April 7, 2014

Two gentlemen of Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka pulled together as a team in the World T20 to give Jayawardene and Sangakkara the farewell they deserve

Well done, good and faithful servants of the nation © ICC

Firecrackers exploded all over Sri Lanka last night. Papare bands played to jostling crowds in front of makeshift screens. On the usually staid streets of Galle Fort, throngs of raucous arm-waving fans danced to the music of an impromptu sound system set up on the back of a Toyota Hilux. Ape kolo, our boys, had delivered. The victory was a vindication not only of the courageous decision to tour Bangladesh in January, when security concerns were raised, it was also vindication of a team ethic.

The triumph in the final of the World T20 in Mirpur came after successive defeats in limited-overs finals - in 2007, 2009, 2011, and 2012. Sri Lanka did not choke in those finals. They came up against a series of spectacular forces of nature - quite literally in 2007, when Caribbean rain combined with an Adam Gilchrist masterclass. Sri Lanka had been outplayed by teams who were better on the day. This time it was their turn.

Just as the World Cup in 2011 became subsumed in the emotion surrounding Sachin Tendulkar's last opportunity to win a World Cup, this tournament was the last chance for two of cricket's great servants to win a competition in this format. Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara, two gentlemen of Sri Lanka, to quote Darren Sammy's gracious words, had announced their retirement from T20 cricket before the tournament started. High stakes, indeed.

But if the emotional focus was on these two men, the victory was very much a team effort: Kusal Perera's blistering starts; the self-sacrifice of Dinesh Chandimal, who stood down as captain in the interests of the team; Lahiru Thirimanne's steadying middle-order influence; Angelo Mathews and Thisara Perera's power hitting; the spin trio of Rangana Herath, Sachithra Senanayake and Ajantha Mendis; and above all, the death bowling of Nuwan Kulasekara, Mathews, and the peerless Lasith Malinga. Throughout the tournament, at times of need, different members of the team made telling contributions, backed up by heroic ground fielding.

The victory in the final was set up by bowlers. A rampant Virat Kohli, the man of the tournament, was poised for the final assault. He had been dropped on 11 by Malinga, reviving memories of Dilhara Fernando putting down a fiercely difficult return catch from Gilchrist in the 2007 final. Gilchrist went on to make a match-winning hundred. Kohli threatened to do the same. He was thwarted by phenomenal death bowling, which conceded a parsimonious 19 runs from the last four overs.

Kohli is in all respects an admirable cricketer. The intensity in his eyes when he takes guard is an unmistakable call to arms, and no one who saw his celebrations on hitting the winning runs in the semi-final could doubt his competitiveness. But in the heat of the final, with defeat staring him in the face, Kohli found time to walk up to Sangakkara and congratulate him on his fifty. His captain could learn from his example.

If Test cricket is a novel, and the 50-overs game a well-crafted short story, T20 is flash fiction: brief and brutal. There is little time to construct a narrative. Nevertheless Jayawardene, in his important, calming contribution, managed to tell the story of his unique approach to T20. The uppercut he played off Mohit Sharma, guiding the ball over MS Dhoni's head to thud one-bounce into the fence, was pure imagination, pure innovation, a joyful expression of the impudent schoolboy who must still lurk beneath the surface of his 17-year international career. For all the sweetness of Kohli's and Perera's power hitting, the shots that will stay with me are Jayawardene's deliciously late cuts. To caress the turning ball at the last possible moment, to take it off the stumps and guide it inches wide of the wicketkeeper's waiting hands, is an exquisite triumph of timing and courage and consummate skill. Rather than bludgeoning the ball to the boundary, Jayawardene seems to suggest a pathway to the ball, which it follows not because it has been compelled to do so but because the invitation is too courteous to decline.

Sangakkara is a different beast. Looking into his eyes last night, you saw the light of battle. It was a welcome contrast from the desperate look he had during the Indian innings in the World Cup final in 2011, when Dhoni and Gautam Gambhir remorselessly chased down Sri Lanka's total. Sangakkara was ferocious in his concentration last night. He too is a force of nature, the only man on either side to match Kohli's intensity. Articulate, generous, passionate cricketers, Sangakkara and Kohli are well-matched adversaries, and the mutual respect was evident. Last night Sangakkara dragged his country over the winning line by the sheer force of his will. It was a powerful statement of wholehearted commitment.

The team made a powerful statement of their own. Jayawardene and Sangakkara, two great warriors now in the twilight of their careers, were hoisted on the shoulders of the young men who will carry Sri Lankan cricket forward. But beyond that token of honour, the team spoke to the nation that has nurtured them. Sangakkara spoke of wearing the national colours with love. Mathews spoke of the team's love for the entire country. Judging by the blaring horns and the fireworks last night, that love is reciprocated in spades.

Janaka Malwatta is a poet, doctor and cricket lover who lives in Brisbane. He tweets here

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