England v Sri Lanka, 1st Investec Test, Lord's, 3rd day June 14, 2014

Jayawardene still living by instinct

Mahela Jayawardene will forever be a free spirit no matter how much he seeks to eradicate the riskier elements of his game

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Early on in Mahela Jayawardene's innings at Lord's, England attacked with vigour outside the off stump. His last tour in 2011, had produced a blooper-reel of familiar dismissals: Jayawardene stepping forward to drive outside the line of the stumps - the ball seeking out the edge, then a pair of hands in the slip cordon.

He tried to be more careful on Saturday. Tighter with his defence, and more inclined to leave. But soon enough, he could not help himself. In the second over he faced, Jayawardene opened the face and sent James Anderson between third slip and gully. When England shortened their length to get Jayawardene fending, he slid back to England's quickest bowler and uppercut him over the slips for four.

Jayawardene punched his way past that gauntlet, but soon England reformed with a new plan. Three men catching close on the legside. Two out on the fence, and Plunkett and Chris Jordan bowling short and sharp. Again Jayawardene sought to rein himself, in. Sri Lanka were 400 runs behind, and their tail less capable with the bat than England's lower order. His resolve did not last long. He was soon pulling off his ribs, threading the ball through the packed field on the leg side. More than once, an England fielder put hands to his head. The ball had eluded him by inches.

Fans the world over love to watch Jayawardene for the turn of his wrists, the grace of his movement, and that liquid cover drive. But far beyond his artistry, there is a free-spirited inclination that makes Jayawardene magnetic for the spectator.

At home, there is some certainty to his batting, but on tracks with pace and bounce, his struggles are well laid out in statistics. There are strokes he could omit. Risks he might avoid. But Jayawardene is a man on a tightrope, exposed to the elements, in perilous danger at every moment. Every brief flutter and false move heightens the tension. Then he takes a step, scores a few runs, and the adrenalin surges through. Ruled foremost by instinct, Jayawardene is addicted to taking the opposition on.

"I was quite comfortable when they bowled short at me," he said at the end of the day. "Sometimes you have to take the option on. That's how I've gone about things."

There is no reason he should play this way. He could stop opening the face to waist-high balls outside off stump, knowing as he does, that he has been out countless times deflecting those to second slip. He could stop shuffling outside off stump to send spinners fine down the legside, or slinking forward to loft the quicks over the ring. They are high-risk ploys laced with excitement, but offer somewhat modest rewards.

Others in his own team have run microscopes over their techniques, continually refining themselves to make every movement a thruster for more efficient run-making. Jayawardene has also learned new strokes over the years, but his approach, and so much of his technique, remains the same. He lives on a precipice not because he has no other choice, but because he is at the cricket for the same reason as the spectator. Jayawardene is there for the adventure.

It is what made him so watchable, not just at the crease, but as a captain. He lived for moments of innovation, when he tore up the textbook and set plans no one else had dared. Under his guidance, the men around the bat for Murali were not just vultures hovering above a prospective meal, they were co-instigators of the action; a living, breathing, sharpened phalanx, almost as central to Sri Lanka's threat as the man whirring the ball in. When a batsman was duped, Jayawardene lit up like he had pulled off prank, racing to greet the bowler and rub his fingers through his hair. At Lord's he could not contain his joy, when his friend crossed triple figures.

Saturday was Sangakkara's day. In the sport's ancient home, he made a focused raid for a coveted plaudit, and could not be shaken until his team were in a position of relative safety. Cricket will remember Sangakkara and his staggering numbers for a long time. If he is not already considered a modern great, it is past time that he was admitted to that club.

Jayawardene, meanwhile, pales in comparison. He may not be enshrined as a modern master. His numbers will not survive the cold, hard, multi-pronged analysis of the online age. But those who saw him play, will not forget how he made them feel. They will not forget the dizzying elation, or the sinking despair. Or the way Jayawardene lived and died, on the edge, for the thrill.

Andrew Fidel Fernando is ESPNcricinfo's Sri Lanka correspondent. @andrewffernando

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Dummy4 on June 16, 2014, 15:23 GMT

    It's as if he needs that extra bit of challenge of a really big match or a tricky wicket in order to shelve those instinctive strokes and play purposefully. Maybe he has to move out of that No. 4 spot and find a new role to reinvent himself. Open along with Kaushal perhaps? It's somewhat unfair to Sanga too that he has to always walk in within 10 overs with the whole burden on his shoulders.

  • sachit on June 16, 2014, 7:38 GMT

    @rizwan1981 - spot on. I think SL fan's all agree that Jayawadene provides the most viewable batting while Sangakkara provides more substance.

  • Dummy4 on June 16, 2014, 4:03 GMT

    Nadeeaha Jayasinghe Well said...

  • Sinha on June 16, 2014, 3:32 GMT

    rizwan1981 you put it beautifully there! Cannot agree more.

  • Dummy4 on June 15, 2014, 23:31 GMT

    @gularan, Jayawardene has almost 600 runs in 6 tests this year, he is drawing close to the end of his career but how is he close to his "use-by" date, but yes i agree he deserves respect,@ Andrew Fidel Fernando, Sangakkara has been my favourite player for nigh on10 years now, but I have to say Jayawardene is the batsman Sri Lanka has counted on most in crunch situations to perform:115 in 2007 world cup semi final against a New Zealand bowling line-up containing Bond and Vettori, a hundred in the 2011 world cup final in India to help us post a decent total. Hundreds at Lord's 2006, and at the MCG 2007, to take Sri Lanka out of trouble.He was also Sri Lankas best batsman of the 2007 world cup and 2010 World Twenty20 while his 2 ODI hundreds in the 2006 ODI series, gave Sri Lanka a 5-0 win over England IN England. His overall numbers aren't completely flattering, and he hasn't won a world cup final like Ranatunga, DeSilva or sanga but he is a modern master who stood up when he needed to.

  • Janaka on June 15, 2014, 6:45 GMT

    Sri Lanka still can win. If Rangana can spin the ball well, which is not impossible when seeing Ali's sudden good-spin, Sri Lanka has a good chance of turning this upside down. Don't believe in saving a match. Either you win or lose. Don't play double minded games. If nothing goes well, then, you can try for a draw. But you need to fight. If you hide in your shell as you did with Pakistan last time, you will end up losing, rather than saving. Try to win, and you can do it. Looking at the match, there is nothing dramatic that England did. They were just mediocre to be honest. Sri Lanka did many mistakes in the field, and the captaincy was poor. So, we are paying the price of it. Be positive, and you will win Sri Lanka. We are lions!

  • Roshan on June 15, 2014, 5:07 GMT

    Thanks Andrew, a wonderful tribute to a master and a humble, very humble human being!

  • Dummy4 on June 15, 2014, 1:20 GMT

    This is a brilliantly written tribute to Jayawardene by Fernando. As a writer he shares many of the qualities that Jayawardene possesses as a batsman, but there is one unfortunate quirk here. If a cricketer meets Fernando's approval he will be subject to some of the finest poetic cricket writing in the world, but if he meets Fernando's disapproval, not only will he miss out on the glory but he may become subject to Fernando's destructive powers of belittlement. How I pity those cricketers.

  • Dummy4 on June 14, 2014, 23:43 GMT

    Look at Mahela's stats in all forms of cricket and sure he is as close to a modern master as any. Nand. J. i in LA

  • sri on June 14, 2014, 23:29 GMT

    It's always sad to see the writing on the wall as one slowly reaches one's use-by date. This is what's happening to MJ. Yet we should all be thankful and show respect for the umpteen times he's thrilled us,brought us victory and made us proud to call ourselves Sri Lankans.Lets all hope that he will reach his intended D-Day- the world cup of 2014-15 and be instrumental in taking us to at least the final and mayhap the trophy itself. that would really be the icing on the Srilankan cake.

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