Top Performer - Mahela Jayawardene August 2, 2006

Hungry for runs

This week's Top Performer is Mahela Jayawardene

Mahela Jayawardene's 374 was virtually chanceless © Getty Images

No batsman begins an innings believing he is going to break the record for the highest individual score in Test history. There's the business of playing a part in winning a Test that comes first. And when you are captain of the team, as Mahela Jayawardene was for the first Test against South Africa last week, the responsibility of controlling the game is that much more immediate. In that sense, it would not be overstating things to say that he built his innings, run by run, session by session, part by part, in almost perfect fashion. If there was an imperfection, and it's difficult to fault someone who scored 374 and won a Test, it was that Brian Lara's record was so close and yet slipped out of grasp.

When Jayawardene came to bat, having bowled South Africa out for a low score, Sri Lanka were in serious danger of going the same way, at 14 for 2. The first task was to steady the ship, and with Kumar Sangakkara taking and giving the odd chance, the solidity had to come from Jayawardene. And it did. Early in his innings he played very straight, getting his front foot well down the pitch and outside the line of the stumps. He allowed the ball, and the bowlers, to come to him, rather than reaching out. And to end the first day on 55 was a sensible beginning.

Funnily enough, when he walked out to bat on the second day, he had to make a fresh beginning, and once more knuckle down and make as if he was just beginning his innings. He did that with some ease, having got a good measure of the pitch. Sluggish, and yet affording Nicky Boje sharp turn every once in a way, the pitch at the Sinhalese Sports Club was pretty much perfect for playing a long innings - once you got your eye in, there was little to fear, even if the bowling attack had some serious players like Makhaya Ntini, Dale Steyn and Andre Nel. The graphic below shows where he scored his runs against Boje, off deliveries which were directed at the stumps.

Once he was set, Jayawardene pretty much pretended that he was having a particularly long session in the nets. With plenty of time on his hands, and the runs coming quite freely, he began to take his favourite shots out of cold storage, one by one. There was the pick up off the pads, whipping the ball through midwicket. There was the sashay down the pitch with a little skip to the leg side that enabled him to loft the ball over cover, inside out - a difficult shot that he plays as well as anyone in the world. The milestones came, one by one, with a sense of inevitability, as Jayawardene and Sangakkara batted out the whole of the second day.

Jayawardene had rattled along to 224, his third Test double-hundred. The third day was simply one for records. First came the partnership - 624, and then as Sangakkara fell on 287, all eyes focussed on Jayawardene, and Lara's 400. Still, there was little flagging in the pace, and the sheer magnitude of the partnership meant that South Africa had long since turned to their part-time and lesser bowlers. Consequently, the loose balls did come along often enough, allowing Jayawardene to just wait, and concentrate on putting away what deserved the treatment. He did not have to go out of his way, and the flow of runs was steady. So much so that as the third day wore down, fans began filling up the SSC, if for no reason but to be able to later tell their grandchildren, "I was there when the record was broken."

To that end it was an anticlimax, a Nel delivery that jagged back in and kept a touch low, sneaking through to disturb the stumps, ending Jayawardene's run on 374. Whether you're Sri Lankan or not, there's a sense of disappointment when someone comes so close to breaking a record and fails. Fortunately for Jayawardene, that was more than offset by the fact that he played a virtually chanceless innings that took his team to victory.

The numbers A mark of how fluently Jayawardene scored is how easily he got the ball away even when the line was restrictive - for example Nicky Boje bowling very straight - either on the stumps or even towards leg to cramp him for room. He played the inside-out shot especially well hitting as many as 61 runs through the off side off deliveries that were straight.

What he says "I am proud to pass Sanath's record (340). He is a great cricketer. It is something everyone wants to have. I am delighted. One day somebody will come and break this record as well. Right now I have it and it's a nice feeling. The disappointment is that I didn't get the 400. But what I have achieved I am very satisfied."

What they say "As I said to Mahela at tea time he had already achieved something amazing in passing Sanath's record which was incredible at 340, he was close enough to have a crack at Brian's record. If it wasn't going to happen so be it. These guys [Sangakkara and Jayawardene] have a lot of cricket left in them they will have another opportunity. They have shown that as cricketers they can bat for a long time and they've got the hunger and the determination" Tom Moody, the Sri Lankan coach, at the end of the game.

Anand Vasu is assistant editor of Cricinfo