January 2, 2009

Destined to rewrite all records

Mahela Jayawardene has yet to become the best that he can be, which is exciting to contemplate

Mahela combines perfectly touch and power, which is why he is successful in all formats of the game, against both pace and spin © Getty Images

To reach the milestone of a hundred Test matches is a special moment in any cricketer's career, and in the case of Mahela Jayawardene, our captain, that moment has arrived with him aged just 31. He will be playing his 100th match in Chittagong, on the back of a fascinating first Test - a game in which he, typically, provided the main foundation with a brilliant 166. The team is truly excited about sharing the milestone with this inspirational man who has led us so honestly, unselfishly and intelligently in the last three years.

His 100th Test comes in the wake of a trying few months for him personally. The recent advent of the IPL and the ensuing drama of the Sri Lankan tour to England have seen a brutal and completely undeserved personal attack against him by some sections of the local media. The pressure that comes with leading a side in a cricket-mad country has been augmented by petty jibes and vituperative rhetoric, making recent months a trial by fire for him and testing his patience and character to the utmost. As he has proved time and again on the cricket pitch, though, patience and character he has in abundance. He has come out of controversy with his head held high, his mind clear, and seemingly hungrier than ever to do what he does best: leading his country, winning games and scoring runs.

Of all the batting heroes Sri Lanka has produced - the Sathasivams, the Aravindas and Jayasuriyas - Mahela seems to be the one destined to rewrite all the records. He is already the leading run- and century-scorer in Test cricket for our country, and he is well on his way to reaching a similar milestone in ODIs as well. I see him passing 10,000 runs and 35 hundreds in Tests with ease, and only the current trend of more Twenty20s and fewer ODIs can stand in the way of him reaching similar heights in the 50-overs game.

Mahela was from a young age marked for greatness. Since he was 15, he was spoken of as the next batting prodigy for Sri Lanka. His run-scoring ability and style, cricket awareness and maturity were spoken of in awe and admiration, to such an extent that he seemed larger than life - a Gulliver in our Lilliputian world of Under-17 cricket. So great was the hype that I felt let down the first time I met him. Out walked this average-sized kid with a quirky smile and ready friendship and I remember thinking, "This can't be him. He's just like us."

That was until he had a bat in his hand. The sense of the ordinary was replaced by a steely determination and a wonderfully special batting talent. Even today, all he has done is refine the strokes that he already possessed at 15. Watching him bat it was easy to see the reason for the expectation building around him. It was going to be a question of when he would play for Sri Lanka, never if.

His reading of the game is instinctive. It helps him pace his innings well. The periods of lull and acceleration of his innings are well planned. This is why I like batting with him. It is easy to get into a rhythm with him Kumar Sangakkara on Mahela Jayawardene

Having known him from a young age, it was easy for me to see what made him different: passion and character. Everything he does is with passion. Playing cricket, winning, training, improving; his commitment to family and his life away from the game - he gives himself fully to all that he does.

It is his strength of character that has enabled him to overcome various obstacles: The tragic death of his brother; being thrust into responsibility as vice-captain of the team in a difficult period of transition; losing the position, then regaining it to go on and become a very successful captain.

For Mahela, to do something is to do it well. No half-measures. This is what makes him successful in cricket and also very annoying in our pre-match warm-up games. To win in a game of soccer, touch rugby or torpedo is to him a matter of pride. No quarter given, none asked for.

This passion is what makes him a tough opponent on the cricket field. As a batsman he is blessed with every stroke imaginable. The defense, the drive, the signature flick off the leg and hip, the deft cut and pull. Mahela combines perfectly touch and power, which is why he is successful in all formats of the game, against both pace and spin.

His reading of the game is instinctive. It helps him pace his innings well. The periods of lull and acceleration of his innings are well planned. This is why I like batting with him. It is easy to get into a rhythm with him.

He also has the important characteristic of being able to bat long innings, as he has proved time and again. This ability to be patient and to attack has made him successful all over the world. His two hundreds at Lord's and his efforts in New Zealand and Australia are testament to this ability. His innings against South Africa in Colombo in chasing down a fourth-innings target of 350, and again in the World Cup semi-finals against New Zealand show that he does not shirk responsibility but thrives under pressure. As a batsman he is a true match-winner.

His contribution as a fielder and part-time bowler is usually, and probably rightly, overshadowed by his batting. Standing at slip, he is equal to Mark Waugh in catching ability. The Mahela-Murali combination has resulted in many a batsman's dejected walk back to the pavilion. As a bowler his contribution has diminished, yet there was a time, like in the 1999 World Cup, where he did step up to bowl effectively when needed.

Mahela fully blossomed as a player upon assuming the captaincy of the side. For a man who was once criticised as being unable to bear the dual responsibility of being vice-captain and leading batsman, he answered his critics in the one effective manner: by walking the walk.

The 2006 campaign in England was the start of a highly successful tenure. He is a natural leader and has managed to foster a new culture of respectful equality, where respect is earned through performance and character, and each player is equally important. There is equal opportunity for each member of the unit to express opinions, and a new respect for individuality. It is a culture in which "different" cricketers, like Lasith Malinga and Ajantha Mendis, thrive.

Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene share the Test record for the highest partnership for any wicket © Getty Images

A major achievement in his captaincy was, of course, reaching the final of the 2007 World Cup. A team of young and old, raw and experienced players was gelled into a cohesive unit. Each player's role was identified and valued. It was a remarkable journey, till the heartbreak of the final. From then on, success has been frequent.

His batting, too, has reached new heights since then. The added responsibility seems to have hardened his determination to succeed. His consistency as captain and leading batsman has put to rest the earlier criticisms of his abilty to cope with responsibility.

Mahela's cricketing journey, at least the best years, has just begun. He has in place a wonderful support structure in the form of his wife, Christina, and his parents.

As a modern cricketer, he is well aware of the need to be an ambassador for social causes, as is borne out by his dedication to establishing the Hope Cancer Hospital for children, a project of great scope and benefit to our community.

I have called Mahela friend, team-mate and captain, and shared in his cricketing journey for nine years. He has yet to become the best that he can be, which is exciting to contemplate. He has more runs to score to fully belong with the greats of the game, but again, it is only a matter of time before he does so.

His journey so far has not always been easy. The future will bring more challenges and obstacles, and as in the past, I can only see them making him stronger. One can only wait in anticipation to see what he achieves next, secure in the knowledge that it will be memorable.