Top captaincy, now for the runs
The brains in the ICC cricket committee have to routinely coming up with new regulations to take out uniformity and formula from ODIs. They introduced Powerplays to break the pattern of 15 overs' restrictions and to reduce the duration of middle overs, but the captains found a formula there too, finishing the bowling Powerplay as soon as possible and taking the batting one right at the end. To fight that, the cricket committee has introduced 15 non-Powerplay overs (11 to 15 and 41 to 50), and also one new ball for each end. If they have a good budget, they might want to clone Mahela Jayawardene too.
One of the offshoots of the turmoil in Sri Lankan cricket has been the return to captaincy of this delightfully shrewd tactician. When it came to strategy, field placings, bowling changes, even the use of DRS as India will tell you about the 2008 series, Jayawardene was peerless during his reign as captain. It was the other stuff he couldn't handle any longer. It is the other stuff Kumar Sangakkara after him couldn't handle. Now, though, that Jayawardene is back, his captaincy has brought back some freshness to a format going stale.
In the game two nights ago, India had got off to a good start in a small chase, reaching 1 for 47 in 10 overs, but Jayawardene's field settings for the next five overs almost suggested he had forgotten the new regulation that these overs were off limits for Powerplays. Unlike modern captains, Jayawardene was looking for wickets to slow runs down. That remained the story throughout the ultimately unsuccessful defence. That Sri Lanka never looked in despite quick wickets was down to rusty fielders not poor fields.
It can be argued that Jayawardene was forced to do so by the meagreness of the total. And even though it can be counter-argued that there are several other modern captains who ignore such compulsions, today, when Sri Lanka were fielding first, Jayawardene's hand was not forced. All he had was a helpful - not unplayable - pitch and a decent - by no means fearful - attack to work with. One of his bowlers even had an off day.
Yet Jayawardene attacked. The field didn't go back between over Nos 11 and 15. And after the bowling Powerplay ended, David Hussey and Michael Clarke hit the 21st over for 15 runs. Jayawardene refused to go back on the ultra defensive. His response was to bring Lasith Malinga back. Malinga got him the wicket, and Sri Lanka were attacking again.
The thing about such captaincy is that it leaves you vulnerable to a counterattack, which is why most modern captains don't try it. Even today, first Hussey and then Dan Christian tried to exploit those fields, but Jayawardene kept mixing the bowlers up and didn't bother about the boundaries as long as he stopped the easy autopilot singles. In his first two games back, Jayawardene the captain has been as good as he ever was. However, for this Sri Lankan team to come out of this political and financial rut, Jayawardene the batsman, too, will have to be as good as he ever was.
In both his innings on the tour so far, Jayawardene has not made the bowling side work for his wicket. In fact against India he looked like he could get out any ball. Today he started off better, showed a little touch before attempting a late-cut whose cuteness only subcontinent tracks with low bounce will put up with.
More importantly both those dismissals came at crucial junctures of the match. Against India he perished at the start of the batting Powerplay. Today he had a solid Dinesh Chandimal with whom he could have shepherded the chase, but left the inexperienced middle order exposed, which is where Thilan Samaraweera, who proved everybody wrong with back-to-back Test centuries in South Africa, should be batting. He might not be flash but his 70-ball 40s are exactly what Sri Lanka need in tough batting conditions.
That, though, is a story for another day. Back to Jayawardene. He last crossed 31 in an international match in November in Sharjah. His last special knock was the second-innings century against Australia in Galle in August. And he hasn't usually been bad in ODIs in England, South Africa and Australia. Unlike in Tests, where his average drops from 50 overall to 31 in these three countries, his ODI average deviates only by two units, from 33 to 31.
Jayawardene will get a chance to right that Test dip next year when for the first time in his career he will get to play a Test at the MCG, but the ODI chance is here and now. He has made a bold move by accepting the thorny crown that is Sri Lanka captaincy, but whatever he targets to achieve will not happen without help from Jayawardene the batsman.
Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo