Mahela Jayawardene: Unruffled elegance in the face of adversity
Mahela Jayawardene… elegance personified © Getty Images
Mahela Jayawardene, born May 27, 1977, is one of the most elegant and accomplished batsmen in the modern game. Arunabha Sengupta looks at the career of the Sri Lankan maestro, who, along with Kumar Sangakkara, has charted the batting destiny of the island nation.
Abundance of oozing class
There are few sights in cricket as visually pleasing as Mahela Jayawardene in full flow. Every movement at the crease is stamped with an abundance of oozing class. The drive through cover, with sublime timing and uncanny placement, is a joy to the eye and ear. The flick played with a whip of the wrists past midwicket speaks of languid grace. The cuts behind the wicket, played at the last possible moment, when the ball is well past the bat by all mortal reasoning, can be only described as delectable.
The art of Sri Lankan batsmanship can be traced from the dusty scrolls of history involving Mahadevan Sathasivam, down to the heroic deeds of Aravinda de Silva and Sanath Jayasuriya. However, it arrived in full glory in the world-wide scale of substance because of two extraordinary gentlemen of the modern era. From the late 1990s to the current day Jayawardene and his close friend Kumar Sangakkara lent the finishing touches to the craft of the Lankan willow, combining indigenous talent of the island with the blueprint of international class.
The two have for long been the enormous pillars on which Sri Lankan cricket has stood for years and reached for the stars, often the traces of celestial achievement scripted by the fingers and wrists of Muttiah Muralitharan. Both Jayawardene and Sangakkara belong to that very select club of batsmen who have achieved the dazzling dual milestone of 10000 runs in both Tests and One-Day Internationals (ODIs).
Jayawardene is the calm counterpart to Sangakkara’s exuberance, providing right-handed composure to his friend’s southpaw flamboyance. The contribution of these two men in the modern history of Sri Lanka – cricketing and otherwise – is beyond measure. As civil war continued to rage in the background till very recently, people of the country lived in strife and struggle with scary shots of gunfire reverberating in the background. The slightest splash of smile and a promise of brighter days were delivered again and again by the success of the national cricket team, much of it built around the willows of these two maestros.
In the face of impossibility
Jayawardene himself grew up amidst turmoil and explosions in Colombo. “I have two, three school friends who caught a couple of bombs. I have a friend who still has shrapnel inside his body. He has to carry a certificate whenever he travels, going through machines and all that,” he says. He lived through the disturbing sights and noxious fumes of charred bodies. And all the while he kept playing cricket, acknowledged from earliest days as a special talent. The terror and atrocities around him could not shroud his dreams. Something else almost did.
Dhishal, his brother, was afflicted with brain tumour and died as a teenager. The tragedy led a devastated Jayawardene to turn his back to the game for long. And when he returned to the crease, his initial spate of cricketing success was instrumental in paying off the medical debts piled on the family during the futile treatment of his brother. It is well known to his fans that Jayawardene still carries the photograph of his late brother wherever he goes.
Emerging from the depths of despair and tragedy Jayawardene has perhaps learnt to deny impossibility. He refuses to read even the starkest of writings on the wall. He does not seem to believe in the unassailability of what appears to be fate to other eyes. His bat has battled against certainties and often come out triumphant. In his very fourth Test, he scored 167 on a treacherous Galle minefield against New Zealand. And as he matured over the years, these inconceivable batting feats became more and more frequent. He hung on over six hours for 119, saving the 2006 Test at Lord’s. In the same year, Jayawardene took record books through baffling revisions and reprints, scoring 374 and adding a mind-boggling 624 with Sangakkara at Colombo against the Proteans. It was the highest partnership for any wicket in any Test match. For good measure, he scored 123 in the very next Test to bring off a nail-biting one wicket victory while chasing down 352.
Mahela Jayawardene (left) and best friend Kumar Sangakkara during their world record 624-run partnership against South Africa at Colombo in 2006 © Getty Images
The leader of men
Under his astute, energetic, and sometimes creative captaincy, Sri Lanka too conquered new frontiers, winning Test matches in England and New Zealand for the first time in their cricketing history.
It was also under his leadership that the team survived through their greatest peril — this time off the field. At Lahore, on the third day of the Test match in 2009, the team bus was attacked by terrorists. Shots rang out in the air landing all over the vehicle, shrapnel flew around striking terrified players, a grenade rolled under the bus, and an RPG flew over the bus. Six Pakistani policemen, along with two civilians, were killed in the attack. Seven Sri Lankan cricketers, including Jayawardene and Sangakkara, suffered injuries. The team survived the incident — not entirely unscathed, visibly shaken. As the driver heroically drove them to safety, Jayawardene called the Sri Lankan president on his cell phone, and asked him to get his team out of Pakistan and to the safety back home. He would be the first to deny it, but Jayawardene can remain eerily calm in the face of the most terrifying crisis.
He was named International Cricket Council’s “Captain of the Year 2006″ and led the team to the World Cup final in West Indies in 2007 scoring a hundred in the semi-final. The final was lost in near-farcical circumstances in near darkness.
Jayawardene gave up captaincy in February 2009, but took over the reins again from Tillakaratne Dilshan after the tour of South Africa in 2011-12. In his second stint, he led the team to the final in the World T20I at home, before losing to West Indies in the final.
However, the man who does not know how to throw in the towel and looks impossibility unflinchingly in the eye finally got tired of battling the various dimensions of politics in Sri Lankan cricket administration and resigned for the second time in 2012 — making way for Angelo Matthews.
The perfect technique
As a batsman, Jayawardene’s technique is pure, touched with heavy dollops of elegance, the stroke-making smooth and serene. Untouched by time and blessed with the economy of style, he can bat on and on. Thus the colossal scores have been piled up — with various stints at the wicket amounting to 374, 275, 242, 240, 237 and 213 not out. Eight more of his 31 hundreds have been scores over 150.
Even when he bats in the shorter formats, hardly ever is a brutal stroke executed. The 2011 World Cup final against India was the defining example of impeccable cricketing shots, not one of the hits suggesting violence. Yet, gaps were found in the most meticulously set fields — every boundary a statement in class. Even when he struck a trademark Zaheer Khan in-swinging yorker over mid-off to bring up his hundred, it was just an extension of the coaching manual, not its savage mutilation.
A year earlier, in the Twenty 20 World Cup encounter against Zimbabwe he had given a masterclass of how methods rooted in orthodoxy can reap immense harvests in the most vulgar variant of the game. For a batsman of his class and temperament, Jayawardene’s overseas records remain a mystery. While his home numbers are staggering, with 6846 runs in 77 Tests at 61.12 with 22 hundreds, his performances abroad have generated a lot of scepticism regarding his claims to genuine greatness.
Yes, his slightly less than 4000 runs in away and neutral venues have come at a modest sub-40 average. While he scores at nearly 63 in India, the figures undergo a severe nosedive in the more demanding conditions of Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and England. It continues to supply fodder for his critics and remains baffling to his fans. Given his impeccable technique, there seems to be no reason for him to fail on any surface and atmosphere. And it is not that he is not capable of batting in foreign conditions. He has scored two hundreds at Lord’s, 141 at Napier, 104 at Hobart and 98 at Durban. Yet, somehow, the final results have been negative and he has failed to be consistent on wickets away from the sub-continent.
Perhaps he still has some good years of cricket left in him which will rectify this single blemish in his otherwise glittering career.
And even if he does not, he will be remembered for his composed elegance at the wicket as one of the top two batsmen in the history of Sri Lankan cricket — by fans and figures alike. 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 happiness streaking through the psyche of a perennially troubled nation.
(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)