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After bidding farewell to Test cricket in front of his home fans, Mahela Jayawardene will focus his energies on one final tilt at the 50-over World Cup
Andrew Fidel Fernando
July 14, 2014
For so much of Mahela Jayawardene's career, his cricket was ruled foremost by instinct. Where other batsmen would avoid playing the pull with a leg trap set, Jayawardene took the field on. Where other captains would formulate exhaustive plans and stand by them through duress, Jayawardene devised new strategies on his feet, with a finger to the pulse of the match, and a heart to innovate and attack. Unburdened by the captaincy late in his career, he also developed a candid streak, firing barbs at administrators and opposition when he felt he or his team had been wronged.
But as his race takes the final corner, Jayawardene has given in to pragmatism. He has never been obsessed with the sport - the loss of his brother in his teenage years has always anchored him to perspective. But cricket has been his life, ever since he was scouted as a precocious talent, for Nalanda College. He walks away from his favourite format having coolly considered the present and the future, and having come to terms with his own limitations. Always the team man, he leaves before anyone thinks to show him the door.
The knocks take longer to heal at 37. Injuries wipe Jayawardene out for entire tours, instead of two or three games, and pressure of year-round, high-intensity cricket begins to wear the mind as well. His fingers are always in some state of disrepair. Fielding is perhaps the only discipline where statistics across formats may justifiably be merged, and having taken 418 international catches - by far the highest for a non-wicketkeeper - his hands bear the toll of a life in the slips. His knees are not quite what they were either.
Having hit over 11,000 Test runs and 33 hundreds, the one burning desire that casts a shadow on all else is also in another format. Jayawardene has won the World T20 now, top-scoring for his team in that campaign, but two World Cup final appearances have whet his appetite for cricket's biggest limited-over prize.
He has often said the 2015 campaign would be his finish line, but in recent months there have been inklings he might not quite get there. The big shots in ODIs have found fielders instead of the fence. He has been worked over and out-thought, even at home. Where Sri Lanka used to rely on all three senior batsmen, they have lately leant on Kumar Sangakkara and Tillakaratne Dilshan, who have protected a misfiring middle order with their own improving returns.
But if Jayawardene is to play in the World Cup, he would be mortified to do so as a passenger. He knows one hundred and two fifties in his last 23 innings is a streak that is beneath his ability -though important innings have come on big occasions. An exit from the most taxing format frees Jayawardene up to refresh his focus on ODIs.
Both he and his fans will also find it fitting he bids farewell to Tests on home soil. Beyond the Pakistan series, Sri Lanka have no home Tests on the schedule for 10 months at least. Among the most impressive figures Jayawardene has accrued - and ironically the numbers for which he attracts most flak - are his records at the Sinhalese Sports Club ground and at Galle. No batsman has scored more heavily in one ground than Jayawardene has at either venue, and he averages over 70 at both. SSC is a notorious featherbed, even if more than half of Jayawardene's runs at the venue have come in result matches, but Galle is often as great a test of batting technique as Newlands or the WACA ground are.
If fit and selected, Jayawardene will play two more Tests at Galle and one at the SSC. His final Test will be at the P Sara Oval - a ground he does not like as much, but which had been the scene of perhaps his finest innings, in 2006. Against an attack featuring Shaun Pollock, Makhaya Ntini and Dale Steyn, Jayawardene hit the only century of the match, and was the backbone of Sri Lanka's highest successful fourth-innings chase of 352.
Beyond the cricket field, another calling has drawn him during the past seven months. Jayawardene did not just fly in and out of home, as many cricketers do for the births of their children; he had almost a month off in December, while his team played limited-overs series in the UAE. His "girls" were among the first people he thanked upon winning the World T20. After what will seem like a lifetime on the road, he will soon be theirs alone.
Jayawardene has endured vast upheaval, on and off the field, in his seventeen years at the top level. In that time, he has rarely failed to give all of himself to his team and to the sport on the island. He has only so much cricket left in his veins. He will save what he can for the final stretch home.
Andrew Fidel Fernando is ESPNcricinfo's Sri Lanka correspondent. @andrewffernandoFeeds: Andrew Fidel Fernando
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Stats highlights from the fourth ODI between India and West Indies in Dharamsala