A Twenty20 hundred for the purists
Before this tournament started there were two Twenty20 international hundreds. In the last 48 hours that tally has been doubled and Mahela Jayawardene's even 100 will rank among the finest innings played in the format. It proved, beyond doubt, that there is still a place for elegance and grace in the smash-and-grab world of Twenty20.
For a while it looked like rain would scupper Sri Lanka, but they managed to race to five overs in Zimbabwe's chase before another downpour. Now they are likely to progress to the Super Eights, and Jayawardene is going to take some catching as the tournament's leading scorer if his form continues, having begun with 81 off 51 balls against New Zealand three days ago.
On early form it is shaping as a race between him, Suresh Raina and possibly Shane Watson. Raina and Watson made their mark yesterday against South Africa and Pakistan respectively, but they were both innings more akin to this format. That isn't for one minute suggesting they weren't worthy knocks, far from it as Raina produced a glorious 60-ball 101 and Watson pulverised Pakistan with a 49-ball 81.
But watching Watson, and to a lesser extent, Raina hammer the bowling attack wasn't nearly as fulfilling an experience as watching Jayawardene toy with the Zimbabwe attack. The bowlers he faced weren't of the class of South Africa or Pakistan, but Jaywardene was in complete control from the moment he struck the second delivery of the match for four and the third for six as 14 came off the first over. It was a faultless innings.
"I'm relieved and happy we managed to play a game out there but I thought the day belonged to Mahela who batted absolutely brilliantly," said Kumar Sangakkara. "To score a hundred in Twenty20 isn't easy but the way he is batting I think he'll keep on doing things that are incredible."
It is a complete justification of his elevation to opening, which has led to Sanath Jayasuriya coming in at No. 8. Only twice in his previous 579 internationals has Jayasuriya batted so low and they were back in 1990 and 1991. Before Jayawardene moved, he had an underwhelming average of 22.05 from 23 Twenty20s and the task of launching the innings was left to Jayasuriya and Tillakaratne Dilshan. Now Sri Lanka have found the way to make the most of Jayawardene in Twenty20, especially with Jayasuriya coming towards the end of his career.
"It wasn't that I was disappointed batting lower down, I had a different role, it's whatever fits in but I knew I could be a lot more free and express myself a bit better batting higher up the order," Jayawardene said. "I started in provincial cricket back home and it went well and continued at the IPL, then I had a chat to my skipper. When you are in form you have to make best use of it, and in Twenty20, you need guys to control the innings so the big hitters can bat around you."
Jaywardene has always been one of the most pleasing batsmen on the eye and it is testament to his skill that he has been able to translate that into Twenty20, where the temptation is to leather the cover off the ball. However, regardless of how quickly runs need to be scored, there is no point swinging blindly because the net result is unlikely to be as successful as retaining the basics that make for successful run-scoring in any format. However, Jayawardene could probably make slogging looking graceful.
"I had to challenge myself to be a bit different in Twenty20 cricket as well as all the other aspects of the game," he said. "So you keep pushing yourself to try and be a better cricketer every day."
His impressive IPL form has no doubt played a part in his prolific start to this event, as have pitch conditions in Guyana, which are akin to those in Colombo and Galle. Still, batsmen normally like to take a little time to get their eye in but Jayawardene drove his third delivery over long off to signal his intent. It wasn't even a half volley, yet the back-of-a-length ball from Chris Mpofu was lofted on the up; in a Test match, or even an ODI, it would have been left or defended with a high left elbow.
Against New Zealand he had dominated the scoring - after six overs he had 30 of Sri Lanka's 36 - and was at it again here, when Dilshan's poor run continued as he miscued a lofted drive for 2. This time after six overs, Jayawardene had 48 (off 25 balls) out of Sri Lanka's 59 for 1 and his fifty off 27 balls was the fastest of the tournament to date. Because there was so little outlandish swinging by Jayawardene, the opportunity of the hundred almost crept up, and when he nudged a single into the leg side he celebrated with an understated lift of the bat to the dug-out and the crowd.
There has also been a role reversal with his opening partner Dilshan, who led Sri Lanka's batting at last year's World Twenty20 but can't buy a run this time. However, you couldn't get two more contrasting players and there isn't a Dilscoop in sight when Jayawardene has his bat in hand. There is no need for such extravagance when the tried and tested methods work so well.
Andrew McGlashan is assistant editor of Cricinfo