Pakistan v Sri Lanka 2013-14 January 6, 2014

Mahela under the microscope after horror Test

Twin failures in the Abu Dhabi Test left Mahela Jayawardene without a half-century in his last 14 innings. At 36, he finds his place in Sri Lanka's team under question for the first time

Out three times off the last three balls he has faced, all to a 22-year-old on debut. It can't feel great to be Mahela Jayawardene right now. Given he became a father only a month ago, perhaps there is only so low Jayawardene can feel. To his credit, cricket has never consumed him to the extent it defines so many other players. But it is the kind of Test match a 36-year-old really does not want to have, not even if he owns more than 10,000 runs and 30 hundreds, not even if he has been a no-brainer choice in every Sri Lanka side for 15 years.

That he let Misbah-ul-Haq's paddle sweep slip through his fingers after having anticipated the shot in the first innings will only strengthen whispers that Jayawardene's mind remains sharp but his reflexes and hand-eye coordination are beginning to wane. After all, besides the wristy flicks and slow-motion drives, Jayawardene has also taken more international catches than any other fielder. If he takes 17 more in Tests, he will surpass Rahul Dravid's record in the format.

If it seems ludicrous to even consider dropping Jayawardene, that's because it is. Detractors point to an average of 22.27 in his last nine away Tests, stretching back to May 2011, but omit the vital innings he has played at home since. Jayawardene's record outside Asia is famously poor, but he has played in 53 of Sri Lanka's 66 Test victories - second only to Muttiah Muralitharan who played in 54. It would also be a mistake to assume runs in Sri Lanka means runs on flat pitches. Galle is as stern a Test of batting technique as the Gabba or Headingley. Of Jayawardene's record 2698 runs at the Sinhalese Sports Club, over half have been in wins and just over 8% in losses.

Yet, there is significant stress on Jayawardene as he seeks to contribute in the remaining matches. Forces within the team's governing body have gathered against him for some time, and while chief selector Sanath Jayasuriya has been immune to such pressures in his 11 months in office, he will find Jayawardene's inclusion harder to justify if the batsman has a poor series.

The young players' rich returns in the first Test also tighten the tourniquet on Jayawardene. He was the only batsman in the top seven not to get a start in either innings, and if the likes of Angelo Mathews and Dinesh Chandimal sustain success on their own, the inspiration and encouragement of an older man at the other end becomes less necessary. Nothing makes a senior player seem beyond his best like younger, less-decorated batsmen enhancing the magnitude of his failure.

Adversity has coaxed the best from Jayawardene before, even if he has rarely faced the sort that challenged his future in the side. He is by some distance the lead contributor to the Sri Lankan subset of great Test innings. His 119 at Lord's in 2006 reeled the team out of an almighty whirlpool after they had surrendered a 359-run deficit in the first innings. His 374 against South Africa in a winning cause later in the year speaks for itself, but the 123 in the next Test of the series is vastly underrated, having come in Sri Lanka's highest successful chase - a match in which no other batsman scored a century.

More recently, he made 180 in Galle to help topple the then No.1 England team, in a Sri Lankan innings in which no one else managed more than 27. A few months earlier, against Australia at the same venue, he had scored 105 on a dusty, broken, fright of a pitch. It is often said of good innings that the batsman appears to have played on a different surface from the one his team-mates have encountered, but in full flow, Jayawardene's wrists and blade are governed by an altogether alien set of physical laws.

So perhaps it is unfair to compare Jayawardene's six months and 14 international innings without a half-century with Kumar Sangakkara's enduring - even improving - consistency. You don't rate Hendrix on his prowess with the French horn, nor a Tarantino film on its realism. Opinions vary wildly on whether Jayawardene is a great player, but as has been written about Kevin Pietersen, there is no doubt he is a player of extraordinary innings.

For the remainder of the series at the very least, Jayawardene's place will be rightly unquestioned. Not only will Angelo Mathews resist making such a bold call on his first full overseas tour as captain, he will also likely balk at the thought of spurning a mentor that way. But cricket's most exquisite surviving stylist and one of Sri Lanka's finest match-winners does not deserve to have his twilight marred by talk of decline, and two good Tests will ensure Jayawardene does not suffer that indignity.

Andrew Fidel Fernando is ESPNcricinfo's Sri Lanka correspondent. He tweets here

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Android on January 11, 2014, 18:10 GMT

    ahem ahem...... I hope his century has answered most of the question raised here....

  • Marco on January 9, 2014, 4:20 GMT

    As a young boy growing up and watching cricket, i have lots of favorite players. And of all the players, I have never seen a batsman time the cover drive so well you'd want to watch it over and over on replay. I can only think of Mahela and Mike Hussy. Yes people are starting to question MJ's place in the team, and rightly so but if they wanted him out they should done it long time ago especially with an away average he has. I think MJ has alot of cricket still left in him and frankly I don't think any of the current young SL players will even get to 10000 test runs... so the best they can do now is learn from guys like MJ, Sanga, Dilshan etc...

  • faizal on January 8, 2014, 12:35 GMT

    Just to remind Mr Ranil Fernando who does not consider Sanath Jayasuriya as a good Test Player that Srilanka scored 900 + runs in an innings in a Test Match Against India at the R Premadasa Stadium out of which 300+ was scored by SJ himself and almost broke Brian Lara's record and ofcourse Mahela too contributed with a half century.

  • Dummy4 on January 8, 2014, 3:08 GMT

    Mahela is great batsman when he is on song. Yest it is true he is not capable of handling on bouncy tracks like in England, Australia. one reason might be his stance for facing the ball which is well suited for flat pithches in Asian continent. Other one reason would be his over concentration and nervous at the begining of his inning. He plays really well facing the blade in front and technically sound, no doubt of it, but he is a batsman of having lot of shots by the nudging and reflecting to the corners thats too work well in asian flat pitches. when it comes to bouncy tracks, he coudnt do oftnely as he is doing in subcontinent. Sangakkara is a player who adopted these changes well according tothese conditions and thats why he is more consistant even on the bouncy tracks compared to Mahela.

  • Dummy4 on January 7, 2014, 19:02 GMT

    Mahela will get his chance. The Tigers are due to visit the Islands soon and he should take this opportunity to boost his average. Mahela is a class act. Sri Lankan cricket will not be the same without him.

  • Dummy4 on January 7, 2014, 5:39 GMT

    @John_Geo sorry to interfere but without looking in the cricinfo archives I could assure you that SL won that match gainst SA. For great moments of Mahela's career, 2007 world cup semi, 2011 world cup final centuries comes to the mind in a flash. Once had the Fastet half century by a sri lankan in t20. He also played a great hand in one of the better English tours Sri Lanka had drawing test series 1-1 and if my memory serves right 5-0 win in the ODI's. Yes he is not in greatest of touch and maybe he is hitting the end of his career but he has given us some fond memories as a player and definietly as a captain.

  • Rohan on January 7, 2014, 5:23 GMT

    Its a bit of shame to compare Jayawardene with Kevin Pietersen. MJ a good player is no match for KP, who has scored runs both home and away. MJ doesn't even average 35 in any one of Eng/Sa/Aus/NZ/UAE.

  • Dummy4 on January 7, 2014, 4:05 GMT

    How come these people talk such horribly about a player like Mahela? I wonder how they jump into conclusions and pass judgments on such a player by looking at a few innings he has played in the recent past. Are we to forget all the great innings he has played and the marvelous captaincy he provided to SL over the years? I remember Jacques Kallis getting out for ducks in both innings against SL very recently which, according to these pundits, is enough proof that he is a total failure as a batsman, despite the great record behind him. Wonderful, indeed.

  • Dummy4 on January 7, 2014, 3:10 GMT

    The article is fine with the stats ..... everyone is talking about young players of SL. Who played better in recent past? Forget that Mathews, Chandimal, Ashan and Kaushal in an inninng. That's all in that test and even Sanga scored just a mere 50. Find a better replacement as No. 4 and then talk about replacing Mahela. What is this Sri Lankan flat tracks? Why South African batsmen fail here? Why Australian batsmen fail here? @ Eranga Abeygunawardana - Who compares Mahela with Jayasuriya? Totally different players and I don't consider Jayasuriya as a good Test player. We are talking about Test cricket here not ODI. Let Mahela prove what he can in next 2 matches and then we'll have a discussion.

  • Buddhika on January 7, 2014, 0:54 GMT

    Mahela has been over hyped batsmen by media and fans. Even he is not in the 10 best batsmens even 50 SL produce. His whole carrier has inconsistent his most of the runs scored in SSC and Galle. His entire career he took runs only for him not so he could get decent average. But no danger for his position until his earlier caption current chief selector SJ in the seat. He could play up to 40 whether he performed or not.

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