December 16, 2009

The joy of Jaya

No mere smash-and-grab artist, Sanath Jayasuriya has revolutionised opening and done it with a shy exuberance and no hint of swagger

Sanath Jayasuriya has been at once a devastating hitter and amongst the foremost opening batsmen of his period. It is no mean combination. His career, his very life, has told of a man given a gift and able to express it in any company. He is the bathroom singer who became an opera star. He is not to be remembered as he has appeared in the last few fading seasons, as a fitful batsman of rare power but spasmodic performance, not quite a spent force but surely an exhausted volcano. No man deserves to be judged by his years of slow decline.

In some less sentimental nations older hands are ditched as soon as the struggle against the clock begins, or at any rate earlier in its inexorable progress. Age is its own cancer. Jayasuriya has lingered and served and sometimes succeeded, but he is not feared half as much and that tells the tale. Rest assured, he has been a giant.

And yet there is one part of Jayasuriya that has remained intact even in this long farewell. His reputation as a sportsman and as a man of standing has not been touched even as his form slips, his eye slows and his feet stop moving. Jaya is a reminder that gentlemen can come from all corners of life, all religions, all periods, all stations. Throughout, in triumph and failure, victory and defeat, he has carried himself with distinction, has fought hard and without rancour, has resisted the enshrouding fog, has kept plundering and pillaging in his inimitable way, and always has commanded respect. Sri Lanka have seldom been better served. Cricket rightly salutes a fine servant.

No such story could have been foretold as Jaya embarked upon his career. Of course he had played a good deal before arriving in Australia in 1996, had made his mark at 6 or 7 in the order, had chipped in with a few wickets, bowling with a lowish arm that seemed designed to discourage spin. He was known as a spinner who could bat a bit. As it turned out, spin was his bread and butter, batting was his honey and jam. Hereabouts he looked like an honest artisan, strong of shoulder, keen of eye, uncompromising of purpose, but lacking craft and sophistication. He did not look like a champion. But then it is not a question of looks. The heart cannot be seen from a distance.

He had opened once before - to dismal effect. Then, on that Australian tour, some bright spark - presumably it was Arjuna Ranatunga, a man who knew the audacious power of ideas - gave him an opportunity to open the innings again. At the time the Lankans seemed to be asking a butcher to become a surgeon. Few outside the camp expected Jayasuriya to prosper in his elevated position. He might belt a few runs but he could not last, could he? He lasted over 12 years.

It said a lot about Jayasuriya that he opened the innings against the Australians and promptly smacked 48 in 57 balls in the first innings and 112 in the second. Admittedly Adelaide provided a friendly pitch, but he was a long way from Matara, and promotion had taken him far beyond the comforts of previous experience. Naturally the Australians did not expect him to linger. Precious few openers from the region had flourished down under. Moreover he seemed out of his depth.

In the books his bowling is described as slow left-arm orthodox. His batting might as well be called fast left-hand unorthodox. A short life but a merry one was assigned to him. But the ball kept going to the boundary and bowlers kept standing with hands on hips and spectators kept admiring his spirit. He was still opening the innings in 2007, and scoring 78 against the might of England. As it turned out, he knew what he was doing.

And so began an astonishing career as an opening batsman capable of hitting the ball with such withering power that the leather could scarce survive his attentions and stitches came unstuck. In those coruscating days of strength and sharp eye, Jaya often caused mayhem. Crouching over his bat, all alert pugnacity, relying on clubs as opposed to strokes, waiting till the last instant to nominate his shot and then executing it with uncomplicated conviction, he was able to tear attacks apart. Not for him old-fashioned notions of gradually taking the shine off the ball, carefully building an innings, gathering momentum. He was not a man for introduction or hesitation. If the ball was in the right place, he smacked it. And the problem was that the right place covered quite a lot of turf. Bowlers had little margin for error. Before long they often had flustered minds, chaotic fields and alarming figures. And it all happened in the flash of an eye. The like of it had seldom been seen.

Brutality, venom and fury are words that have been attached to Jayasuriya's batting, yet they are not apt. His work always seemed cheerful. Even bowlers did not seem to mind being carted around by him - or not much anyhow. Crowds wished him well. There is a shy exuberance about his play, a hint of the village green put in higher company, and he has been without ego and swagger. He competed without resentment, was popular with all sections.

Asked about how to handle him, the great and lost Malcolm Marshall said that after a few inswingers had been rudely dispatched he had changed to outswingers aimed at the left-hander's pads. He seemed puzzled that other bowlers had not adopted the same tactic. A modest man, he did not realise that no one could swing the ball either way at will at 90mph.

Eventually bowlers did concentrate on denying Jayasuriya space to cut and pull and clip and carve. Even then precision was required. He preyed upon anything fractionally off target, pounced upon anything misdirected or dropped a little short. He dished out punishment till his time came and then he departed with an air of regret.

In these days of aggressive openers, Twenty20 and Virender Sehwag, it is not easy to convey the impact that Jayasuriya has had upon the game. In many ways he was ahead of his time. In 1996, the year of his breakthrough, and Sri Lanka's World Cup victory, and for a few seasons thereafter, he broke records for fast fifties, made captains scratch their heads, made teams realise that a match could be won in the first hour with bat as well as ball. He was compelling viewing. It was a tale of the unexpected.

Brutality, venom and fury are words that have been attached to Jayasuriya's batting, yet they are not apt. His work always seemed cheerful

But to cast Jayasuriya as a smiter is to do him a disservice. Bad techniques get exposed in Test cricket. Jaya has scored almost 7000 runs at 40 (and, by the way, taken 98 wickets at 34 apiece) much of it in a period when scores were lower than they are today. He has been underestimated. Nor has he been a mere smash-and-grab man. To the contrary he has been enough of a cricketer to collect steadily once the field had been pushed back; enough of a batsman to know that the chance to compile a big total does not come every day. Along the way he has collected a Test 300. And even that first hundred in Australia took 188 balls. Once established at the crease he was prepared to push the ball around: more tax collector than debt collector.

Jayasuriya stopped playing Test cricket in 2007, but continues to appear in ODIs and 20-over matches. Sometimes he has dropped down the list because younger men have come along, comrades inspired by his derring do, uplifted by their island's continued excellence and also by its capacity to absorb all types of players. It was not so long ago that Sri Lanka played clean, blue-blood cricket: correct, respectable, coached. It did not quite suit the local temperament, but post-colonial nations often seek respectability.

Often these players emerged from the top schools, where they learnt to behave and play with left elbow raised and be polite. Until a decade ago many Sri Lankan batsmen (probably not including Ranatunga) called the umpires "Sir". These schools produced many fine cricketers, but the spirit of the country was somewhat caged. Coming from an unfashionable school, a Buddhist establishment at that, Ranatunga owed nothing to former ways.

A shy, impoverished, fearless opener from a southern city, Jayasuriya was in the right place at the right time. Ten years earlier he might not have made the grade. Ten years later bowlers might have been better placed to hold him in check.

Sri Lankan cricket has changed a lot in the last 20 years. Without trying to present himself as a revolutionary, just by being himself, Jayasuriya has been in the vanguard. Nowadays he travels the world and waxes and wanes, forming a formidable opening partnership with Sachin Tendulkar in Mumbai, failing for Kwa-Zulu Natal and often his country as well. Really, he is living on his reputation, but then it does give him considerable leeway.

Captains are loath to omit match-winners. Anyhow he can contribute with the ball and even at 40 does not let the team down in the field. But the curtain is ready to fall.

Jayasuriya has had a glorious career. He has helped to bring a World Cup to a small, expectant, unsung, often troubled island, has brightened his game and never made it scowl. Throughout he has played with rare joy and conducted himself with exceptional humility. In my mind he stands not far behind Frank Worrell and Harold Larwood in the list of the game's great men.

Peter Roebuck is a former captain of Somerset and the author, most recently, of In It to Win It