Sanath Jayasuriya December 6, 2007

The great entertainer

Jayasuriya's free-spirited, electrifying talent will be sorely missed. So long, Sanath

Jolt from the blue: few could thrill like Jayasuriya © AFP

Sanath Jayasuriya's second retirement from Test cricket attracted much less fanfare than the first did, some 18 months ago. It was also far happier: on that occasion he started the match silently fuming with the selectors for pushing him out. It all ended with a dropped catch, a painfully dislocated thumb, and a heavy defeat to Pakistan. He was not ready to walk away back then and it was a bitterly sad and unjust end to a great servant of Sri Lankan cricket. This time, though, he knew the time was right and he finished with a characteristically macho cameo, a brilliant 78 that played a crucial part in Sri Lanka winning the first Test by 88 runs.

Indeed, his innings on Monday afternoon neatly encapsulated all that has made Jayasuriya so valuable a player for so long. He may have a modest average by the standards of top Asian batsmen (finishing with 6973 runs at 40.07 in 110 matches), but right through a career that stretches back nearly two decades, Jayasuriya's runs were often hugely influential. He was, in short, a match-winner, possessed of that rare and precious ability - like Kevin Pietersen for England - to singlehandedly turn the tide of a game, stealing momentum. He did that in this Test, wiping away a 93-run deficit that many at the time thought was a winning lead for England. The rest of the top order may have finished the job, but Jayasuriya was the one who gave them an early wind and swung the match back onto an even keel.

However, though he proved in this game that he still has the ability to win games at home, there's no denying that it was the right time for Jayasuriya to leave the Test arena. As an allrounder he still has plenty to offer in the one-day and Twenty20 game, but in Test cricket his performances have been on the wane for some time now. The gaps between his big scores have grown wider. Age, inevitably, was taking a toll. While Jayasuriya's fitness has remained good, the reflexes were starting to slow, exposing him at the start of the innings. Also, there are younger players waiting in the wings, such as Upul Tharanga and Mahela Udawatte, who now need to be playing if Sri Lanka is going to progress.

Jayasuriya was offered a farewell Test by the selectors - the alternative being the prospect of being unceremoniously dropped - and he gladly accepted it. Characteristically, he made his goodbyes in low-key style. Jayasuriya is a national hero, a legend for many, but he has never sought the bright lights; he is a simple man, a very committed Buddhist. His retirement was announced to Sky Sports after his 78 with a casual air. There was no media release and no press conference. I asked him why, that evening. "Why do I need a press conference?" he queried back. "Murali had just broken a world record and that is far more important than me deciding to retire. If the journalists want a quote, they will find me."

Jayasuriya, though, will not be forgotten so easily. The first, simple reason for this is that for the best part of two decades he has been in the team. Most people in the country have little recollection of the pre-Jayasuriya era. In addition, there is the small matter of his style. In an era of increasingly sterile and mechanical professionalism, Jayasuriya batted like a fearless schoolboy in a park. When he started out, Sri Lanka ate biryani on match days and didn't bother employing coaches. He leaves a dressing room of bland pasta dishes, isotonic drinks, ice baths, physios, trainers, psychologists and analysts. Throughout he played the same way: if he could, he'd whack it to the boundary.

He was a player who routinely frustrated with soft dismissals, but he made up for those failures with innings so brilliant, so daring, so ludicrous, that you were often left in open-mouthed shock. When he walked out to bat, even non-cricket fans couldn't resist looking at the TV

All those fortunate to have watched Jayasuriya over the years have witnessed batting at its most brutal, compelling best. He was a player who routinely frustrated with soft dismissals, but he made up for those failures with innings so brilliant, so daring, so ludicrous, that you were often left in open-mouthed shock. When he walked out to bat, even non-cricket fans couldn't resist looking at the TV. There are few sights in cricket more spellbinding that Jayasuriya on song. Of all the wonderful players I have watched over the years, none has electrified a stadium like him. He was, quite simply, Sri Lanka's great entertainer.

That entertainment played a crucial role in cricket's growing popularity in Sri Lanka. A common Western misconception about Sri Lanka is that everyone is genetically cricket mad. On the contrary, the game was dominated for decades by Colombo's elite, and lacked island-wide appeal until the 1990s. Now, though, fuelled by the World Cup win in 1996, and international success, it is a binding force that cuts across class, creed and ethnicity. Jayasuriya, born and bred in the undeveloped deep south, played a central role in making that happen. Every nation likes homegrown heroes, and Jayasuriya's international success, especially his barnstorming 1996 World Cup, has been a source of huge patriotic pride.

As captain he took over from Arjuna Ranatunga in 1999 and also made his mark with a consensual and inclusive style. He created a family-like atmosphere in the dressing room , and until 2002 it suited the team well. However, as time progressed, the job became harder and increasingly politicised. As a batsman his approach was fearless, as leader he was far more cautious and self-doubting. With hindsight you can see that he slowly lost control of the team in the lead-up to the 2003 World Cup. To be a good Sri Lanka captain, you have to be willing to be sacked. Jayasuriya spent too much time on the fence and eventually it became clear that a change was required. He realised it, too, and resigned straight after the World Cup.

That is not what he will be remembered for. He'll be remembered for his crunching airborne square-cuts, leg-side swipes, and the sunniest of smiles. He enjoyed his cricket and he gave huge enjoyment to others. He was a simple and free-spirited batsman blessed with enormous natural talent. Fortunately, thankfully, Sri Lanka excused him his inconsistencies and allowed us all to marvel at his brilliance. He will be missed, sorely missed.

Charlie Austin is Sri Lanka editor of Cricinfo

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Sujan on December 10, 2007, 13:01 GMT

    "Sanath Jayasuriya" - What a legendary player , he's a pure crowd entertainer ,even when it came to his last test innings he finished it in style..probably the best ODI player SL ever produced. We are very lucky to see the great man action even at this age and hopefully we will see him for few more years in ODI's. He's unstoppable when he's in form and also a more than handy bowler. Some of the innings he played will be remembered for ever ( 340 against India , 189 against India , 213 against England at Lords , WC 96 and etc.). He'll remain a player who changed the face of cricket ,how its been played now.. Being an Indian it was Sanath who pulled me towards SL Cricket.Im sure he won't be forgotten as asian players are always been..You come there in the top 10 when it comes to Cricket Legends..No one to replace you..

    Well done Sana !!!

  • Sachintha on December 8, 2007, 19:52 GMT

    The greatest tribute I can pay you, Sanath, is that the number of people who turn off their TV when you get out is a lot larger than who doesn't!!

    Though you're gone, the legacy you leave behind will live forever...

    Thank you Sana for everything you have done for us. And we will miss you forever...

  • jeff on December 8, 2007, 2:54 GMT

    sanath is most certainly an exceptional cricketer... he will be greatly missed.. whenever he comes out to bat it a treat, i always lookfoward for his agressive big shots and articulate cuts and drives. In my book he is one the the best, period.

  • Sweta on December 7, 2007, 23:14 GMT

    Whenever there will be talk of legends who created their own legacy and in the process changed the entire face of the game and forced the world to change and follow them ... Jayasuriya will come to mind. Who has changed one dayers like he did ? If Jonty is a legend for fielding and showing people to what level it can go up , Warne for reviving the art of legspin with his subtle variations, and showing how legspin can be attacking and not just a waiting game ... There are many who have average of well over 50, but have they impacted the game as much as Jayasuriya did. We saw a lot of oneday openers following his style after him but how many have been successful in destroying bowlers like he did ? Thats the grteatest tribute to him.

  • zavier on December 7, 2007, 22:37 GMT

    Ah! my heart burns today.What joy you have given us Sanath!Thank you for the entertainment.Its sad that all good things must come to an end but, You will live in our memories forever.That's no fluke!

  • Prince on December 7, 2007, 17:42 GMT

    Here's tribute to you,Sanath You do not have the artistry of an Aravinda or a Sachin,but you leave behind a legacy which is completely yours...Have you ever wondered how many cricket fans sit glued to the TV set to watch you bat ???You are the batsman to watch whom we remained awake all night,woke up early at dawn-to watch you destroy bowling attacks,with a humble,sunny smile which made the occassion all the more worthwhile.Will Sri Lanka cricket,even cricket,would remain the same without the smiling hurricane named Sanath Jayasuriya ??? Now that we are not seeing you in test cricket any more,we request you from the core of our heart to continue playing ODIs.Already Test cricket has lost a good percentage of its attraction...please don't let ODI cricket bear the same pain...... Thank you so much Sanath,for those memories..........

  • Udara on December 7, 2007, 17:25 GMT

    A true hero went away like a hero.Although his departure didnt make headlines due to the WR by Murali and its being his second departure his legend will remain as 1 of the greatest in the history of the game.I think its time to focus on one day cricket in which he is still in charge.

    But as a huge fan of his i think he shud have selected the second test which will b played in colombo as his farewell game coz most of us(fans) cud hav been able to pay tribute to the gratest player of our time.It will b hard to think abt srilankan cricket without a SANATH in the picture.

    SANATH thank u for being the greatest entertainer,fighter,and above all being a so modest and pleasant person.We will surely miss u.....

  • Sujan on December 7, 2007, 7:40 GMT

    He is the real Lankan hero, the day when Sana retires you will see the whole sri-lankans eyes full of tears, because he not only plays cricket on the pitch he also plays the heroism role in millions of peoples heart, he will be the lankan hero forever though he retires"

    Sanath is an will remain an inspiration for all upcoming cricketers.. Will miss you alot Sanath.. :-(

  • Kasun on December 7, 2007, 3:00 GMT

    Sanath, without you i wouldnt have even gotten into cricket. No other batmen has entertained like you before..and never will.

  • Jeremy on December 7, 2007, 2:40 GMT

    Sanath Jayasuriya's brilliance and impact on the game has been well talked about and it is great to see that legacy acknowledged.

    One of his greatest contributions that has been overlooked is that he was a true gentleman who played the game in the right spirit of sportmanship in contrast to the modern norm where sledging and psychological warfare prevails. He spoke loudest with his bat, smiled in the face aggression and was always a true gentlemen!!

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