The great entertainer
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