Mahela Jayawardene's manner was as unassuming as ever, but he knew the importance of Sri Lanka's Test victory against England in Galle. "This was a big win," he said. "It's been a tough period for us."
Twenty months earlier, on the same ground, the ancient walls of the Dutch Fort were lit up by fireworks as Muttiah Muralitharan ended his Test career in momentous fashion, the first man to 800 Test wickets, achieved in Bollywood style: India's last pair at the crease, Sri Lanka's president on hand to bestow congratulations, and finally a catch at slip by Jayawardene himself to ensure a perfect finale.
At last, after this victory, their first on home soil since Murali's perfect send off, Jayawardene dared to imagine a bright future for Sri Lanka without the bowler who sustained them for a decade. "Any Test win is important, but to do it against the best side in the world is a moment to cherish," he said. "It's been tough for us to get things right but the boys worked really hard to improve as a team and today we showed a lot of character."
Jayawardene is a reluctant Sri Lanka captain, a respected performer who had contentedly handed the leadership over to his close friend, Kumar Sangakkara, only for Sangakkara to resign after Sri Lanka lost the World Cup final a year ago. The uncertain reign of Tillakaratne Dilshan was aggravated by Sri Lanka cricket's financial meltdown because of overspending on their World Cup. Not only was there no Murali, there was no money. After receiving requests from high places to come to the country's aid, Jayawardene realised that his leadership days were far from spent.
Sri Lankan cricket needed something in which people could show faith and that something was Jayawardene. Such faith was needed when England were 233 for 4, 108 short of victory. The new ball was six overs old and Sri Lanka's desperate need for their first home victory since the retirement of Murali was by no means certain to be answered. This time nobody had planned any fireworks.
"The England line-up is top class so we had to just wait patiently," Jayawardene said." After 60 overs the ball got really soft, there wasn't much for the bowlers with the slowness of the wicket so we had to wait for the second new ball. We tried to not give too many runs away so we had a comfort zone. We knew we'd be able to create more opportunities and that's what happened. There were a couple of really good catches to turn things around for us and then the bowlers took over."
Jayawardene's praise of Rangana Herath, his stock left-arm spinner, after he took six wickets in the first innings had been interpreted by some as a depiction of Herath as "the new Murali". Anybody who knows Jayawardene would recognise that was not his intention. The aim has been to give Herath a stable environment in which he can forget comparisons with Muralitharan and concentrate on reawakening his own more modest potential. Match figures of 12 for 171 suggested that mission has been accomplished and made him only the fifth Sri Lanka bowler to take 10 wickets in a Test: they have achieved it 27 times, but 22 of those were down to Murali.
"Herath has been around a long time and is a class act," Jayawardene said. "He's the most experienced bowler I have right now and he's taken responsibility not just here but away from home when he bowled us to victory in Durban. He's showing a lot of class and showed a lot of patience. We knew had to be patient and Rangana kept it going. It was a long spell for him but he kept on going and took crucial wickets for us. I'm very happy with the performance.
"We know England are very good opposition so we will cherish this one. It was a good challenge for us to go against the No. 1 team. We knew we had to work really hard to get a result from them so I'm quite happy with that. It gives us an idea of where we are right now and where we need to improve. Now need to maintain consistency.
"We can still improve overall. As a batting group we need to be more consistent and as bowlers all four guys need to chip in to get 20 wickets. We will never be the team where everything works. We have some youngsters in the side and they need to have time to develop. There is a lot of hard work to do over the next 6-12 months. We did not have a complete game, but very close to that."
Edited by David Hopps