Jayawardene peaks at perfect time
When Mahela Jayawardene took over the captaincy on a permanent basis about a year ago, Sri Lankan cricket was in disarray. The team that went to India in September 2005 was ranked No. 2 behind the Australians, but after a 6-1 drubbing and subsequent reverses, morale was as low as it had ever been. Sanath Jayasuriya went on to announce his retirement after a Test series defeat against Pakistan, and little was expected when the team embarked on a tour of England in the summer.
It was there, in conditions not thought to suit them, that the Sri Lankan worm turned. Gutsy batting and the genius of Muttiah Muralitharan earned them an honourable draw in the Test series, and they then annihilated England in the one-dayers, a mismatch typified by the romp at Headingley where a target of 322 was surpassed in just 37.3 overs. The recalled Jayasuriya led the way, with a blistering 99-ball 152.
Jayawardene himself was immense in that series, scoring hundreds at Chester-le-Street and Old Trafford, in addition to a century at The Oval. Lauded for both his skill with the bat and his astute captaincy, he led Sri Lanka into the new season once more the golden boy of the island game.
Cricket though is a great leveller, and the run-drought that followed would have tested the resolve of a weaker man. Sri Lanka limped out of the Champions Trophy played on unusually seam-friendly pitches in India, and were then severely tested in similar conditions in New Zealand. Both the Test and one-day series were drawn, and the team's achievements helped gloss over a poor tour with the bat for the man at the helm.
Only 41 runs came in four innings in India prior to the World Cup, and by the time he arrived in the Caribbean, Jayawardene's tally in 16 previous ODI innings was a miserable 302 at 21.57. And though the critics carped, he never lost his cool, always addressing the media with the equanimity that had marked him out from the time he made his debut at 20.
There were runs against Bermuda and Bangladesh, but failures against India and South Africa led to more questions about his inability to contribute when the team needed it most. The spectre of the last World Cup, where he managed all of 21 runs, also loomed, but there was no hint of panic ahead of the potentially crucial game against West Indies.
Defeat there would have put a serious dent in Sri Lanka's semi-final aspirations, and West Indies appeared to hold the aces when they won the toss on a pitch that certainly aided the bowlers early on. While Jayasuriya carried on regardless, Jayawardene struggled, eking out 22 from the first 50 balls he faced, showing few signs of the fluency that can make him such a wonderful player to watch.
He finished with 82, an invaluable knock that buttressed a brilliant Jayasuriya century and eased the path for a facile win. And as is so often the case with touch players, the confidence and the strokes returned. He made 56 against England in a game that mirrored the closeness of the finish against South Africa, only this time the result was in Sri Lanka's favour.
But he saved his best for the best, driving and nudging his way to a superb 72 against Australia before his dismissal sparked a disappointing collapse. That game was lost, with Muralitharan and Chaminda Vaas rested, but the semi-finals were already within reach.
With 28 wins and 12 losses from his 43 games as captain, few will quibble over Jayawardene's captaincy credentials. And after 414 runs in the tournament, the 2003 nightmare is a distant blur in the rear-view mirror. There's still a job to be done though. If his side can repeat the emphatic Super Eights triumph over New Zealand on Tuesday, Jayawardene will emulate Arjuna Ranatunga, who led Sri Lanka to a final and victory at Lahore in 1996.
"The win against New Zealand was very good, it was achieved without Lasith [Malinga]," Jayawardene said on the eve of the game. "There's all to play for. What happened in the past must remain in the past, though we can take the positives from that result.
"We have adjusted pretty well to the conditions in the West Indies. We've played under difficult conditions because I lost most of the tosses. We fought for each other, there's been no single outstanding contributor but everyone has chipped in. Everyone is hitting his groove. We've had a great World Cup and we need to concentrate on one more game to reach the final."
The two teams couldn't be more evenly matched, and Stephen Fleming's comment that he would try to target Sri Lanka's middle order didn't faze Jayawardene at all. "They have a lot of depth, that's there for everyone to see," he said. "But we have a different combination. We have genuine bowlers in the lower order, and we rely on our top seven to bat out the 50 overs. Obviously, Vaasy is quite handy with the bat and we hope he'll come good, but if the top seven don't score, you can't blame the others."
After a month of no cricket at Sabina Park, no one is sure how the pitch will behave. But with the heat not dissimilar to that in Colombo and the pitch hard and dry, the conditions should favour Sri Lanka. "I had a look at it, and it doesn't look all that quick," Jayawardene said. "I played here two years back and it had some bounce, but it also turned from day one despite the grass. If there's pace and bounce, that's good because we all like the ball to come on to the bat. It's much easier to score off. And our bowling line-up will enjoy it too."
Judging by the banter at the net session, enjoyment has been very much a part of Sri Lanka's campaign. For many of their stars, this game and perhaps the final on Saturday represent the last steps in their World Cup odyssey. And while there are clearly some aches and pains behind those smiling faces, they who have walked many miles in good times and bad know that only two good games separate them from immortality.
Dileep Premachandran is associate editor of Cricinfo