A tense artist's final strive for perfection
When Mahela Jayawardene walked out for his final innings in Test cricket, Pakistan began to form their second guard of honour of the match. The first half of their gesture went off without a hitch. Two columns of roughly equal length were formed about two metres apart, in line with the corridor that leads out of the dressing rooms.
But as soon as Jayawardene walked past the two players, on either side, Pakistan began to close in around him. Saeed Ajmal made a lighthearted comment. Younis Khan quipped back and flung his arm around the batsman while both chuckled. Long before Jayawardene could pass through, the guard straight lines had collapsed into a group huddle, just like it had on day one.
Sri Lanka and Pakistan have been professional teams for years, but from the top eight sides, the amateur spirit still runs strongest in these two. It is just like Sri Lanka and Pakistan to give the same player two guards of honour in one match. It is just like Sri Lanka and Pakistan to do it wrong both times. Not that their fans would want it any other way.
This Test had been moved to the SSC to give Jayawardene a perfect farewell, but so far the celebrations have not been without their blemishes. The crowd filled out a little, while Jayawardene's stand with Kumar Sangakkara swelled, but there were vast empty spaces, in the stands and on the banks. It was a Saturday afternoon.
Those that had gathered to send Jayawardene off had their chants routinely drowned out by the music blaring from the stadium speakers. Hoardings, some transplanted from their previous haunts in Galle, had been installed around the ground's periphery, but some of those were not perfect either. "Couldn't have been streater," read one, showing Jayawardene driving in one-day kit. "Should go alone the ground," went another, with a picture of Jayawardene sweeping in Tests.
On Facebook, a Sri Lankan politician had criticised whoever had allowed the misspelled boards to be displayed, but maybe the man it had all been for would not have minded so much. Jayawardene delivered staggering highs in his career, but for all his hard runs, he has not been one to tango with perfection. He is loved at home for his efforts at Galle and Colombo. But he polarises opinion overseas, largely because of his lopsided home and away record.
No bowler has dismissed Jayawardene more than six times other than Saeed Ajmal, who has claimed his scalp on nine occasions, so when he took guard against the offspinner, he seemed tense. Jayawardene prodded outside off stump, failing to account for Ajmal's turn several times and misreading a doosra that narrowly passed the outside edge.
Some days every ball hits the middle of his blade, and all his strokes - however outrageous - all come off. But on Saturday, Jayawardene was forced to scrap for every run. Two balls that struck him on the pad raised big appeals. When he played an attacking stroke, there was often a fielder in his way.
Still, Jayawardene fought to improve his team's position in the match, and deliver at least some of what the crowd that had gathered for him had come for. The cover drive off Wahab Riaz that brought his first boundary was as gorgeous as any he has played. Tired of defending to Ajmal soon after, he got inside the line of a delivery pitching on middle, and swept it hard, just inches above an outstretched hand of short fine leg. The late cut that brought his next four, off Abdur Rehman, was again just out of reach of the fielder, at second slip this time. Far from his best touch, an attack he has not always prospered against, Jayawardene found a way to play his vintage strokes, all with that signature element of danger.
Eventually he grew bolder and produced the awesome moments that no good Jayawardene innings is without. The square drive off a Wahab away-swinger drew a gasp and applause from the crowd. The upper cut over the slips next ball brought a roar of appreciation. The best boundary was the last one he struck before stumps. Slinking down the pitch to Rehman, Jayawardene made room and lofted the ball over cover, with the turn.
Jayawardene stood one away from half-century at stumps. If he is dismissed in this innings, he needs at least 41 more, or he will become the first batsman who has scored 10,000 runs to retire with an average below 50. The partnership is on 98, and one final century stand with Kumar Sangakkara would also be fitting, given there is a small chance this is Sangakkara's last innings at home as well. Sri Lanka do not play Tests in Sri Lanka for almost a year after this one.
The milestones would be nice on day four, for Jayawardene. But not everything has to be so neat. He has won matches off his bat, and thrilled crowds from around the world, but he has never been about the tidy, round numbers. He has been among cricket's greatest artists with the bat, and art is never a perfect science.
Andrew Fidel Fernando is ESPNcricinfo's Sri Lanka correspondent. @andrewffernando