Gentleman Jayawardene, the elegant run-machine
COLOMBO — One of the game’s most elegant stroke-makers, Mahela Jayawardene, enjoyed a fitting farewell to Test cricket at his home ground as Sri Lanka completed a 2-0 series sweep against Pakistan Monday.
Few cricketers exemplified the spirit of the game better than the gentlemanly 37-year-old, though his pleasant demeanor hid nerves of steel, a calculating, street-smart mind and an obsessive drive for perfection.
His final innings at his favorite Sinhalese Sports Club (SSC) in Colombo Sunday had been yet another classy knock of 54 that saw him complete the milestone of a half century of Test fifties.
He had retired from Twenty20 Internationals after Sri Lanka’s title-winning campaign in the World T20 in April, but will continue in the 50-over game hoping to compete in next year’s one-day World Cup in Australia.
Jayawardene is one of only five batsmen to score more than 11,000 runs in both Test and one-day cricket — the others being Sachin Tendulkar, Ricky Ponting, Jacques Kallis and teammate Kumar Sangakkara.
That he finished with an average of 49.84 over 149 Tests with 34 hundreds, six times passing 200, illustrates his irrepressible hunger for runs through a 17-year-career.
Although his form outside Asia had been inconsistent, he set a deluge of records at home.
He scored a monumental 374 during a world record partnership of 624 with Sangakkara (287) against a South African attack that included Dale Steyn and Makhaya Ntini at the SSC in 2006.
Jayawardene looked set to surpass Brian Lara’s record of 400 when he was bowled against the run of play. Ever the teamman, he preferred to rejoice in his team’s huge win by an innings and 153 runs.
He got an immediate taste of big scores on his Test debut as a 20-year-old in 1997, when Sri Lanka piled up a world record total of 952-6 declared against India at the Premadasa Stadium in Colombo.
Slated to bat at No. 6, the young Jayawardene saw Sanath Jayasuriya make 340, supported by Roshan Mahanama (225), before himself scoring 66.
Jayawardene’s farewell Test was originally scheduled to be played at the P. Sara Oval in Colombo before officials accepted a request to move it to the SSC.
His 2,921 runs in 27 Tests at the SSC are the most by any batsman at a single ground, marked by an average of 74.89 with 11 centuries and nine 50s. Last month, against Hashim Amla’s South African team, Jayawardene showed his skills had not diminished as he once again reveled in the serene surroundings of the SSC to make a fluent 165.
He bid farewell to another happy hunting ground in Galle in the first Test just over a week ago by making 59 in the first innings, and 26 in the unfamiliar role of an opener in the second as Sri Lanka beat fading light and approaching rain to chase down a target of 99 with 4.2 overs to spare against Pakistan.
Jayawardene was almost lost for words as he addressed a crowd that included Sri Lanka’s President Mahinda Rajapakse after the match Monday.
“I don’t know what to say, but I promise I won’t cry,” Jayawardene said at the presentation ceremony.
“I love you all. Thank you so much for the support all these years. I still have a little bit left and I promise I’ll give it my all for the World Cup.
“Thanks also to my team-mates. It’s been great to play for Sri Lanka for so many years. I have always worn this cap with pride and passion.”
A prolific slip-catcher, Jayawardene’s 202 catches are second only to India’s Rahul Dravid who holds the record for a fielder other than a wicket-keeper with 210.
Jayawardene was also an astute captain who took Sri Lanka to the World Cup final in 2007. He quit the post in 2009, but continued to play under Sangakkara and Tillakaratne Dilshan before he took on the job again in 2012 for a year as Angelo Mathews was groomed.
Off the field, Jayawardene is the co-owner with Sangakkara of an upmarket fish restaurant in Colombo.
Sangakkara had said ahead of the match that his good friend will be hard to replace.
“Not just me, but the cricket world, Sri Lankan fans and our whole team will feel the loss of a great player like Mahela,” Sangakkara said. “It will take a long time to fill that void.”
Pakistan captain Misbah-ul Haq described Jayawardene as a legend whose absence in the Test arena will be felt by all.
“Not only Sri Lankans, fans all over the world are going to miss him,” Misbah said. “I really wish him best of luck in life. He is really a legend.”
Jayawardene said Sri Lanka, which won the World Cup in 1996, would prosper without him — as it had done after the Test retirement of world bowling record-holder Muttiah Muralitharan in 2010.
“When Murali retired, people said we won’t win without him,” the former captain said. “But we are still doing well. There are others who will do even better than us.”
Jayawardene added that he felt he had quit at the right time despite still showing good form with the bat.
“I took the decision to retire after a lot of serious thought,” he said. “I was fortunate to have played for 17 years so it was not an easy decision to make.
“But I think the time was right to go. It was a gut feeling and I have always gone by my gut feelings in the past.
“We do not have many Tests for a year now. I have played enough and it is time for the younger players to take over.
“I have very pleasant memories of my career. I enjoyed this phase of my life, I learnt a lot and good things entered my life. I cherish every moment of it.”