Subtlety and power succeed on sluggish pitch
How many Jamaican dollars make up a mighty US one? What is the exchange rate? Where could I get a SIM card? Those were the first questions in my head on landing in Kingston, like any other foreign destination. That Jamaica was seriously hit by inflation wasn't a difficult inference to make - it had led to layoffs and an increase in crime. We were advised not to venture out after dark, ironic for an island known for its culture of revelry and celebration. However, my cab driver said that though these were tough times, Jamaicans refused to get ruffled by them, because it was beyond one's control.
That classic Caribbean response was delightfully contagious, and it decided the way I watched the first match of the tri-series, at Sabina Park. Though it was not top-quality cricket, it had enough to be an enjoyable contest. On a sluggish pitch that made everyone scratch around, two gentlemen, one from either side, thrived.
The first show of class came from one of the most elegant batsmen in the world - Mahela Jayawardene. In the absence of Tillakaratne Dilshan, Jayawardene opened for Sri Lanka on a pitch that looked a little dark, and on which both captains wanted to field first. The two new balls were expected to dart around a little bit, and they did. Not prodigiously in the air or off the surface, but enough to keep the fast bowlers interested. While Upul Tharanga was missing more than he was hitting, rarely did a ball pass Jayawardene's bat for the duration of his stay.
Jayawardene began by clipping balls finishing around off and middle wide of the mid-on fielder. That's a shot you play when you have gauged the pace and bounce of the pitch perfectly. But Jayawardene chose not to waste time over such details. He showed that if you're willing to wait for the ball to come to you, watch it until the last moment and turn the face of the bat at the point of contact, the chances of missing are minimal.
In fact, a few balls into his innings, he started shuffling across the stumps, tempting the bowler to target his legs, for he was a sitting duck if he missed. The moment Ravi Rampaul and Kemar Roach took the bait, he would flay them through the on side. To compensate for the error, both bowlers went slightly wide of the off stump and played straight into Jayawardene's hands - he caressed them through the off side. He made batting look ridiculously easy, but the moment he left after a run-a-ball 52, a different game of cricket started and the rest of Sri Lankan batsmen struggled.
If Jayawardene's batting was poetry, Gayle's innings during the chase of 209 was hard rock. Jayawardene was subtle and Gayle brutal. He started with a booming cover drive off Nuwan Kulasekara, who found some swing in the air and lateral movement off the pitch while the ball was new and threatened to pose problems for the openers. However, the moment Kulasekara pitched up - and that's where he had to bowl to maximise the movement - Gayle responded with disdain. He bludgeoned anything full, which forced Kulasekara to shorten the length, and that resulted in more thrashing.
Gayle's approach rendered Kulasekara's most important weapon, swing, redundant and that was the first of many battles that Gayle won on the day. Ajantha Mendis' bag of mysteries wasn't going to mystify Gayle, for he played the trajectory and not the line or length. The moment the ball was tossed up, he opened his arms and went down the ground. For everything else, he was happy to present a dead bat or push down the ground.
Gayle's modus operandi was simple - keep the good balls out and smash those pitched in his hitting zone. While watching Gayle defending isn't easy on the eye, because he lacks finesse, the skill with which he hits balls out of the ground is a sheer joy to watch. His balance on the crease, the ability to not lose shape while hitting the long ball, and ability to keep a steady head are right out of the "how to hit a six" textbook.
Both Gayle and Jayawardene, in their contrasting styles, made batting look like child's play. In an utterly one-sided match, they gave us reason to sit back and enjoy some good cricket.