Australia v Sri Lanka, 3rd Test, Sydney January 1, 2013

Sri Lanka owe Jayawardene a send-off

During his two stints as Sri Lanka's captain, Mahela Jayawardene has not just had to marshal the team on the field but deal with endless politics off it

Geoff Marsh had a brief but unhindered view into the workings of the Sri Lanka side, but after his sacking said it didn't take a head coach's insight to know everything there was know about the captaincy. "Every country needs to have its best captain," he began, "and the best captain in Sri Lanka is Mahela Jayawardene. I think everyone knows that."

Jayawardene is not the best player in Sri Lanka's ranks by some distance, nor is he its heart, its soul, its workhorse or its darling. He is the man who keeps things on an even keel. While Sri Lanka Cricket staggers from woe to unfathomable woe, stirring their whirlpool of turmoil ever-larger, Jayawardene has plucked the team out of a funk and kept its heart beating in his twelve months as leader.

He has shown no will to step away from Tests and is determined to have one more crack at a World Cup, but he is about to relinquish the reins, snug though they seem in his grip. Astute and assured at the helm, his side has owed him much in the past year, and if they can lift themselves out of Melbourne's mighty rut, they might repay him with the send-off his leadership deserves.

In many ways, Jayawardene has been Sri Lanka's best leader since Arjuna Ranatunga, and at times he has been peerless tactically, both among his nation's former captains and his contemporary rivals. His first stint as captain was defined by the bravado that his leadership was forged in. In his first Test at the helm, Sri Lanka were wiped out in two sessions in the first innings at Lord's, and were staring squarely at an innings loss until Jayawardene's 119 laid the foundation for a thrilling draw, and eventually, a shared series.

In the years that followed, Sri Lanka played a fearless brand of cricket, seeking safety through aggression, while wielding an attack whose colour became clout under Jayawardene's direction. Field placements were bold to the point of being experimental. Leg slip had almost left the game in the mid-2000s, but it has enjoyed a recent revival, thanks in large part to Jayawardene's canny employment of it to his spinners. Sustained success came too, and at one point, Sri Lanka were the second-ranked side in Tests, ODIs and Twenty20s simultaneously.

His second stint in the captaincy has seen Jayawardene adopt a more cautious approach, but although he has drawn criticism, some of it fair, for this new conservatism, his assignment has also been much steeper this time. Devoid of so wild a talent as Muttiah Muralitharan, and having inherited a team verging on listless, Jayawardene has led the side to three Test victories and their first series win in three years, against Pakistan.

Worse even than on-field woes has been the board, whose financial disarray has sparked a series of short-term manoeuvres likely to detriment Sri Lanka's cricket in the long term, and as its recent public spat with Jayawardene suggested, has an ever-worsening relationship with its captains.

In many ways, Jayawardene has been Sri Lanka's best leader since Arjuna Ranatunga, and at times he has been peerless tactically, both among his nation's former captains and his contemporary rivals

At a glance Jayawardene's decision to step down now is as puzzling as his choice to give up the captaincy in 2009. In his first tenure, Jayawardene had led the side to five Test series wins out of nine including victories against England and India, with three of those series drawn. In addition Sri Lanka had also progressed to their first World Cup final in 11 years and won the Asia Cup in 2008.

Yet, seemingly at the peak of his career and captaincy, Jayawardene passed the helm to Kumar Sangakkara, who could stand no more than two years of it himself. In most teams, leadership is an honour that is aspired to, but in Sri Lanka the well-suited men who have held the captaincy have treated and spoken about the post like flogging that must be endured with gritted teeth for the greater good.

That Jayawardene defended the board's decision to postpone three Tests against South Africa, effectively to allow the Sri Lanka Premier League to be played, also shows no shortage of diplomacy on his part. He has little to gain from the SLPL, but has been one of its most voracious advocates since the end of its first season, while the postponed Tests would have offered a chance to pit himself against the best side in the world, whom he has built an impressive home record against in the past.

Yet he finds his confidential letters to the board splayed in the press, and then warned of a reprimand, when he states he has lost confidence in a body who treats its captains thus.

He is about to play his final Test as captain now, and Jayawardene says it is because he hopes to guide his young successor in his first stretch of leadership. Angelo Mathews has the temperament of a leader and has had impressive brushes with captaincy, but to move from leading an SLPL side to becoming Sri Lanka's captain in all forms is like taking on Tolstoy, having only read comic books.

Beyond performance, strategy, motivation and man-management, Mathews will also need to be versed in politics and fire-fighting if he is to last long in the job, and he will do well to learn what he can from Jayawardene, for as long as he is around.

Shaking a side out of their gloom after a loss as deflating as Melbourne's will be a stiff task, even for a man as respected by his players as Jayawardene, particularly as they lack their best batsman and two of their better fast bowlers. But if this inexperienced team can muster a fight, they might give deserving captain a final Test to remember.

Andrew Fernando is ESPNcricinfo's Sri Lanka correspondent. He tweets here