Sanath Jayasuriya - the modest marauder
The great irony is that Sri Lanka's greatest dasher, a man famed for shredding new ball attacks with wanton disregard for occasion or reputation, will today become the first Sri Lankan to play 100 Test matches. Such impulsive and explosive players are not expected to display such longevity. However, Sanath Jayasuriya may well be bald-headed and 36, but he's still sharp-eyed, extremely fit and hungry for more success.
Jayasuriya is one of a small handful of Sri Lankan players - including Aravinda de Silva, Arjuna Ranatunga, and Muttiah Muralitharan - who were responsible for lifting their team on to the world cricketing map and who will, as a result, forever retain a special place in the island's cricket history. Indeed, the rise of Sri Lanka and Jayasuriya were simultaneous affairs, as he grasped an opportunity at the top of the order during Sri Lanka's bitter 1995-96 tour of Australia and then blossomed during the 1996 World Cup.
Jayasuriya's breathtaking strokeplay during that tournament defined perceptions of the Sri Lanka team; his approach encapsulating the exuberant, daring and refreshing brand of cricket that they introduced. As he solidified his place in the side, ensuring legendary status back home for years to come, Sri Lanka announced themselves as a major force to be reckoned with.
Like Sri Lankan cricket, which at the time was managed on a shoestring budget - the player's World Cup match fee was approximately US $60 per game - Jayasuriya hailed from a humble background. His father was a janitor with the Matara urban council, a small fishing town on the southern tip of the island. Money was in short supply and for years he was supported by the generosity of his friends, who provided lodgings in Colombo, the island's cricketing epicentre.
He rose quickly, playing his first Test match in 1991 against New Zealand in Hamilton, but was not to cement a place in the team for another five years until injuries provided him with an opportunity to open the innings against Australia in the third Test at Adelaide, a match that ended a tour marred by the acrimony created by ball tampering, chucking and umpiring controversies. Sri Lanka lost, but Jayasuriya, until then restricted to a bits-and-pieces role in the middle order, scored 48 in the first innings and a bristling 112 in the second to confirm his arrival.
Since then he has become Sri Lanka's greatest matchwinner behind Muttiah Muralitharan. His Test average is a relatively modest 42.26 for a subcontinental player, but the aggressive manner in which he always bats has helped swing the momentum Sri Lanka's way on countless occasions. In one-day cricket there is clear relationship between his success and Sri Lanka victory - Sri Lanka have won 71% of the matches in which he has scored 50 or more.
Jayasuriya has never been a master technician. His batting relies heavily on a quick eye and Popeye-like forearms that allow him to hit the ball with ferocious power despite his preference for a light bat. World-class bowlers have noted his preference for width and the areas square of the wicket and discovered chinks in his armoury, especially on the greener and bouncier tracks found overseas, but no bowler has been able to becalm him forever.
Crucially, thanks to sound advice from the likes of Sidath Wettimuny, one of Sri Lanka's batting legends and a close confidante, he has never complicated his approach or become bogged down by batting theory. He knows his strengths and will never turn down an invitation to score. By ruthlessly capitalising on any scoring opportunity he has been able to shift the pressure back onto the bowlers, thereby making it harder for them to probe his weaknesses.
But Jayasuriya's value is not measured just by the volume and speed of his run scoring. He has also played a vital role with the ball, taking 92 wickets in Tests and 267 in ODIs with his wily left-arm spin. In addition, his catching and ground fielding have been reliable throughout his career. It is no wonder then that Sri Lanka's chairman of selectors, Lalith Kaluperuma, hopes he will be able to continue until the 2007 World Cup.
Remarkably, though, Jayasuriya's place in the team has often been the source of media speculation in Sri Lanka because of periodic bouts of inconsistency. He even admitted this week that the fear of being dropped has been omnipresent throughout his career and a key driving force behind his success. However, fortunately, his lean spells have always been followed by match-winning heroics that have quickly dried up the ink of those penning his cricketing obituary.
The end of the road is inevitably drawing closer. While he remains extremely fit, his recent shoulder dislocation, the second of his career, has prompted concerns. But so far his Test match performance has certainly showed no signs of old age. On the contrary, his past full year of Test cricket in 2004 was one of the most productive of his career, yielding 1130 runs at an average of 56.50. There is no sign either that his enthusiasm has dipped.
This will be a great relief to thousands of cricket fans around the island, especially in the rural outstations where he has hero status by virtue of his great success and humble beginnings. Cricket used to be the preserve of a Colombo and Kandy elite but the likes of Jayasuriya have helped democratise the game, spreading it to the farthest corners and fuelling the heightened aspirations of future generations.
Astonishingly, despite all the adoration and hero worship (a billboard on the fringes of Matara once announced: "Welcome to Sanath Country"), Jayasuriya's feet have remained grounded. To this day, despite great wealth and success, he remains modest, quiet spoken and unfailingly polite; a refreshingly simple and amiable man in an increasingly complex and hectic world.
Charlie Austin is Cricinfo's Sri Lankan correspondent