Steve James, from the Telegraph, 22 May 2011
Pic courtesy of Getty
Aesthetes, take your seats. Beauty is on its way. Amid the muscular beasts that roam cricket’s Twenty20-filled landscape these days, there is still room for style, and batsmen do not come any more stylish than Sri Lanka’s Mahela Jayawardene. Is there a more elegant right-hander in the game right now? I would venture not. He really should have been a left-hander. Sachin Tendulkar will doubtless have his supporters, but are his strokes really quite as languid as Jayawardene’s? Tendulkar’s team-mate, VVS Laxman, might actually be easier on the eye. Warwickshire had two rather graceful batsmen in their ranks last week — the homegrown Ian Bell and their overseas import, Mohammad Yousuf. Michael Clarke has his moments, as once did his compatriot Mark Waugh. It is, of course, all subjective fun.
But I have been smitten by Jayawardene’s strokeplay ever since first setting eyes upon it in the town of Kurunegala, in central Sri Lanka, where he made a sublime century for Sri Lanka A against England A in 1998. The effects of the furnace-like heat, exacerbated by the huge rock that overlooks the ground, as well as the presence on the outfield of a huge brown snake that frightened the life out of fast bowler Jimmy Ormond as he ran around the boundary, were eased by the class of Jayawardene’s battingDreamy cover drives, impossibly late dab cuts and balanced clips through mid-wicket. It all seemed so easy. Little wonder that they say crowds would flock to watch him bat when he was just a 13 year-old at Nalanda College, a Buddhist school now of strong cricketing pedigree. Gone are the days when Royal and St Thomas produced all the players.
Jayawardene also caught flies at slip. Only the cold weather can explain why he shelled a couple of catches at Derby last week, because he has become one of the great slip fielders, especially to spin, which, to my mind, is the hardest of all close-catching positions.
He took 77 catches there for Muttiah Muralitharan, a Test record for a partnership between a bowler and a fielder who is not a wicketkeeper.
It was immediately apparent what a decent fellow Jayawardene is, ever-smiling and courteous. And he has not changed one iota. Anyone in the world game will aver. So only the coldest of hearts could have felt no sympathy for him when his wonderful century in the recent World Cup final was not enough for victory.
Not that Jayawardene would have courted pity. For Sri Lanka’s cricketers have experienced more of life’s cruel vicissitudes than most others; the civil war, the terrible tsunami and then the horrific terrorist attack on their team bus in Pakistan.
As well as that Jayawardene suffered an early personal tragedy, with his beloved younger brother Dhisal dying of cancer at just 16. Indeed amidst the grief he lost interest in cricket, and only the comforting counsel of Arjuna Ranatunga persuaded him along to the Singhalese Sports Club in Colombo to play again.
It is a moving tale, especially as the SSC became so special to Jayawardene. He has made 10 Test centuries there, beating Sir Donald Bradman’s record of nine on one ground at the Melbourne Cricket Ground. Mind you, as Jayawardene modestly points out, it took him 23 Tests. It took the Don just 11!
It has always been an easy line of criticism to state that Jayawardene can only bat at home. Indeed of his 28 Test centuries, 19 have come in Sri Lanka, with all six of his double-centuries, including his epic 374 against South Africa in 2006, coming in Asia.
But he has made two centuries at Lord’s, and one in Hobart too. Besides, Sri Lanka do not often travel abroad for Test matches. All of their six Tests in 2010 were at home.
Tired with the politicking still bedevilling Sri Lanka cricket, Jayawardene resigned asvice-captain after the World Cup, as did Kumar Sangakkara as captain and Trevor Bayliss as coach. He was once a surprisingly steely skipper, but the time for responsibility has passed. Now it is all about enjoyment. For him as a player and for us as observers.
Jayawardene is 34 on Friday. Catch him while you can.