x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Mahela Jayawardene bowing out in style for Sri Lanka

Jayawardene's brisk 72 gave Sri Lanka's bowlers something to defend after the depressingly one-sided capitulation in Melbourne.

Sri Lanka captain Mahela Jayawardene, with bat, struck a 72 against Australia in Sydney yesterday in what will be his last match leading the side. Sri Lanka finished the day on 294 all out.
Sri Lanka captain Mahela Jayawardene, with bat, struck a 72 against Australia in Sydney yesterday in what will be his last match leading the side. Sri Lanka finished the day on 294 all out.

It was not a flattering statistic. In three years of cricket away from home, Mahela Jayawardene had not crossed 50 in an innings once.

In the same period, he had averaged 47 at home, with hundreds against India, Australia and England (twice).

His critics would say that those figures were entirely in keeping with a career built on incredible home displays - he averages 61 in Sri Lanka - and adequate performances away.

This, though, is a man with a century in every Test-playing country apart from South Africa.

On the opening day of the Sydney Test against Australia yesterday, Michael Hussey dropped him at slip when he had made just four.

Jayawardene, 35, could not go on to make a second century on Australian soil, but his brisk 72, allied with 91 from the promising Lahiru Thirimanne, gave Sri Lanka's bowlers something to defend after the depressingly one-sided capitulation in Melbourne.

For Jayawardene, captaining the national side for the final time, this is a first game at the Sydney Cricket Ground, in the 16th year of a career that has taken him to the top of Sri Lanka's run-scoring charts.

When he was in his prime, and Muttiah Muralitharan was around, Sri Lanka never got a Test in Sydney.

The Boxing Day Test humiliation was the first time Sri Lanka had been invited back for the showpiece occasion in 17 years.

After he had led the side to a 2-1 series win against India in 2008, he spoke about the two-tier system that exists in Test cricket, with countries like Sri Lanka left with the scraps of the Future Tours Programme.

"I'd also love to score 10,000 runs," he said at the time, lamenting his country's Test itinerary.

At that stage, Jayawardene had played 98 Tests in 11 years. To put that into perspective, Alastair Cook, who has not even completed seven years in the international arena, has 87 caps. This year, Sri Lanka will not play another Test until December.

A board that prioritises limited-overs cricket - the fans come through the turnstiles only for that these days - may be to blame, but it is harsh on players who value Test accomplishments.

Kumar Sangakkara too has gone past 10,000 runs, but in the final years of illustrious careers, both he and Jayawardene, his great friend, have been reduced to cameo appearances in the five-day game.

It came as a surprise to many when Jayawardene took on the captaincy again after having relinquished it to Sangakkara in 2009.

Both men, however, have made no secret of the fact that they want transition to be a smooth affair, with someone like Angelo Mathews easing into the job.

Sangakkara, the same age as Jayawardene but who made his debut three years later in 2000, lasted just two years in the top job, giving it up after the defeat to India in the 2011 World Cup final.

"If you're not intimately involved in Sri Lankan cricket, it may look a surprising decision," he said afterwards. "Even a selfish one, as some have called it.

"But when it comes to preparing for World Cups, it's very stressful. It can get combative and frustrating. At the end of it you sit down and think, 'I've had a great run, I've enjoyed myself but maybe this is the time to move away and take a more detached view'."

The subtext was clear. Sri Lanka Cricket is an overtly political animal. Selectors are often ministerial appointees. Squads can be changed if you have enough influence. When a captain tries to leave his imprint on the side and how it plays, it is not always appreciated.

With late payment of salaries a recurring problem, there have been plenty of off-field issues to distract Jayawardene and team in recent times.

Just before the second Test, there was the case of the team wanting to share their ICC World Twenty20 fees with the support staff, a request that SLC had turned down.

The matter found its way into a Sri Lankan paper, prompting an angry response from Jayawardene.

"As the captain of the national team, I am disturbed and deeply disappointed that a confidential document handed over to Sri Lanka Cricket has been published in the Daily Mirror on December 19 causing much concern, embarrassment to players and other staff members," he wrote.

The likes of Sachin Tendulkar and Cook are rightly celebrated for their run-scoring feats. But when assessing Jayawardene and his career, the stories behind the numbers are as important.

He may not have done justice to his talent away from home, but he and his team have had to face challenges of a very different kind.

 

sports@thenational.ae