At age 37 and with hundreds of innings behind him, Mahela Jayawardene tried something new in his next-to-last test match – a move typical of his innovative attitude when it involves pursuing victories for Sri Lanka.
He opened the innings for the first time in a test match – his 148th – on the last day at Galle as Sri Lanka chased 99 runs to win, with time running out and rain imminent. He propelled the hosts to a seven-wicket win over Pakistan with a few overs to spare, giving him the chance to clinch a series win on his home ground when he plays his last test from Thursday.
One of cricket’s most elegant and enduring batsmen takes an average of 50 – he has 11,756 runs from 250 test innings – into the second test at the Sinhalese Sports Club, where he will be a key to Sri Lanka’s goal of achieving the win or draw it needs to hold off Pakistan.
Jayawardene broke into test cricket in 1997 on the strength of his solid batting technique but a broadening of his stroke-play meant he also established himself as an accomplished limited-overs batsman.
His fluent drives, deft cuts and fine flicks made him a popular player to watch, as he seemed to play most of his shots with the soft grip and supple hands reminiscent of batsmen of earlier eras.
And his successful combination with good friend Kumar Sangakkara helped Sri Lanka long remain a formidable team in in the international arena, particularly on home soil.
Jayawardene’s top score of 374 – the fourth highest individual score in test cricket – came during a world-record partnership of 624 runs with Sangakkara, who scored 287. Eight years later, both played their parts in last week’s win at Galle. Together, they’ll likely lead the way again in Colombo in partnership for the last time in the five-day format.
“I don’t think you can take anything away from the fact that Mahela has been one of the most elegant, most prolific batsmen not just of his generation but in the game in its entirety,” Sangakkara said.
Jayawardene, who has posted 34 test centuries and 49 half centuries, always had a penchant for big scores and reveled on the Indian sub-continent.
He has scored all his five test double-centuries close to home – either in Sri Lanka, India or Pakistan – and also a triple-century on home ground against South Africa in 2006.
Voted the International Cricket Council’s best international captain in 2006 and the best test player in 2007, Jayawardene was considered the ideal team man and frequently guided Sri Lanka out of trouble in games.
He was also a fine fielder with more than 200 catches in tests and one-dayers. Many were off the bowling of spinner Muttiah Muralitharan; test cricket’s most prolific bowler with 800 wickets.
Muralitharan considers Jayawardene among the best players that Sri Lanka has ever produced.
“He is one of the greatest to have played for Sri Lanka. He is in that group with Aravinda de Silva and Sanath Jayasuriya, who have all contributed so much to Sri Lankan cricket,” he said.
Jayawardene’s long quest for an ICC world title ended when Sri Lanka won the World Twenty20 earlier this year in Bangladesh after two previous final appearances.
But the coveted World Cup title has so far evaded Jayawardene, who made his international debut the year after Sri Lanka won the prestigious tournament for the only time. He has been part of two teams that lost the final.
Jayawardene was the captain when Sri Lanka lost to Australia in fading light in the West Indies in 2007, and in 2011 he was again on the losing side, against India, despite scoring a century himself.
“I would swap that century any day for a championship medal,” Jayawardene said following the 2011 final at Wankhede Stadium.
And that’s his biggest motivation to continue playing in the limited-overs format, at least until March next year.
Jayawardene will devote the next six months to one-day cricket, with the aim of breaking his personal drought when the World Cup is held in Australia and New Zealand early in 2015.
Follow our sports coverage on twitter at @SprtNationalUAE