July 20, 2014

A man of his people

Mahela Jayawardene embodies artistry and steel in his batting, and warmth and humanity off the field

Mahela Jayawardene: one of the war generation © Getty Images

A gentle pall of sadness hangs over the cricket lovers of my country. Mahela Jayawardene, that prince of batsmen, has announced his retirement from Test cricket. We knew this day would come, but like with the passing of a venerable patriarch, anticipated with a mixture of dread and inevitability, it brings a diminution of the spirits. In the rich firmament of Sri Lankan cricket, Mahela is one of the brightest stars, taking his place with the very best our nation has produced: Aravinda de Silva, Muttiah Muralitharan, and his old comrade in arms Kumar Sangakkara.

The name DPMD Jayawardene has been a source of calm and comfort in the Sri Lankan middle order for the last 17 years, like the reassuring presence of a much-loved uncle. Mahela has been playing Test cricket for so long, his career overlaps those of Mohammad Azharuddin, Inzamam-ul-Haq, and Mark Waugh, notable artists all. Like them, he is a purist's batsman, a rapier among the blunderbusses. He has always conjured up a past era, and not simply because of the longevity of his career. In the effortless elegance of his strokeplay, in his innate humility and grace, he most closely resembles those two great gentlemen of South Asian cricket, Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman. While the three of them bestrode the cricketing turf, it felt as if we had a connection to that romanticised age long before the DRS and T20. With Mahela's retirement, that link is broken.

Mahela made his debut a year after Sri Lanka's breakthrough World Cup win, in a team packed with batting talent. Aravinda in his pomp, Sanath Jayasuriya, Arjuna Ranatunga, Marvan Atapattu. Add Murali and Chaminda Vaas, it's a veritable roll call of Sri Lankan luminaries, a formidable team for a 20-year-old to force his way into. But Mahela was a prodigious and precocious talent. A fixture in his school first XI from the age of 14, he has gone on to compile 11,493 Test runs, which leaves him sixth in the all-time standings, with 33 hundreds and a triple-century to his name. His razor-sharp reflexes have also pouched 197 outfield catches, a tally beaten only by Dravid and Jacques Kallis.

The raw figures, impressive as they are, do not tell his story. Much has been written about his classical cover drives, his impossibly late cuts, his sheer inventiveness. Just as important for Sri Lankan cricket has been his influence as a strategist and leader. Schoolboy prodigy turned elder statesman, Mahela has unquestionably been one of the great cricketers of his generation. But for all that undeniable achievement, it is his warmth and humanity that mark him out. Perhaps this is unsurprising in one who was truly of the war generation. He grew up in the dark times of Colombo bus bombings, when, in his own words, "we went to school every day not knowing whether we would come back". He saw a fellow schoolboy cricketer lose both parents and return to cricket a few weeks later. Most of all, he had to contend with his brother Dhishal's death from cancer as a teenager. It is hard to imagine more grounding experiences.

His cricketing career has coincided with immense tragic events off the field. In addition to the civil war, there has been the 2004 tsunami and the Lahore terrorist attack, during which, when bullets ricocheted around him, Mahela thought he would die on the floor of a bus in a foreign land. His early experiences gave him the resilience to overcome these horrors, and the capacity to see beyond cricket. Along with Murali and Sangakkara, he was heavily involved in the post-tsunami relief effort. This triumvirate of great Sri Lankans remains committed to charitable endeavours, including, in Mahela's case, the HOPE Cancer Hospital, a tribute to his brother's memory.

When I think of Mahela, I think of artistry and steel. No one plays the late cut more delicately, with greater precision or finesse. But there is more to Mahela than pretty batsmanship. He could show fierce determination, as he demonstrated when overcoming a disappointing run of form to score a century in a losing cause in the 2011 World Cup final. We all have our favourite Mahela memories. His century at Lord's in 2006, while battling to save the match. His century against South Africa at the PSS in Colombo, chasing a fourth-innings win. That catch in Galle, which gave Murali his 800th wicket.

My most treasured memories reveal glimpses of the man himself. In an interview before the 2007 World Cup final, when asked whether he would bat or bowl if he won the toss, Mahela broke out into a huge boyish grin, shrugged his shoulders, and freely admitted he had no idea. On one occasion, the stump mic picked up Mahela shouting "Sanath aiyya", as he tried to catch Jayasuriya's attention while setting the field. "Aiyya" means elder brother, but in Sri Lanka the word is used as a term of respect for an older man. In these glimpses lies the secret to his popularity: openness, honesty, and an enduring adherence to his country's values. Mahela Jayawardene truly is a man of his people. A man we can be proud of.

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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Dimuthu on July 19, 2014, 20:49 GMT

    @mk49_van - please take your negative mindset elsewhere. We are celebrating a great man's career here. There are plenty of other forums for you to make your point.

  • Dummy4 on July 19, 2014, 16:53 GMT

    The most reassuring feeling while watching a match of Sri lanka, is the sight of either mahela or sanga on the pitch. The belief that if any one of these gentlemen where on the pitch, is what has driven Sri lankan cricket in the last decade. Of course if both are on the pitch it is a different feeling all together!! Master class batsmen Maiyya, big match player. That WC final in 2011 century, showed his class. The 2014 T20 WC match when both Sanga and mahela were batting, when Mahela fell, the way he apologized to Sanga, and how Sanga then went on to finish the match, was a feeling which cannot be expressed in words!! It is really sad to know we wont watch sanga and mahela bat after this year together in tests!!

  • Dummy4 on July 19, 2014, 13:30 GMT

    Astounding piece, Janaka. What an amazing player and leader Mahela has been for Sri Lanka all these years. His absence will be dearly felt in the line-up after he retires.

  • Joe on July 19, 2014, 11:54 GMT

    A truly humble and likeable player. In the current Sri Lankan cricket team, it is Mahela that I respect a lot. Sanga is good, but can be arrogant at times. Mahela is a gentleman cricketer and deserves all the respect and admiration that he gets. His century against India in the World Cup 2011 final was an excellent knock and it is unfortunate that he finished on the losing side. Salute to a Sii Lankan great and gentleman player Mahela Jayawardene from an Indian fan.

  • prashanth on July 19, 2014, 8:27 GMT

    Mahela Jayawardene is regarded as one of the best players of his generation. In spite of his numerous achievements, he remains the most down-to-earth characters of the game and is an idol for Sri Lankan fans.

  • Dummy4 on July 19, 2014, 5:50 GMT

    @mk49....probably a hurt ego Indian fan. He self inflicted a strategy of innovating depending on his teams position. If his team wants brisk starts, he would open. If his openers had already put on run a ball partnership, he would come 2 down & play long innings. If he is required to manure gaps in the last 10, he would come 6 down. When you do that in T20's or ODI's, you can't really evaluate a player on his average. On the contrary, he averaged 50 + on tests. Because test format doesn't require him to play on circumstance. On the context of value & stroke play, he is star-years ahead of any of your over-rated players. Please....give due respect to a great of the game.

  • Milind on July 19, 2014, 1:12 GMT

    A much over-rated player - whose home away difference in average is a staggering 20 runs! Increases to 25 if away games in Bangladesh are not included. A home track hero - yes. A great of the game? Not really....

  • Dummy4 on July 18, 2014, 13:56 GMT

    With his retirement ends an era of the most elegant strikers of the cricket ball. We will only see bludgeon whackers here-on. Isn't this what IPL & T20 always wanted. Farewell legend.

  • GV on July 18, 2014, 11:33 GMT

    His centuries in the World Cup semi final in 2007 and in the final in 2011 were unbelievably elegant, and true examples of leading from the front.

  • Dummy4 on July 18, 2014, 7:27 GMT

    Really nice article.. Thanks..

  • No featured comments at the moment.