Mahela Jayawardene was given the guard of honour at Galle in the first Test against Pakistan © AFP
As Mahela Jayawardene plays the final Test match of an illustrious career, Arunabha Sengupta pays homage to the man who has been much more than a legendary cricketer – a symbol of stability for an often disturbed island nation.
He will be walking out for his country for the final time, in those dapper whites – the picture of elegance, composure and stability. The blue cap perched on his head, he will stand at slip. Those intent eyes, the right considerably smaller than the left giving the impression of a raised brow, will look on as keenly as ever, eager to add to his phenomenal tally of catches. When his turn to bat comes, he will stride out under the helmet, with the same sense of purpose, the same figure of permanence, the enduring image of stylish solidity.
Will his valiant willow be raised another time, to mark yet another milestone prior to the final flourishing wave to the crowd before disappearing into the pavilion to take off his pads for the last time? Given that this is the Sinhalese Sports Club Ground of Colombo, the odds are that the blade will sparkle once again, adding to the tottering total of 2863 runs he has scored here at 77.37, with 11 of his 34 hundreds. Even if he does not manage the last big innings, we just need to pick one of the many jewels out of the storehouse of memories that he has erected in the arena.
The questions will continue. Was he a genuine great? Why are his figures so lopsidedly low in Australia, South Africa and England? Especially when compared to the monumental deeds in his homeland? Was he not susceptible to seam when it hovered around his off-stump?
But, some of those very monuments notched up in his country are magnificent enough to boggle the mind. Some will also counter with example of the six-hour 119 at Lord’s to save the Test match in 2006. Debates will carry on.
What cannot be debated, however, is that Mahela Jayawardene at the wicket was always a sight to savour for the cricket aesthete. The drive through the cover oozed class and delighted the ear as much as the eye. The flick with that wondrous whip of the wrists was the liquid flow of languid grace. The cuts, played late, when the ball was well past the bat by all mortal reasoning, punctuated the innings like the rhyming mot justes of classical poetry.
And all through the display of purity of technique mixed with heavy dollops of serene, smooth, silken stroke-making, there was the aura of timelessness.
Jayawardene was not only a stalwart batsman who, along with his comrade-in-arms Kumar Sangakkara, lent the finishing touches to the craft of the Lankan willow. That he did, taking the legacy of Mahadevan Sathasivam, carrying forward the heroic deeds of Aravinda de Silva and Sanath Jayasuriya, and with Sangakkara by his side putting the stamp of international class on the indigenous style and talent of the island. But, he was much more.
He came from a country plagued by civil strife, with tragedy and gunfire forming a sinister background to his batsmanship. And often, along with Sangakkara, Muttiah Muralitharan, Chaminda Vaas and some other extraordinary gentlemen, he helped script the only rays of happiness and hope in a war ravaged nation.
Jayawardene was a classical pillar of steadfastness, and Sangakkara, equally robust, perhaps glistened with more glitter and added further audacity. And on these two bulwarks rested the dreams of the Sri Lankan innings, and, by not too far-fetched an extension, those of the Sri Lankan people. He was a leader too, whether as captain or trendsetter. He made people smile when there was hardly anything to live for.
His enduring image is as the face of calmness, unruffled against the most monumental odds, waging successful battles against impossibility. As one of the few good men who ignited brief flashes of joy streaking through the psyche of a perennially troubled land.
Jayawardene was much more than a cricketer. He was an icon in the truest and non-trivial sense of the word, a symbol of timeless stability. And while he touched the hearts of the people of the beautiful island, he left many cricket loving heads shaking with admiration all around the world.
To say he will be missed is superfluous. It will take aeons to get used to the fact that his sprightly presence will not accompany the Lankan ventures to the crease or to the slips.
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(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry.He writes about the history and the romance of the game, punctuated often by opinions about modern day cricket, while his post-graduate degree in statistics peeps through in occasional analytical pieces. The author of three novels, he can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/senantix)