Sri Lanka propelled by a little Mahela magic
"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