Over the past month or so I have read three articles by different authors, on ESPN Cricinfo lauding the captaincy of Sri Lanka’s new skipper Mahela Jayawardene. Arran’s recent blog post served only to affirm these plaudits. So what is it about Mahela that endears Sri Lankans, and indeed cricket followers worldwide?
The first time I saw Mahela play over a continuous period was in the home series against England in 2000-2001. By this point he was well established in the side, and murmurs were already float about his potential for being a future captain of Sri Lanka. However in the following few years he would develop a reputation as an elegant batsman who rarely performed under pressure, or surrendered his wicket liberally when well set. Similarly, in the field he was capable of spectacular catches but also dropped regulation chances frequently. One of the lowest points of his international career was probably when he was dropped from the starting XI during the 2003 World Cup campaign after a prolonged run of poor form.
However he was soon back in the side and gradually improving his game, and established himself as the vice-captain of the side. For me, the summer of 2006, which I was lucky to see most of, was the making of Mahela Jayawardene, and heralded new era of Sri Lankan cricket. It all began with a tour of England.
The tour began in chaos for Sri Lanka. An injury to captain Marvan Attapattu and a controversial test retirement from Sanath Jayasuriya (who would later re-emerge) left Sri Lanka without their experienced opening pair in testing English conditions in May. England were a strong side with influential all-rounder Andrew Flintoff at the peak of his powers. Thrust into the captaincy, Mahela had a massive challenge on his hands. Three days into the first test at Lord’s, England were predictably in total control, with Sri Lanka following on three wickets down, still more than 150 runs in arrears. On Day 4 Mahela repelled Flintoff and co. with a fighting century full of grit and determination. The lower order were inspired and stole a “Great Escape” draw, a result which would lay the platform for a test series draw, and a thumping 5-0 whitewash in the one day internationals. Mahela was prolific with the bat throughout, and showed commendable tactical nous and good leadership as he forged a fruitful partnership with coach Tom Moody. His catching, previously so inconsistent, was flawless.
The summer of 2006 was to become even more momentous for Mahela in the home series against South Africa, where two memorable innings helped Sri Lanka sweep the series. While the 374 in the first test will be remembered for its magnitude and a record breaking partnership with Kumar Sangakkara, it is the 123 in the second test that stands out for me. In the fourth innings on a wearing pitch, Mahela’s hundred was crucial in Sri Lanka overhauling a stiff target in excess of 350- further proof that he was now a batsman who could deliver when it really mattered.
There are too many more magic Mahela innings to recount here, but two wonderfully paced hundreds in World Cup crunch games deserve a mention. The first in the 2007 semi-final against New Zealand, which saw the side into the final. The second in the final itself in 2011 against the Indians, which did not deserve to be scripted in a losing cause.
Mahela is one of the finest tacticians in the modern international game. He is particularly inventive in one day cricket, and attacks to take wickets in order to slow the opposition’s scoring, rather than use default defensive fields employed by many modern captains. One particular masterstroke that I remember fondly came in the 2007 World Cup game against England. With the game slipping away, Mahela pressured his premier bowler Muttiah Muralitharan to bowl during the powerplay, something which he was known to dislike. With an attacking field he managed to tease out the wicket of England’s key batsman Kevin Pietersen, caught and bowled by Murali. England’s innings derailed thereafter, and despite a late fightback Sri Lanka won by 2 runs. In the recent CB series down under, after Lasith Malinga was clattered at over 12 runs an over by the Indians, rather than hide his strike bowler in a must win clash with the Aussies, he backed his proven match-winner, and was rewarded with a great performance that helped Sri Lanka into the finals.
During the golden summer of 2006, this ESPN Cricinfo article described Mahela as “the epitome of an evolving Sri Lankan side”. One comment from Mahela himself the author quotes in this piece sums up the self-belief that was coursing through the side at that time- “Everyone is learning and everyone knows that if you put your mind and belief in the group of the players that we have got then we can do a lot of things that people have not seen before.”. Watching the CB series this winter, I got the impression that same feeling was beginning to blossom in the side once again.
There were a few minor blemishes for Mahela in the series. The unfamiliar territory of a 40 over bonus point target in the penultimate group game against India induced an uncharacteristically defensive mindset, which whilst understandable, ultimately played into India’s hands. Another was an altercation with the umpires in the second final that would land him a fine from the match referee. Whilst probably deserving of mild punishment, many cricket followers empathised with his frustration after the side shelled catch after catch in the field. One delayed no-ball call by the umpire was enough to set him off. I remember a similar instance in the 2006 England tour in the third test, where, with the game delicately poised, Mahela chased a wide delivery and edged behind to be dismissed. Furious with himself, he clattered down the stumps with his bat, (immediately apologised to the umpires) , and walked off. This also landed him in hot water with the match referee, but was perhaps another instance where many Sri Lankan fans were endeared to this rare emotional reaction from the skipper, and shared in his frustration. These matches meant something, and it was plain to see this was a captain who cared.
Needless to say, Mahela is well respected by his teammates, opponents, commentators and the media. When he resigned from the captaincy in early 2009, I thought it slightly premature. Perhaps he was pressured by poor team and personal form at the time. Perhaps he felt obliged to make way for his right-hand man and close friend Kumar Sangakkara. Whatever the reasons, he is back for a second tenure now, however long it may be. It certainly seems that with him at the helm, the Sri Lankan team is more than the sum of its parts.