Subdued Jayasuriya has captain's backing
Kumar Sangakkara drew directly from the Good Captaincy handbook by offering unqualified support to a team-mate down on his luck. But, at some level, Sri Lanka must harbour concern for Sanath Jayasuriya, the one-time Howitzer of international limited-overs cricket whose firepower has been notably subdued in recent months.
By his own lofty standards, Jayasuriya's return of 221 runs at 18.41 in 12 innings for the Mumbai Indians was unsatisfactory, and the constricted nature of his batting often made life difficult for his middle-order team-mates. That thread extended into Tuesday's Twenty20 practice match against Bangladesh at Trent Bridge, during which Jayasuriya failed to register a run in eight consecutive deliveries from Mashrafe Mortaza and Mahmudullah. Precisely half of his 26 deliveries faced were dot-balls, and only a few trademark sixes over the square-boundary and a charitable offering of four overthrows kept his innings strike-rate above the industry standard 100-mark.
The beauty of Jayasuriya's batting has always been its simplicity and general joie de vivre. See the ball. Hit the ball. With little mind paid to match situations or the reputations of opposing bowlers, Jayasuriya breathed life into a stagnant limited-overs game in the mid-1990s with dashing, free-spirited strokeplay in an era of nudgers and nurdlers. Indeed, his one-day opening combination with Romesh Kaluwitharana revolutionised the manner in which international teams viewed opening 50-over innings, ditching conservatism to take full advantage of early field restrictions.
Yet, as indefatigable as his performances have been over the years, there is no escaping the fact that Jayasuriya's 40th birthday falls nine days after the final of this World Twenty20. That is comfortably clear of the next oldest player currently participating in top-flight international cricket, and a quick glance at his record - 261 first-class matches (including 110 Tests), 519 List-A games (including 432 ODIs) and 53 international and domestic Twenty20 encounters - reveals a workload that may well be unmatched in the history of the game among allrounders.
Jayasuriya has made a career out of defying convention, but evidence is mounting that his powers are in decline. Can he produce one more fortnight of powerful strokeplay? Time will tell. But Sangakkara, for one, is confident he can.
"The fact that he's always going to be in our starting XI is because we have that confidence in him," Sangakkara, Sri Lanka's recently installed captain, said. "He could be 40 or 45, but in our fitness tests he's up among our top eight. Age or fitness is not going to be a problem. He just needs to work his magic when the opportunity presents itself.
"He's still very important to us. I think he's just working his way into the tournament. His job for us is just to go out there and be Sanath. If he wants to hit the first ball out of the park, that's what we want him to do. We just want him to feel he's a very important part of our side. Everyone in the team has the fullest confidence in him. That's why he's here, and that's why he's going to be part of our side looking forward to the 2011 World Cup."
Sri Lanka possess a magnificent Twenty20 line-up; perhaps the best on-paper team in the tournament alongside South Africa. With Tillakaratne Dilshan, Mahela Jayawardene and Sangakkara leading the batting effort, Muttiah Muralitharan and Ajantha Mendis headlining the spin attack and Lasith Malinga and Nuwan Kulasekara to take the new ball, Sri Lanka appear well positioned to launch an assault on India's crown.
A firing Jayasuriya - complete with thunderous strokeplay, miserly spin and athletic fielding - would greatly enhance that bid. But while the body appears willing with the ball, Jayasuriya's recent hesitancy at the crease throughout the IPL is a concerning development for a team seeking to avenge the disappointment of its 2007 World Twenty20 campaign. Bangladesh confounded him with changes of pace and full-pitched spin; a template they appeared to borrow from Mumbai's IPL rivals in 2009.
A temporary glitch or the inexorable encroachment of old age? Much will be revealed in the next fortnight.
Alex Brown is deputy editor of Cricinfo