sri Lankan cricketer to play in the IPL. After the 2015 season, not more than four players have had the opportunity. That doesn’t surprise Udana.
“We hardly play T20 cricket,” he concedes. “Apart from the few games that we get at the international level, we don’t play T20s. This is why we don’t get picked at the IPL. I am happy that we are finally on the verge of having our own league. This will give our cricketers the opportunity to showcase their talents to the world. I got the chance because I played in other leagues around the world. Back in the day, even though we didn’t have a domestic league, our players were well known and they could easily get into the IPL but it’s not the same now. Most of our players are young and they need to get exposure to get the opportunity.”
Sri Lanka Cricket started a domestic T20 league back in 2012 but its life span was reduced to just one season and despite many attempts to revive it in the past, it did not work out. However, the Board is hoping to finally revive it this year.
“Like I said, this will provide a platform for us to show what we are capable of and rise as a nation,” Udana concluded.
The 2014 World T20 champions, Sri Lanka were among the top ranked teams in the format but their rankings had dipped so much in recent years that they failed to earn an automatic spot for the world tournament.