Mahela Jayawardene retires from Test cricket August 12, 2014

Master of silken savagery

He was an artiste who crafted the most technically demanding shots to perfection but lived for the pure adrenaline of battle

Was there a more compelling force than Jayawardene in full flow? © AFP

Every Mahela Jayawardene innings had its own persona. Every Jayawardene stroke was self-expression. This was true when he played a rasping square cut against the turn to fetch his first Test boundary in 1997. It was true when he hit a searing reverse-sweep off Saeed Ajmal at Galle, on Sunday.

His batting has filled grounds since he was 15. He has won Tests off his own blade, and saved a few as well. He has taken more international catches than any other cricketer, many while captaining Sri Lanka with a creativity that has not been seen elsewhere in international cricket this century. From Nalanda College to Lord's, from softball cricket on Colombo streets to the dustbowls that he alone could tame, he has never ceased to be himself. Across every format, in every capacity, Jayawardene has never ceased to be among cricket's most elemental pleasures.

Most will remember his artistry. Other batsmen are often products of hard work and clear thinking, of processes that have been hammered in, with shots that have been honed, along with the muscles that power them. Jayawardene does all the work, but at the crease he is a free spirit. That liquid cover drive that sent balls in almost any direction on the off side was more dependent on his mood than the physics of the delivery that came to him. The sweep that could go anywhere from deep midwicket to the finest fine leg, in any combination of power and elevation, was decided in an instant, on a whim.

Among Sri Lankan batsmen, his technique has been uniquely resistant to change. The trigger movement is almost the same. The grip is a little lower since he started out, but the hands still feel for the ball when the feet are not quite there. That is not to say he has not innovated with the times. But although new strokes have been learnt in his later years, the essence of his cricket remains as lovingly refined as it has always been. Twenty-first century aggression filtered through age-old method, yielding savagery that seems fashioned from silk. The uppercut off Morne Morkel during his most recent Test hundred was played late, beneath the eyes, over the fielders for four.

That Jayawardene was so often a victim of his own ambition only made his success sweeter. He would open the face of his bat to deflect the ball to third man on seaming decks. He played the hook and the pull when leg-side traps had been set. Bowlers always had a chance, so every late cut past a full cordon felt like an escape. Every trip down the pitch to loft spinners against the turn was a shot of adrenaline.

Was there a more compelling force than him when in full flow? When he was at the crease, sometimes even dot balls were electric. Singles were scored off paddle sweeps dragged from way outside off. Twos were chipped just over the circle, inches from the fielder's reach. A drive down the ground when the ball was pitched up, moving miles; a flick through midwicket when reverse swing was on offer. You wondered why he played this way - why someone so tactically astute would not recognise the benefits of staying safe. But Jayawardene lived on a precipice because he was at the cricket for the same reason as the spectator. Helplessly instinctive, craving attack, he went to the crease for the taste of the battle, for the smell of adventure.

Among Sri Lankan batsmen, he has played the biggest share of great innings, giving each one a different texture and a different hue. The 374 was the monster that grew out of a counter-attack. The fourth-innings 123 at the P Sara Oval little more than a week later was a masterclass in control. The 105 against Australia, on a Galle surface that looked like a cluster bomb had attacked it, was pure survival. Even within the same innings, he would transition like an orchestra through a symphony. Staccato singles and twos gave way to long slow notes, then in a surge of inspiration, the exhilarating crescendo came. Bowlers rarely knew what was next. Fans had no idea. Jayawardene often didn't either.

He could never let a game drift in his first stint as captain. Almost every field gave the batsman a trap to think about. Often they would fall, hitting to somewhere else, but Jayawardene would celebrate like it had all been planned, racing to greet the bowler like they had just pulled off a prank together. Under his guidance, the men around the bat for Muttiah Muralitharan were not just vultures hovering above a prospective meal, they were co-instigators of the action; a living, breathing, sharpened phalanx, almost as central to Sri Lanka's threat as the man whirring the ball in.

Jayawardene averages 50.02 before his final Test. If he is dismissed twice, he needs 94 runs to keep that figure above 50. His less flattering returns outside Asia are known. That edginess against the seaming ball in the channel has been well laid out.

But those who watched Jayawardene play will not forget how he made them feel - the way his innings grabbed you by the collar and took you on a ride. They will not forget the late cuts or the drives, the sinking despair or the dizzying elation. Or the way Jayawardene lived and died, on the edge, for the thrill.

Andrew Fidel Fernando is ESPNcricinfo's Sri Lanka correspondent. @andrewffernando

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Harsh on August 14, 2014, 16:27 GMT

    Above all Mahela ressurected the spirit of sportsmanship and grace to the game of cricket.His batting posessed the characteristic oriental touch but was marginally below the likes of Roy Dias or Aravinda De Silva in terms of creative genius.His mammoth partnership of 624 with Kumar Sangaakara will be written permanently in the annals of Cricket history.Sadly his average was relatively less in Australia and South Africa.Neverthless one of the best batsman of his era in a crisis who could carry a game on his shoulders.Only his overseas batting average may prevent mahela from being classed with the all-time great batsmen.Few batsmen ever exhibited better temperament or posessed such sweetness in their batting.

    I cherish memories of his 2007 world cup semi-final century which was gem with strokes of golden touch.

  • Harsh on August 14, 2014, 16:19 GMT

    His batting posessed a silken touch ,charasterictic of subcontinent batsmen whose strokes posessed a unique touch of their very own.He could build up innings of monumental proportions like Brian Lara with the skill of an architect and blend it with the finesse or technical skill of a surgeon and the artistry of a painter.Above all he put his team above everything else and won many an important win for Sri Lanka moulding his team to play at it's very best.His leadership was instrumental in Sri Lanka gaining the runners up berth in successive world cups.

    What may go against him is that his average was much less away from home where he averaged 41 runs and was not so succesful in South Africa and Australia.He was also more prolific in drawn and lost games but neverthless averaged an outstanding 65 in games won which was more than what he averaged in lost or drawn games.

    On home wickets one of the games all time greats who conquered the Proteas and the kangaroos.

  • Dummy4 on August 14, 2014, 14:06 GMT

    Once in a while, a natural batsman is born, who has all the qualities that crowds love - the style, natural timing, the wish to dominate bowlers, the thrill of trying out the most audacious shots. Mahela, Brian Lara and Mark Waugh are prime examples. There are the others who are less gifted and need to work on their techniques and temperaments to succeed. Indeed, the latter batsmen often come to dominate the record books and statistics. We need both types in international cricket but the kind of pleasure we derive as spectators is distinctly different. Having watched Mahela on numerous occasions - both on grounds around Sri Lanka and on the TV - I would like to thank him for the pride and pleasure he has given us over the years, particularly when we had very little else to cheer about here in Sri Lanka.

  • jayaesh on August 14, 2014, 13:48 GMT

    As an Indian fan i salute the brilliance of Mahela.... i wanted to shower Mahela with glowing praise and indulge in waxing eloquence but i am not even going to try it because nothing i write would come even 1/10th of what brilliant Mr Andrew Fidel Fernando has written, just like Mahela was an artist with bat Andrew is with words...take a bow Andrew ....

  • Thomas on August 14, 2014, 3:00 GMT

    Although, in my opinion, Sangakkara is the better batsman of the two and more pleasing to watch, this does not take away from Jayawardene's brilliance. Having the privilege of watching them play together, now that has been something truly special. Good luck Mahela and many thanks to an absolute gentleman of the game.

  • Sudath on August 14, 2014, 1:46 GMT

    Mere presence in the team added another eleven to the side. He is yet to come or still in the middle for what ever target made us glued to the TV. Such a character. Sudath Liyanage, UNIVOTEC, Sri Lanka

  • Dummy4 on August 13, 2014, 23:43 GMT

    Funny how for certain people Murali took wickets on raging turners in SL but Mahela made runs on flat pitches in SL. What is it? You can't have it both ways. The same wicket might look flat when Mahela bats and looks like a raging turner when Murali bowls. That's the only explanation.

  • kushal on August 13, 2014, 18:15 GMT


    Your comment "Jealousy won't take you anywhere" has no sense or context to what we are talking here. Mahela could be a great player to biased people, but for a shrewd cricket follower and an ardent SL fan like me, he is just another flat track player. Infact his record in other subcontinent teams itself is pretty ordinary. IMO, SL just produce 1 legend muralitharan and 2 greats De silva and sangakkara. Rest others are just good players, thats it.

  • Steve on August 13, 2014, 17:03 GMT

    I really wish Mahela signs-off with a 100 and an average over 50 (just realized he crossed 50 again after falling into high 40s recently) both of which he richly deserves.

  • Hristiyan on August 13, 2014, 14:00 GMT

    Big RESPECT for the player and the author! Enough said!