Mahela Jayawardena, arguably Sri Lanka’s most elegant batsman of his generation and second only to Arjuna Ranatunga as a captain, leaves the game’s biggest stage this week, playing his last Test Match against Pakistan at his favourite hunting ground, the Sinhalese Sports Club (SSC) in Colombo.
Jayawardena had indicated that he would continue playing in the one-day format of the game until the World Cup in Australia and New Zealand next year. It is the one prize that has eluded him, having been in two World Cup finals and losing both, one of them as captain and after scoring a century in the other.
Jayawardena leaves a plethora of records to savour but he will be best remembered for his batting artistry, combining elegance with efficiency, which is why he has been successful across all versions of the games including the ‘instant’ T-20. He is one of a handful of cricketers to score a century in all three formats of the game.
Denagamage Proboth Mahela De Silva Jayawardena, now 37 years of age, is the son of Sunila and Senerath Jayawardena. Born and raised in Colombo, Jayewardena’s talent was evident at his school Nalanda College where he captained its cricket team in 1994. He was runner-up schoolboy cricketer that year.
As a schoolboy, Jayawardena almost gave up cricket. That was when his younger brother Dishal, died of a brain tumour at the age of 16. This affected Jayawardena psychologically and he gave up the game for some time. Eventually his parents persuaded him to start playing cricket again.
Jayawardena first played for Sri Lanka in a Test Match against India in 1997 at the age of 20, when the country was still savouring the afterglow of its World Cup win a year earlier. It is a game that is still remembered for producing the highest score by a team, when Sri Lanka scored a mammoth 952 runs.
Jayawardena announced his arrival on the Test arena with a classy half-century while Sanath Jayasuriya scored 340 and Roshan Mahanama weighed in with a double-century. The youngster was allowed to blossom in a set-up which included the likes of Arjuna Ranatunga and Aravinda de Silva.
"His greatest moment as a batsman came when he scored 374 and put on a Test record of 624 runs for the third wicket with his close friend Kumar Sangakkara (287) against South Africa at the SSC in July 2006"
And bloom he did by quickly making the world sit up and take notice with his in-the-trenches resolve and an approach that was easy on the eye. Seventeen years later, he has scored nearly 25,000 international runs including 34 Test centuries and has held 202 catches, second only to Rahul Dravid.
His greatest moment as a batsman came when he scored 374 and put on a Test record of 624 runs for the third wicket with his close friend Kumar Sangakkara (287) against South Africa at the SSC in July 2006. As his batting improved in leaps and bounds, the Sri Lankan captaincy beckoned.
He was appointed captain of the Sri Lanka cricket team in the one-day format from 2004 and then as overall captain from 2006 to 2009. In his first assignment as captain, Jayawardena led the team to England, drawing the Test series 1-1 and handing a 5-0 defeat to the hosts in the one-day series.
As a captain, Jayawardena has won critical acclaim not only for his tactical acumen but also for his calm demeanour under pressure. He is much respected in the cricketing fraternity for his gentlemanly conduct both on and off the field. He has a reputation of being a tough competitor, but a fair one.
These attributes are reflected in the International Cricket Council (ICC) awarding him the Captain of the Year award in 2006, Captain of the ‘World One-Day International Team of the Year’ that year and the ‘Spirit of Cricket Award’ for sportsmanship a year later.
The highlight of Jayawardena’s first stint as captain was leading Sri Lanka to the World Cup final in the West Indies in 2007, a game that Sri Lanka lost amid chaotic scenes in fading light. Jayawardena announced his resignation as captain shortly afterwards and Kumar Sangakkara took over the reins.
"Jayawardena announced his arrival on the Test arena with a classy half-century while Sanath Jayasuriya scored 340 and Roshan Mahanama weighed in with a double-century"
A similar fate was to befall Sangakkara who led Sri Lanka to the World Cup finals in India where Jayawardena scored a breathtaking century. His was the only century scored by a batsman on the losing side in a World Cup final. Thereafter, Sangakkara resigned. Tillekeratne Dilshan succeeded him.
Dilshan’s tenure as skipper was short-lived. In January 2012, Jayawardena, ‘Maiya’ to his team mates, was reappointed as captain. He returned to the job with a bang, immediately plotting the then world number one England’s downfall with a memorable 180 and excellent captaincy in the Galle Test.
In his second stint as skipper Jayawardena was clear that he was keen to step down when a successor was ready to take over the captaincy. After Jayawardena lost the World T-20 final to the West Indies in Colombo in 2012, he resigned as skipper in that format and Angelo Mathews took over.
One year later, Angelo Mathews had been appointed as captain in all formats of the game after Jayawardena announced his resignation, first from the T-20 format after winning the World Cup in Dhaka and now from the Test arena. As Mathews said, his calming influence in the dressing room will be missed.
Usually diplomatic in his public utterances but outspoken when the occasion demands, Jayawardena has had his share of run-ins with Sri Lanka Cricket (SLC), criticising the game’s administrators. In private, he is a very sensitive man: he is known to carry a photograph of his brother with him always.
His only blemish was when he was among a handful of players lobbying for changes in the itinerary to a tour of England, so that they could participate in the cash-rich Indian Premier league. That apart, Jayawardena has remained the modest and unassuming gentleman that he was seventeen years ago.
Announcing his retirement, Jayawardena hinted that he was keen to spend more time with his wife Christina and their eight-month-old daughter. Sri Lankan cricket and its current crop of players will be fortunate if they can enlist the services of this truly outstanding cricketer in some capacity in the years to come.