By Madan Mohan
A question frequently posed by Sri Lankan watchers is: Why is Mahela Jayawardene not often mentioned as one of the great modern batsmen? Concededly, it’s a fair question as he is the backbone of the Lankan middle-order along with Kumar Sangakarra and with an average of 53, a tally of 9600 runs and 28 centuries. Given the ongoing Sri Lanka-England Test series, this is a good time to revisit this question.
The knee-jerk reaction, meanwhile, to this question tends to be that the English and Australian press are partisan and their Indian counterpart jingoistic and they thus grudge due credit to Jayawardene. The allegations are not entirely unfounded, but I don’t believe at the same time that a successful cricketer goes unacknowledged. I have also read effusive praise of some Jayawardene innings from English or Australian writers. So, notwithstanding the less impartial ones of the lot, there are fairer observers of the game across nations. There must be some reason then why Jayawardene is rarely spoken of in the same breath as Jacques Kallis (in his capacity as a batsman).
Numbers don’t lie, but unless you look at all the numbers, they won’t tell you the truth. So let’s break down the figures some more. The bone of contention here is the disproportionate number of matches Jayawardene has played at home. Of a total of 118 matches played to date, he has played 67 at home. His average in Sri Lanka is 63.89, his highest in all conditions.
More tellingly, at home he has scored 6000 of his 9600 runs and 19 of his 28 centuries. Outside the sub continent, his highest average is 42 in the West Indies. He has a lowest of 28 in New Zealand, but the general range is from 30 to 40 (excluding India and Zimbabwe). So, he has not done badly abroad, but it would appear from these that he is significantly less successful abroad than at home.
It must be said here that Jayawardene is not to blame if the Sri Lankan Cricket Board did not schedule more matches abroad or if they were not invited by other boards, as applicable. But a batsman’s greatness can be gauged from a few key knocks and if Jayawardene had struck some such in his relatively few tours, that should be persuasive enough for the discerning cricket watcher.
However, here too, the home advantage seems to weigh in heavily. All of his big tons have come in the sub continent, if not at home. There is a view that merely that the match was held in the sub continent should not by itself discredit the players’ performances. I fully endorse this view, but it is reasonable to assume a great batsman would produce some of those big knocks even outside the sub continent if he can do so in it.
But Jayawardene’s highest score outside the sub continent is 141 at New Zealand. His next highest is 136 at West Indies. He has no other scores above 120 outside the sub continent. He has a whopping six double centuries in the sub continent!
All this suggests a player who is a bit too much more comfortable in the sub continent than outside it. Most players, greats included, cash in more at home, but they approach the same measure of formidability abroad too. It is after all the fact that they can be expected to thwart the opposition in all or most conditions that makes them great as opposed to very good players.
I love watching Jayawardene’s batting and consider him one of the most elegant batsmen going around currently in international cricket. But with a heavy heart, I have to say that after a hard look at his numbers, I could not convince myself that he is indeed a modern great. I look to future innings of this very talented and mature batsman for something to make me happily eat my words.
(Madan Mohan, a 25-year old CA from Mumbai, is passionate about writing, music and cricket. Writing on cricket is like the icing on the cake.)