Australia v SL, Champions Trophy, Group A, The Oval June 17, 2013

Sri Lanka propelled by a little Mahela magic

Mahela Jayawardene is adept at making hard runs when his team needs him, and he did so again in this match

"Power" is batting's buzzword of the modern age. In limited-overs cricket, players are no longer measured by how well they hit a ball, but how hard and how far. That quest has spawned a subset of relatively modern phenomena - setting a stable base, not losing one's shape, swinging through the arc. As Twenty20 salaries expand, and cricket strides close to the glamour that has eluded it in the past, only a handful of batsmen still swear by the old laws.

At the Oval, Mahela Jayawardene crafted a limited-overs innings that like so many he has played before, was a triumph for romantics in an age when muscles and brutality abound. Batting lower down than is customary - for only he has the game versatile enough to fit where the team requires him - he stroked 84 of the most alluring runs in the competition, all made under pressure, at a strike rate exceeding 100.

To label Jayawardene a purist is not to say he is a stickler for tradition, for he wields a slog sweep and over-the-shoulder scoop as well as anyone in the game. But although new strokes have been learnt in the last five years, the essence of his cricket remains as lovingly refined as it has always been. Twenty-first century aggression filtered through age-old method, yielding savagery that seems fashioned from silk. The reverse-sweep he hit off Glenn Maxwell in the 30th over was played late, beneath the eyes, head still, hands sure, wide of the fielder for four.

Like most artists, Jayawardene is fragile too. Early in his innings, any seam bowler worth his salt should fancy an edge to keeper or slip. If he gets through that initial gauntlet, there is still risk in his progress. A creature of instinct, he does not back down to a ball he fancies, and even when well set, the hankering to attack has brought his downfall countless times. At the Oval, inside-out strokes over cover flew perilously close to fielders' hands, and an attempted reverse-sweep off a fast bowler could easily have left his stumps splayed. The joy of his success is heightened by his daring. Every four feels like a caper, each big innings an adventure.

On days where he does not mishit a single ball, like in 2011's World Cup final, the result is fantasy come alive. There are far greater batsmen than he in the game today, but is there a more compelling force in full flow? Sachin Tendulkar perhaps, but few others. In the penultimate over, Clint McKay bowled one at his body, and Jayawardene backed away and stroked it in the two-metre gap between backward point and short third man. Both men had been placed there for exactly that kind of shot, but neither had a hope of preventing four.

Even in the last three years, the fine innings that he alone among Sri Lanka's batsmen could play are numerous. The World Cup final ton is one, the 42 against Pakistan on a World Twenty20 semi-final dustbowl is another. In Tests, the 105 against Australia on a brute in Galle, and the 180 against England at the same venue a year later will linger in the mind. Hard runs, all, though you would never know from the grace with which he beats them out. He is a big-match performer, and with bigger matches than this virtual quarter-final to come, Sri Lanka will hope Jayawardene's hunger intensifies, as it has done in the major tournaments before.

"You could see how desperate I was today," Jayawardene said. "So I'll be desperate for every game to win, simple as that. It's not about trophies or whatever - it's just to win matches. So I'll have that same passion and same desperation to win games, doesn't matter if it's a semifinal or final or just a group game. As long as I have that attitude and the rest of the boys, we'll go a long way."

It is easy to read his figures and remark that Jayawardene's record is fairly mediocre, mistakenly assuming the one-day tracks in Sri Lanka are as conducive to stroke-making as pitches north, beyond the Palk Strait. It is Sri Lanka's lot to be lumped with the giants of the subcontinent, but spinners have long reigned over batsmen on the island, and lately the quicks have had their days as well. In any case, Colombo's humidity had made swing bowling effective in ODIs even before the recent renaissance in seam-friendly pitches. No Sri Lanka batsman has ever retired with an average over 40, but the team has rarely failed to be a force in ODIs since 1996.

They arrive now, at another semi-final - their sixth in the last eight world tournaments. Kumar Sangakkara's diligence and drive saw the side through the early matches, but it took a little Mahela magic to propel them in a squeeze.

Andrew Fidel Fernando is ESPNcricinfo's Sri Lanka correspondent. He tweets here

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Arun on June 21, 2013, 1:34 GMT

    It's easy to remark MD's record is mediocre, because it's true. His ODI record is forgivable because he bats down the order, and it's hard for anyone batting below #3 to have a high average. A good look at his test record will reveal that he averages less than 35 in England, Australia, SA, and NZ. His average is propped up by a great record on flat SL pitches (and India). He doesn't hold a candle to Sangakkara, who is by a long margin, the best batsman SL ever produced. Compare Mahela's overseas average to Sanga's, Tendulkar, Dravid, and you'll find he is far worse. Mahela looks like he's a purist, but his technique is far from pure.

  • narsimha on June 19, 2013, 3:53 GMT

    The fab 3- SANGA, MAHELA, DILSHAN- if any one of these 3 stays at the wicket , they will surly win the match for thier team as done by SANGA vrs ENG & JAYS vrs AUS , even though IND blessed with few very talented batsman in VIRAT, DHAWAN, etc they have to go long way & perform to be counted at par with these greats, after retirement of DRAVID, LAXAN, GANGOLI & SAChIN (on the verge of retirement from all formets ) from IND& INZY, ANWAR,YUSUF from PAK, we are left with these three class batsmen from our region , only worrying thing is where as IND was able to find replacements , sadly SL could not unerth any batsman even with falf the class , talent of these 3,we thought of CHANDIMAL, but inspite of so many opportunities he failed to deliver in most ot the times when team needed him, same goes to PAK -BEST OF LUCK TO BOTH TEAMS -LET THE BETTER TEAM WIN TOMMORROW -

  • Viraj on June 19, 2013, 0:13 GMT

    If Sri Lanka wants to win the game against India, someone from the top 4 has to bat at least 40 overs. Please get rid of Kusal Perera, totally waste of time, he`s like Ronchi from New Zealand. Mahela need to score runs consistantly not taking another 10-12 matches to do that. Mahela is a inconsistent player in 50 over game , that`s why he has 33 average for 11,000 runs, when others have 40 + . They desperately need the service of J.Mendis & Thisara to win against India.

  • Dummy4 on June 18, 2013, 21:53 GMT

    I hope Sri Lanka selects Thisara Perera or Sachitra Senanayake, instead of Shaminda Eranga. Eranga will be thrashed around by the India. He needs time to develop.

  • Dummy4 on June 18, 2013, 19:25 GMT

    The magnificence of a poet is not how lengthy his poems are, The greatness of a car is not how fast is can be driven, The majesty of a king is not how vast the empire he rules, The legend of a cricketer is not how many or how long, but how pleasing thus Mahela!

  • Srikanth on June 18, 2013, 18:36 GMT

    Thank you for the lovely article Andrew. I couldn't put them in words what I had thought, but you put them in words beautifully. I watched three of the four of his innings you mentioned and witnessed one of them among the crowds and I felt the same. I'd pay anything and travel anywhere to watch this craftsman. 180 against England at Galle is the best Test innings I've ever watched. Mahela play his innings to the situations and to win the matches; never to improve his figures or records. That's another reason that he stands out. Anybody who love cricket, would enjoy watching Mahela play.

  • Dummy4 on June 18, 2013, 18:06 GMT

    The secret to SL's success in this tournament is their key players coming in to form at the right time. First it was Malinga's magic against NZL then Sangakkara's elegant display of constructing an innings of high class under pressure and finally Mahela showing why he has 11,000 ODI runs under his belt. In my opinion India treats Kusal Perera as a key wicket especially after his impressive performance against them in the warm up games. I'll be surprised if SL decide to go to this game with Shaminda Eranga and it'd be a wise decision to include Thisara Perera to give some strength to that batting line up. India unarguably has the best batting line up in the world at the moment and the only way to rattle them would be to get the ball moving in the air. I would like to see Malinga opening with Kulasekara as they both men are capable of swing the ball away from the Indian openers.

  • Raghav on June 18, 2013, 17:54 GMT

    Australia seriously need to think should they have Watson in their lineup. He's become too much of a liability and is probably the most overrated cricketer in the world.

    Australia need to get batsman of their ilk, who are arrogant, in your face, aggressive batsmen.. That has been the hallmark.. These batsmen are too timid to any challenge..

  • Dummy4 on June 18, 2013, 17:39 GMT

    Elegance in the shot making is one of the trademarks of Mahelas Batting in all formats of the game.. More importantly, over the years Mahela had proved himself as a player who can read the game well- That indeed placed him as one of the successful cricket captains.. In terms of the match, Australians had shown lot of character till the end. But end of the day better team deserve the win.. Well done Sri Lanka !

  • Ravin on June 18, 2013, 17:21 GMT

    Cmon Kepili Buster. The game would have been over if Vettori's decision would have been overturned. So stop holding on to "that astonishingly poor umpiring decision". Well written Andrew Fernando. Beautiful prose. But where is Mahela when Sri Lanka gets thrashed outside their shores? He is not even the best batsman in his own team. That honor is reserved for Sanga, an all condition batsmen. When it comes to languid beautiful batting, even Rohit is graceful, where is the grit though?