Mike Holmans June 2, 2011

Hail Mahela

The best sort of cricket match to watch is one which your team wins and your favourite player on the other side gets a hundred or a five-for

The best sort of cricket match to watch is one which your team wins and your favourite player on the other side gets a hundred or a five-for. I am therefore hoping that Lord's will bring another England win and another century for Mahela Jayawardene.

I can't say that I noticed him on his first visit to England in 1998. Sri Lanka only played the one Test, in which Muttiah Muralitharan and Sanath Jayasuriya were so dazzling that a 21-year-old with no record who scored very few passed under the radar.

But when England went to Sri Lanka a couple of years later, it was very different. In the first Test at Galle Jayawardene came in at 5 to join Marvan Atapattu, who was on his way to a double hundred, following the dismissal of Aravinda de Silva for a typically stylish hundred of his own. In such a healthy position, he obviously had a bit of licence to play his shots, which he proceeded to do – and I was captivated.

Such economy of movement, such timing, such precision, such delicacy. A Swiss watchmaker would have been very proud to have constructed a mechanism which functioned so perfectly.

He did even better in the second Test at Kandy. Sri Lanka were in a bit of trouble at 80-4 when he was joined by Russel Arnold, who had the sense to keep his head down and keep his end going while Jayawardene set about the bowling. Wiseacres might have called it irresponsible, but he had resolved to counter-attack – and it worked. No-one could bowl to him as he scampered to a brilliant three-hour hundred. So pleased was he with reaching three figures that he fatally lost concentration and was out almost immediately, but I was now prepared to predict a very bright future for him.

Not realising how long Sachin Tendulkar would go on, I thought Mahela would succeed Sachin as the best batsman around, and I looked forward to his visit to England in 2002.

In the first Test at Lord's, he twinkled his way to a ton in the sunshine, with Marvan Atapattu again playing straight man on his way to another huge score. Mahela was at his entertaining best, playing beautiful wristy shots off all and sundry. Atapattu's 185 was a larger part of the Lankan's imposing 555, and Aravinda de Silva's 88 was typical of the man, but it was Mahela's champagne-style innings which captured the heart as well as the eye. It was probably at this point that the career trajectories of de Silva and Jayawardene crossed; from there on, Mahela became Sri Lanka's marquee batsman as Aravinda gradually faded.

But there was a slight suspicion that he was a froth player: he wasn't then well-known for being able to put his head down and graft when the going got tough. Things could not have been much tougher, though, when he came out to bat at Lord's in the second innings in 2006. Sri Lanka were 250 behind in their follow-on with more than two days remaining; it was going to take something quite heroic to pull the game out of the fire, and captain Jayawardene produced it. His patient hundred took up day four in as boring a way as he could manage. Which isn't all that boring: his impregnability meant that he did not wave that magic wand of a bat as often but when he did, the crystal flash lit up the gloomy grey.

Although it depends on what the next Future Tours Programme comes up with, it is very likely that this will be Mahela's last Test tour of England, which means that Lord's will be my last chance to see him bat in a Test. I don't care in what manner he gets it - he is one of those batsmen who cannot play a horrid innings whatever he does – but I really hope he can complete a hat-trick of centuries at HQ so I can stand and applaud him while wishing him farewell. I'd just rather he didn't end up on the winning side.