Jayawardene retires from Test cricket August 18, 2014

The people's man bids them adieu

To the people who have loved him, Mahela Jayawardene has never seemed like an A-lister. Almost 20 years after he became a celebrity, he has remained, unmistakeably, a man of the people

When Mahela Jayawardene was a teenager, the locals in towns he played in would sometimes shut up shop, and flock to the ground to watch him play. In the early years he had not figured out he was the reason the crowds had swelled. Eventually the truth dawned upon him.

As he farewelled Test cricket, the thousands who had come to the SSC to see him off were allowed on to the ground, to form a giant huddle around their hero. There were warm embraces with his proud, emotional parents, his wife and daughter, his team-mates, and one quiet moment with his great partner-in-crime, Kumar Sangakkara. But on the day where he was the most wanted man in town, he still looked up every few moments to give his crowds a joyful wave.

He has been a world-class cricketer, admired the world over, mixing with presidents, meeting with royalty, and carousing with the wealthy and well-known. But to the people who have loved him at home he has never seemed like an A-lister. Almost 20 years after became a celebrity, Jayawardene has remained, unmistakeably, a man of the people.

Perhaps he has enjoyed those interactions most of all. He has posed for tens of thousands of pictures, signed countless caps, bats, notebooks and photographs. Yet instead of being ground down by the hubbub, Jayawardene has been buoyed by the public's love and admiration. He never fails to respond when a fan quips with him, rarely forgets to flash that wide smile when someone shakes his hand.

On a charity walk last year, a boy of no more than nine had waited for Jayawardene to come past since 5 am, so Jayawardene met him warmly and walked with him for as long as the youngster could come. He has always had that magic about him: that air of approachability and an easy, affectionate way. In a northern town last October, a group of squirming kids milled around metres away, a little too shy to approach. So he went to them instead, dropping to his haunches to flash that grin, eye-to-eye.

"I have played with a lot of pride and passion, and that's the same passion that the fans have, and the same passion that the entire nation has. It's quite easy to play for a country like that."
Mahela Jayawardene

"Playing for Sri Lanka is such a special thing because of the fans, and the way they support us," he said after stepping off the Test field for the final time. "I have played with a lot of pride and passion, and that's the same passion that the fans have, and the same passion that the entire nation has. It's quite easy to play for a country like that."

On Twitter, players from all around the world, from Kevin Pietersen to Adam Gilchrist to Harbhajan Singh, whom Jayawardene had scored many runs against, sent their tributes through. At the SSC, he had an unusually warm guard of honour when he came to bat for the last time. Even after having lost the series 2-0, Pakistan's players were joking with him on the boundary.

Jayawardene has played the game with passion and intensity, but he has always been about the people within and around the game as well. Cricketers across the spectrum, from the freakishly talented to the most working-class, claim he is the best captain they have played under. He has ruffled plenty of feathers as well, but his public interactions reveal a little of why he is such a highly rated leader.

"When I look back at my time with the Sri Lanka team, those memories are beautiful to me," he said. "We always played with a lot of joy, and a lot of good things happened to me personally, because I became a Sri Lanka cricketer. I am very lucky I got to have a job that was also my passion. I appreciate every moment I had. It's a privilege to be in the Sri Lanka dressing room."

There will be days when Sri Lankan cricket will feel Jayawardene's absence. They may miss him if Sri Lanka crumble on one of the bone-dry pitches that were his specialty. Fans might want for a player whose innings they can happily watch for hours, on loop. Sangakkara might get bogged down, and yearn his old friend to reverse the pressure at the other end. Angelo Mathews will almost certainly miss his tactical advice on long, tough days in the field.

But Jayawardene is gone now, 149 Tests into his career, six catches short of the Test record, 0.16 below that vaunted average of 50. But at least his team can be happy they gave him this last occasion among the people whose days he had filled with joy, and who had given him joy in return.

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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Logic on August 24, 2014, 7:17 GMT

    (Continued..) A true role model who had more substance than a hundred modern day marketing led 'facade brigades' who youngsters call heroes/legends/role models. Kudos to Mahela's parents, teachers & mother Nalanda for instilling real human values in him at a young age. All the best and good luck Mahela Aiya! You'll be remembered by us for who you really are and not because of your stats!

  • Logic on August 24, 2014, 7:01 GMT

    I was several years junior to Mahela at Nalanda college and vividly remember him being a prolific run scorer at school level. But my fondest memory of him is when he came to our school sports meet (10/12yrs back) as the chief guest. He had to spend a good half a day or more in the scorching sun posing for photographs with kids, parents and chatting with teachers who had taught him when he was in school and I thought to myself why in the world would a cricketer with a busy schedule (I think he was the vice-captain then) would take the time to pose for pics or chat with unknown kids & parents even after the ceremony was over! Well that's who Mahela is….a true Sri Lankan who never forgot his roots, a person who is compassionate towards all others irrespective of race, caste or nationality. (Continued..)

  • t on August 19, 2014, 20:42 GMT

    the definition of a home track bully? one who avg's <32 outside Asia in tests (exception of England where avg is a staggering 35.8) & <33 in odi's overall. by those standards raina & SRJ are on their way to Greatest Of All Time status

  • Vinod on August 19, 2014, 9:19 GMT

    we all know the legend! but never knew the humble, lovable person in him! thanks for this article. hope to see more of him.

  • Dummy4 on August 19, 2014, 9:03 GMT

    A really good cricketer, one of the few gentlemen in gentleman's game in the game where people only look for gods and kings.

  • Surath on August 19, 2014, 8:48 GMT

    I very badly wanted to go to SCC during the last 3 days of the test match but due to work matters, I could not get my leave approved. But will surely be there on the 27th to see our LIONS taking on the Pakistanis. If work restrict me from going again, I will say bye bye work because I have requested this leave last month!

  • Surath on August 19, 2014, 8:35 GMT

    @ Cannuck: Well said mate. He was the most humble, down to earth Cricketer I have ever seen and met in person. (I haven't met Sanga yet, But Im sure he too is a down to earth cricketer) I still think Mahela should have continued to play until the end of 2015. But international cricket is a tiring sport and only Mahela would have known exactly when to call it quits. We will definitely miss him in tests. I hope the SL selectors will give Mahela the chance to open the innings with Dilly in ODIs. That is the best suited position for Mahela.

  • Surath on August 19, 2014, 6:45 GMT

    All the best Mahiya, You are a true legend on the ground. Off of it you are a true gentleman. I had the honor of serving you once when you visited where I work and I made a mistake while serving your order. I thought that was the end of my hotel career but you just simply said "not to worry". If you did complain that day, It would have definitely been the last day of my hotel life as I was a trainee back then. (2007 to be exact)

    Not many cricketers would have done that. I, WE will miss you in tests but you will entertain us in ODIs. ALL THE BEST MAHIYA....

    Dear Anji and Sri Lankan team, You guys sis it once for Sanga and Mahiya, Please do it again in 2015. Win the world cup to pay tribute to these 2 legends.

  • Roshan on August 19, 2014, 6:23 GMT

    Sanga..the man of the world...; Maiya..the man of the people, humble, infectious and loving...I remember him taking some time off from his very brief honey-moon in Dubai to come over to a friend's place in UAE to handover medals to bunch of kids who played a friendly on the occasion of my friend's kids birthday...it was an amazing gesture..that is the sort of person he is, such a lovely, lovely human being...may you shine forever Maiya.. may the triple gem bless you!

  • Sachitra on August 19, 2014, 5:27 GMT

    @Cannuck there are two such pundits I know of holding a show called modern masters which they claim to analyze player adaptability, temperament and impact and I always wonder why Mahela who is no short of above mentioned qualities not in that list. Because its stat based.