SSC's Superman does it again
A palm-lined beach, a curry swimming in coconut milk, and spiked with red chilli - though this Sri Lanka team enjoy their travel, there is nothing quite like returning to the comforts of home, they said, as they began their first assignment on the island this year.
But so far, they have not made the best of being in Sri Lanka. They were undone in the ODIs, on a turner in Colombo, then at windy Hambantota. Then they banked on spin on a dry Galle pitch in the first Test, only for South Africa to exploit the conditions even better, only differently - through reverse-swing. In a must-win match in Colombo, Mahela Jayawardene played one of his last few innings at his beloved home ground. With 140 not out on the first day, he finally exerted the home advantage Sri Lanka had been expected to have since the opposition landed.
The SSC is where everything in Jayawardene's cricket falls into place. The cracks are patched up. The toxins purged. At times over the past few months he has seemed scrambled in ODIs and leaden-footed even in Tests. But at the SSC he is not so much walking on air as he is gliding about as if the air itself is guiding his every move.
At this ground, his mind synchronises with every cell in his body. Head still, hands sure, he strokes the ball with languor, and so late. Yet, though Jayawardene is on Sri Lankan time, the ball bursts off his blade like a Cape Canaveral rocket ship, or a Tokyo bullet train. He was lbw to a full, fast one in the first innings at Galle. When Dale Steyn tried pitching the ball full and straight in the seventh over here, it zoomed through midwicket like it had an appointment with the fence.
Some Jayawardene hundreds are built brick-by-brick. The late cuts and swivel-pulls are there, but they are the colourful flashes in innings otherwise strung together by grit. His century in Dubai, in January, was one of those. Not here. Not where he is practically Superman. Two wickets had fallen before the sixth over, and another collapse seemed almost inevitable, but like in so many of his best innings, the match situation seemed irrelevant. He had ten runs off his first five balls. Then 38 off 45.
There was swing in the morning, and enough carry for Quinton de Kock to take a few at head height, but between the 15th and 25th over, Sri Lanka were hurtling ahead at a run rate of almost seven. South Africa tried bowling full, short and in the channel, but each new ploy seemed an opportunity for the batsman to unfurl a new shot. Morne Morkel tried to bounce him in the 21st over; Jayawardene just leant back and stroked it for four over slip.
"From the first ball itself he was more positive and looking for runs," said Kaushal Silva, who has seen more of Jayawardene than most at the SSC. "That was one thing I didn't see him doing in Galle. He was determined to get a hundred today, and he was mentally prepared to score runs too. I saw that while batting with him."
There was no hiding loose balls from Jayawardene in this mood, and South Africa's spinners quickly found no faults in length or line would go unpunished. He watched one full over from Imran Tahir first, but then his trips down the pitch were almost sadistic. Tahir attempted to outdo him in flight, but throughout the day, it seemed as if Jayawardene was on a conveyor belt to the exact spot the ball would pitch. Some were larruped through cover, others lofted straight. Occasionally, instead of looking to free his arms, Jayawardene sought to close the angle down and whipped Tahir through midwicket.
He played the faster, flatter Duminy from the crease, getting back outside the leg stump to cut, then slinking to off to push him to through the leg side. In a chanceless 140, Dean Elgar came closest to getting him out. He kept firing it outside Jayawardene's leg stump when he was in the late 90s, and Jayawardene finally mistimed one on 99, spooning the ball two meters wide of short fine leg.
Even late in the day, as cramp and fatigue set in, the runs kept flowing from his blade. Steyn had been beastly with reverse swing at Galle, but in the 68th over, there Jayawardene was, sliding into a back-cut for four, almost treating him like a spinner.
Almost a quarter of Jayawardene's Test runs have come at the SSC. There is no denying it is, as Angelo Mathews put it before this match, a "batsman's paradise". But on Wednesday, with two gone early and a brittle middle-order to come, Jayawardene set out to attack. It was the kind of Jayawardene innings that grabs you by the collar, flings you on a train and sends you packing on an adventure. Along the way, his team took the second Test by the scruff of the neck as well.
Andrew Fidel Fernando is ESPNcricinfo's Sri Lanka correspondent. @andrewffernando