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

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