March 3, 2012

The captain Sri Lanka have needed

Mahela Jayawardene has turned Sri Lanka's performance around in a matter of a month. The young players he backed have rewarded his faith in this tri-series

"Every country needs to have the best captain, and the best captain in Sri Lanka is Mahela Jayawardene, and I think everybody knows that," Geoff Marsh said at the end of his brief stint as head coach.

In March 2009, Jayawardene's first captaincy stint hit an abrupt blockade, figuratively and literally, when Sri Lanka's bus came under attack in Lahore. Three years of a different sort of tumult later, he is back at the helm. As the nine-run win in Melbourne and Sri Lanka's progression to the triangular series final proved, it's a job he should never have left.

Severely crippled by the loss of two major links in the bowling attack (who also happen to be two of the side's best fielders), Sri Lanka's defence of 238, on a surface that offered little for the pacemen and even less for spinners, was nothing short of a heist. Jayawardene didn't simply limit damage when he turned to part-timers who hadn't bowled through the entire competition - and in Lahiru Thirimanne's case, never before in ODIs. Stacked ring fields conveyed a clear mandate to the makeshift attack, allowed even the most pedestrian operator to become a wicket-taking threat.

Jayawardene's efficient use of Lasith Malinga was perhaps the captaincy highlight in an innings dripping with the stuff. Resisting the temptation to bring Malinga on to halt Shane Watson's ominous association with Michael Hussey, he waited until the ball was older before probing for that heavy blow. In the second over of his second spell, Malinga produced a tailing yorker as unplayable as any in the match, to uproot Watson's middle stump. Had he been introduced earlier and the reverse swing been less pronounced, Watson, batting on a half-century, may well have dug it out.

Throughout the evening, the field placings were bold and the mood impeccable. A leg gully - a startling rarity in Tests, let alone limited-overs cricket - shut down the leg side for David Hussey. The in-out fields for James Pattinson and Clint McKay ensured any dents they made into the target would have to be hard-earned and well thought-out. The short, straight cover that ambushed David Warner at the top of the innings, was an almost forgotten piece of trickery after the thrill of the finish.

All this too, following that crushing loss to India in Hobart. Losing after having made 320 is disheartening enough, but the manner in which Sri Lanka were mauled made for one of the most deflating losses in recent memory. Jayawardene himself admitted it had taken 24 hours to move on. But three nights after the Bellerive horror, Sri Lanka delivered their most tenacious defensive effort in the tournament. Jayawardene's ability to haul a young attack out of its funk and prepare it for a virtual final is almost as impressive as his craft on the occasion.

The emphasis on youngsters, and their subsequent success, is a Jayawardene hallmark. In 2006, he kept faith in Chamara Silva after the batsman collected a Test pair on debut, even as critics in Sri Lanka clamoured for a more experienced batsman to take his spot. Silva made 61 and 152 not out in the next match to ensure a series-levelling win. Upul Tharanga was under similar scrutiny during the 2007 World Cup before going on to score 73 from 74 in the World Cup semi-final and contribute heavily to the campaign in the subcontinent four years later.

After years of being two ODI batsmen short of a formidable middle order, in 22-year-olds Dinesh Chandimal and Lahiru Thirimanne, Sri Lanka finally have players who can ease the pressure on the three big top-order bats.

Thisara Perera, too, has made the second allrounder's spot his own. That Chandimal and Perera have finished near the top of the tournament run-getters' and wicket-takers' lists respectively is testament, in part, to their talent, but also to Jayawardene's gentle hand that has coaxed the best out of them.

After nine months of woeful collapses, listless long spells in the field and off-field drama to rival Pakistan, Sri Lanka are again looking like the side who battled to two consecutive World Cup finals, and were once within (however undeservingly) a game of the top Test spot. Under Jayawardene, the side is focused and hungry again. Even without Muttiah Muralitharan, the bowling has rediscovered a penetrative edge and the batsmen are constructing innings as a group. And as ten run-outs in eight matches show, the fielding has been on par with Australia's. A side that couldn't muster competence in any discipline in Paarl seven weeks ago is now excelling in all three. The speed of transformation under the new leader has been mind-boggling.

Kumar Sangakkara made an admirable attempt at navigating the unique challenges the Sri Lankan captaincy presents, but a limited tolerance for those who did not operate to the same high standards he set for himself shortened the span of his captaincy, while his reliance on intellect over nous limited the effectiveness of his leadership. Under Jayawardene, Sri Lanka have resumed the aggressive, unrestrained, mirthful style that once characterised their cricket. In fact, with him at the top of the innings, the 1996 blueprint that bred the Sri Lankan brand of cricket seems reborn. With a keen finger on the pulse of an innings, a fine temperament and a desire to build for the future, Jayawardene has all the makings of a great captain. Perhaps he already is one.

Andrew Fernando writes for The Pigeon and has a column here

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Pratik on March 4, 2012, 8:02 GMT

    I think Jayawardene is the most overrated player. Worst captain and worst person when it comes to sportsmanship. It was a shame to read when he said about cricket teams reaching finals one the basis of "favours". That was shameful act. By his thinking then I must say that SL are in the finals because of the favour by Australia by loosing the last league match. Grow up ou Sri lankan cricketers.

    I would rate him as most overrated captain and most arrogant person.

  • Lalit on March 4, 2012, 7:53 GMT

    Good to see some interesting analysis of MJs captaincy, the bottom line is MJ won the ICCs prestigious 'captain of the year ' award during his last tenure and these days you constantly hear wonderful comments on his expertise in field settings and bowling changes from more qualified commentators such as Tony Greig ,Ian Healy and Co.

  • Rajinda on March 4, 2012, 7:28 GMT

    @ bhaloniaz: Yeah right. You are the expert on bowling changes, & why you are typing on a keyboard & MJ is winning matches. Don't quit your day job buddy!

  • niaz on March 4, 2012, 3:22 GMT

    His bowling changes are awkward ineffective. Even awekward changes sometimes bring result. He ran out of his luck. Perera and Kula can swing, Malinga is usually great in ODI, Mathew is economical. Among them two hardhitting batsmen. Srilanka should do well. He takes off his bowler in the middle of a good spell. He is a great person and a very talented batsman. He should let Kula, Perera, Herath or Mathew bowl longer spell when they are bowling well. Clark on the other hand is a brilliant captain.

  • nalin on March 4, 2012, 1:27 GMT

    Good article. Sri Lanka did not have a good captain until Arjuna came back as a captain in 1995. Arjuna is a great leader but was not a great tactician.When SL had Mahela and Sanga they had 2 great captains but Mahela has a greater tactical nous to match great Australian captains like Benaud, Ian Chappell and Mark Taylor We are seen a great SL captain against Micheal Clarke who is tactically very sound and has the making of a long line of great Aussie captains.BRING ON THE FINALS!!!

  • Johnathon on March 4, 2012, 1:14 GMT

    Jayawardene is a way better captain than Dhoni. He defended 230 on the same flat pitch against Dhoni who only managed to tie. How incredible is that? The field placings for this ODI was incredible. In the 40th over, he had A SLIP AND A SHORT LEG for the batsman. Incredible thinker and pulled a win out of nowhere on sheer captaincy. Wasim Akram, the legend, has said that Mahela is the best captain in the world and Malinga is the best ODI bowler

  • Miles on March 4, 2012, 0:34 GMT

    In his previous captaincy 3-4 years ago the only issue he had was not being aggressive with field settings and he had less control over the side I think because there were about 5 or 6 players who were more senior to him. At present he has more aggressive and tactical with his field settings and he has the support of all the youngsters and the seniors as he is the most senior and experienced in the side.Everyone looks up to him like Arjuna. If he wants to continue this way hope he can maintain this peak for the next 3 years while maintaining his desire for the job, batting form and fitness. It all depends on how he feels about it in 1 year whether to continue or not.

  • Philip on March 3, 2012, 23:52 GMT

    Calm, unassuming and modest. That is the impression he gives, but behind that appearance is a cunning, calculating and and astute mind. You never see him talking things up or playing mind games. His composure right throughout the games gives encouragement to the youngsters who are looking towards him for guidance, encouragement and support. They have seen him work his magic and have his trust. Arjuna Ranatunga was other who had these characteristics too. Nice write up here Andrew. Keep them rolling in. Philip Gnana, Surrey

  • Ayesh on March 3, 2012, 23:43 GMT

    Looks like a paid advertisement by Mahela, the most overrated Sri Lankan caption, EVER. We all saw his dumb tactics helped Indians to chase our target of 320 in 36 overs ! No short pitch balls to Raina & co, gave Ranagana just 5 overs when he was the best bowler on that day, never give a ball to Dilshan when it was obvious there was nothing for our medium pacers, pathetic defensive field placement when we had to attack. could go on and go on. Mahela is just overrated. yes we won many games under him, but that wasnt because of his, overrated, leadership skills. it was purely due to individual brilliance of our players, mainly great Murali & Vas and of course that Ajanthan lad in some games. We won our first major test win outside sub continent when Dilshan was leading, we won both games, chasing 300+ when Mahela wasnt even playing, let alone captioning. Mahelas using, or non-using I would rather say, of Malinga is PATHETIC. What a hilarious article !

  • sri on March 3, 2012, 23:27 GMT

    Andrew bro, a lilting piece if ever there was one, mate the meat I have to beat with the SL team is about their appalling run- outs which occur among the first three batsmen on a regular basis which gives the opponents a huge mental lift. It also acts as a double whammy because it will be one of SL's premiere batsmen who get out in this fashion. They got to address this instanter if they are to win this trophy. Nothing else gives you palpitation than to see MJ or Sanga or Dil walking away dejectedly with their tail between you know what !!!

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