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AOC’s Most Loved Cricketers: No.27 Mahela Jayawardene

With eight Test centuries, more than 2,000 runs and an average just shy of 60 against the Three Lions, Sri Lanka’s silky strokemaker Mahela Jayawardene has been a thorn in England’s side for the best part of 15 years. But for the all the frustration he has caused England, he has never been anything but a sheer joy to watch: with the supplest wrists in the game, the languid, effortless off side drives to die for and an unflinching appetite for runs, runs and more runs. 

In 2006, Jaywardene captained his country with calm, understated authority during a tour which saw Sri Lanka push England all the way in a Test series that ended all-square at 1-1 before the tourists thumped their hosts 5-0 in the ODI series that followed. It was the start of a stellar, record-breaking year for Jayawardene. Our friends at the Wisden Almanack pick up the story.

Mahela Jayawardene – Wisden Cricketer of the Year 2007

The prodigious cricketing talent of Sri Lanka has not been in doubt for a decade now. But 10 years on from the World Cup, some things remained in doubt: above all the team’s ability to break free of the mental shackles of over two decades of overseas failure, and emerge triumphant from a major tour. In 2006, the Sri Lankans, forced to play three Tests in the unwelcoming English spring, came back to draw a series that was all but lost, before routing England in the one-day games. At the centre of this transformation was Mahela Jayawardene, their 29-year-old leader, who inspired a youthful team to play spirited, intelligent and adventurous cricket.

When the team returned home, even Jayawardene’s most trenchant critics were in retreat. A few months before, they had been lamenting his appointment in the absence of the injured Marvan Atapattu, predicting that he would be overawed by the new responsibility. A vocal section of the local media had long since pigeon-holed Jayawardene as a frustratingly careless and softbellied underachiever.

For a batsman averaging close to 50 after nine years of Test cricket, this criticism was unfair, the product of the towering hopes he generated. Born in Colombo on May 27, 1977, Denagamage Proboth Mahela De Silva Jayawardene was earmarked for international cricket from an early age. At Nalanda College, a famous cricketing school, he scored prodigiously; at 20 he strolled into the Test team. A classy 66 on debut against India in 1997 was followed by a masterful 167 against New Zealand in Galle the following year. Ever since, expectations have been cruelly high. Nevertheless, he himself had admitted to frustration with his consistency, especially after a wretched 2003 World Cup (21 runs in seven innings). When he arrived in England, his average during his previous 15 Tests had been 38.13. “By my standards that is not enough,” he said. “People expect a lot from me and that’s fair enough – I too was disappointed that fifties were not being converted into hundreds more frequently.”

Thus Jayawardene arrived in England under pressure as a batsman and on trial as a captain. The biggest concern was whether the burden of leadership would encumber his batting: he had already been sacked twice as vice-captain, in 2000 and 2005, because the selectors felt it was affecting his game. But there were also doubts as to whether he possessed the necessary steel, imagination and communication skills to be a top-class leader. The doubts were silenced at Lord’s when he marshalled Sri Lanka’s miraculous escape in the first Test, one of the game’s great rearguards. It started with 61 out of 192 in the first innings and continued with a defiant six-hour 119 in the second, a sublime batting exhibition that provided the cornerstone of a 199-over rescue mission. Immaculate defence combined with serene strokeplay, especially the wristy flicks to leg and some princely cover-driving. Jayawardene always bats with an implacable air, but this time a heightened intensity could be glimpsed beneath the surface.

Mahela Jayawardene celebrates a century at Lord's in 2006
A pumped up Mahela Jayawardene celebrates his match-saving century at Lord’s

This escape filled the team with a new self-belief. For Jayawardene, it provided the catalyst for an abundant year, as well as the authority to shape the team. Far from being a burden, the captaincy lifted his game to a higher plane. During the one-day series there came an aggressive new strategy. England started as favourites, but Sri Lanka exploited the extended 20-over powerplays, and snatched the initiative through the audacity of their top order batting. Jayawardene was the star, scoring back-to-back hundreds and a fifty to finish with 328 runs at an average of 109.33 and a strike-rate of 101.86. In the field, he pulled off spectacular catches, energised his players and frequently outwitted England’s batsmen.

Sri Lanka’s decision to “return to their roots”, as Jayawardene calls it, reflected the captain’s growing influence, and a departure from the more reactive styles of his predecessors. He urged his players to express their natural flair and stamp their authority on opponents. “You have to be brave in cricket,” he argues. “By taking chances you create opportunities to claim the initiative. One of Sri Lanka’s strengths is the flair of our cricketers, and we must exploit this. We should not play like Australia or India or England – we should play like Sri Lanka.” Far from being too soft, as some had feared, he forged a new egalitarian ethos in the team, demanding a high level of commitment and focus, while at the same time urging them to enjoy themselves, on and off the field. “As soon as you panic or get tense, you stop thinking,” he says. “A successful team needs 11 thinkers.”

He did not ease off after England. In July, on an admittedly bland Colombo pitch, he ground down the South African bowlers for 374, Test cricket’s fourth-highest score. This was no meaningless statistic either – Sri Lanka won the game and the series, thanks also to his 123 in the record-breaking run-chase of the second Test. The selectors had seen enough, confirming him as the long-term leader just days after he was named Captain of the Year at the ICC Awards. As ever, he was modest: “A captain is only as good as his team,” he said.

© John Wisden & Co

First published in 1864, The Wisden Almanack is still recognised throughout the cricket world as the definitive recorder of the game. Click here to buy the 2012 edition of the Wisden Almanack

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