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When the team returned home, even Jayawardene's most trenchant critics were in retreat. A few months before, they had been lamenting his appointment in the absence of the injured Marvan Atapattu, predicting that he would be overawed by the new responsibility. A vocal section of the local media had long since pigeon-holed Jayawardene as a frustratingly careless and softbellied underachiever.
For a batsman averaging close to 50 after nine years of Test cricket, this criticism was unfair, the product of the towering hopes he generated. Born in Colombo on May 27, 1977, Denagamage Proboth Mahela De Silva Jayawardene was earmarked for international cricket from an early age. At Nalanda College, a famous cricketing school, he scored prodigiously; at 20 he strolled into the Test team. A classy 66 on debut against India in 1997 was followed by a masterful 167 against New Zealand in Galle the following year. Ever since, expectations have been cruelly high. Nevertheless, he himself had admitted to frustration with his consistency, especially after a wretched 2003 World Cup (21 runs in seven innings). When he arrived in England, his average during his previous 15 Tests had been 38.13. "By my standards that is not enough," he said. "People expect a lot from me and that's fair enough - I too was disappointed that fifties were not being converted into hundreds more frequently."
|We should not play like Australia or India or England - we should play like Sri Lanka.|
This escape filled the team with a new self-belief. For Jayawardene, it provided the catalyst for an abundant year, as well as the authority to shape the team. Far from being a burden, the captaincy lifted his game to a higher plane. During the one-day series there came an aggressive new strategy. England started as favourites, but Sri Lanka exploited the extended 20-over powerplays, and snatched the initiative through the audacity of their toporder batting. Jayawardene was the star, scoring back-to-back hundreds and a fifty to finish with 328 runs at an average of 109.33 and a strike-rate of 101.86. In the field, he pulled off spectacular catches, energised his players and frequently outwitted England's batsmen.
|You have to be brave in cricket ... by taking chances you create opportunities to claim the initiative|
He did not ease off after England. In July, on an admittedly bland Colombo pitch, he ground down the South African bowlers for 374, Test cricket's fourth-highest score. This was no meaningless statistic either - Sri Lanka won the game and the series, thanks also to his 123 in the record-breaking run-chase of the Second Test. The selectors had seen enough, confirming him as the long-term leader just days after he was named Captain of the Year at the ICC Awards. As ever, he was modest: "A captain is only as good as his team," he said.