Tuesday, 7 January 2014 00:16
Twin failures in the Abu Dhabi Test left Mahela Jayawardene without a half-century in his last 14 innings. At 36, he finds his place in Sri Lanka’s team under question for the first time
Kusal Perera to replace injured Thirimanne
ESPNCricinfo: Out three times off the last three balls he has faced, all to a 22-year-old on debut. It can’t feel great to be Mahela Jayawardene right now. Perhaps, given that he became a father only a month ago, there is only so low he can feel, and to his credit cricket has never consumed him to the extent it defines so many other players. But it is the kind of Test match a 36-year-old really does not want to have, not even if he owns more than 10,000 runs and 30 hundreds, not even if he has been a no-brainer choice in every Sri Lanka side for 15 years.
That he let Misbah-ul-Haq’s paddle sweep slip through his fingers after having anticipated the shot so cleverly in the first innings will only strengthen whispers that Jayawardene’s mind remains sharp but his reflexes and hand-eye coordination are beginning to wane. After all, besides the wristy flicks and slow-motion drives, Jayawardene has also taken more international catches than any other fielder. If he takes 17 more in Tests, he will surpass Rahul Dravid’s record in the format.
If it seems ludicrous to even consider dropping Jayawardene, that’s because it is. Detractors point to an average of 22.27 in his last nine away Tests, stretching back to May 2011, but omit the vital innings he has played at home since. Jayawardene’s record outside Asia is famously poor, but he has played in 53 of Sri Lanka’s 66 Test victories – second only to Muttiah Muralitharan who played in 54. It would also be a mistake to assume runs in Sri Lanka means runs on flat pitches. Galle is as stern a Test of batting technique as the Gabba or Headingley. Of Jayawardene’s record 2698 runs at the Sinhalese Sports Club, over half have been in wins and just over 8% in losses.
Significant stress on Jayawardene
Yet, there is significant stress on Jayawardene as he seeks to contribute in the remaining matches. Forces within the team’s governing body have gathered against him for some time, and while chief selector Sanath Jayasuriya has been immune to such pressures in his 11 months in office, he will find Jayawardene’s inclusion harder to justify if the batsman has a poor series.
The young players’ rich returns in the first Test also tighten the tourniquet on Jayawardene. He was the only batsman in the top seven not to get a start in either innings, and if the likes of Angelo Mathews and Dinesh Chandimal sustain success on their own, the inspiration and encouragement of an older man at the other end becomes less necessary. Nothing makes a senior player seem beyond his best like younger, less-decorated batsmen enhancing the magnitude of his failure.
Adversity has coaxed the best from Jayawardene before, even if he has rarely faced the sort that challenged his future in the side. He is by some distance the lead contributor to the Sri Lankan subset of great Test innings.
His 119 at Lord’s in 2006 reeled the team out of an almighty whirlpool after they had surrendered a 359-run deficit in the first innings. His 374 against South Africa in a winning cause later in the year speaks for itself, but the 123 in the next Test of the series, which took Sri Lanka to a one-wicket win while chasing 352 in the fourth innings, is vastly underrated.
More recently, he made 180 in Galle to help topple the then No.1 England team, in a Sri Lankan innings in which no one else managed more than 27. A 105 on a dusty, broken, fright of a pitch followed in the second Test of that series. It is often said of good innings that the batsman appears to have played on a different surface from the one his team-mates have encountered, but in full flow, Jayawardene’s wrists and blade are governed by an altogether alien set of physical laws.
So perhaps it is unfair to compare Jayawardene’s six months and 14 international innings without a half-century with Kumar Sangakkara’s enduring – even improving – consistency. You don’t rate Hendrix on his prowess with the French horn, nor a Tarantino film on its realism. Opinions vary wildly on whether Jayawardene is a great player, but as has been written about Kevin Pietersen, there is no doubt he is a player of extraordinary innings.
For the remainder of the series at the very least, Jayawardene’s place will be rightly unquestioned. Not only will Angelo Mathews resist making such a bold call on his first full overseas tour as captain, he will also likely balk at the thought of spurning a mentor that way. But cricket’s most exquisite surviving stylist and one of Sri Lanka’s most monumental match-winners does not deserve to have his twilight marred by talk of decline, and two good Tests will ensure Jayawardene does not suffer that indignity.