Sanath Jayasuriya's Buddhism urges compassion to all creatures. His batting is based on precisely the opposite impulse. Ahead of England's Test series in Sri Lanka, the Wisden Cricketer explores the contradictions of a fascinating man

Jayasuriya himself did not own a bat until he was 18 © Getty Images

The first minutes in the company of Sanath Jayasuriya raise a thought that must have crossed many a mind these past two decades. How does a softly spoken, moon-faced man given to meditation twice a day morph into one of the most violent hitters that cricket has known, as soon as he picks up a bat? Well, the answer is both clear and comforting. In a world where size increasingly seems to matter, the little Sri Lankan reminds us that skill and timing also pack a punch.

At 38, and approaching the end of his career, Jayasuriya is ready for one final dart in December at the England bowling. His decision to retire from Test cricket last year was the premature response to pressure from selectors, but the next time he makes that call it will be of his own volition - and it will be final. "I have happy memories of playing against England," he says. "I guess this will be the final time that we meet, so I want to create a few more."

His stats are impressive enough but Jayasuriya is more significant even than these figures show. The year 1996 is to Sri Lanka what 1966 is to England, and while Arjuna Ranatunga may have lifted the World Cup that night in Lahore, it was Jayasuriya, officially named Most Valuable Player for the competition, who became their Geoff Hurst. According to legend, he revolutionised the game during those weeks, developing the role of pinch-hitter by cutting, pulling and driving from the very start, when opposition captains were stymied by fielding restrictions.

The truth is a little less dramatic. "It makes me laugh when I hear it described as a revolution," he says, emphasising the point with a chuckle. "Other opening batsmen had played the same way, in fact Kalu [Romesh Kaluwitharana] and I played the same way in Australia that winter. I can only think that people were surprised because they had not done their homework - they did not see Sri Lanka as a threat. Maybe they thought we would not have the confidence to bat like it in the big matches. But it was working, so why change?"

Eleven years on, Jayasuriya can rattle off the scores game by game, from the game against India, when they chased 271, to the final, when Aravinda de Silva's brilliant hundred took them past Australia with only three wickets down. His own competition reached its apogee in the quarter-final against England, when he struck 82 from 44 balls, including the then fastest World Cup fifty, from 30 balls. "England were not as good as they had been four years earlier," he says. "If they underestimated us, they were not alone."

Jayasuriya's humble background made his rise all the more remarkable. The distance between home in the fishing village of Matara and the capital of Colombo was further in cricket terms than merely 100 miles of road leading north along the coast. Had Jayasuriya not decided to move in his late teens, before the Youth World Cup in Australia in 1988, he might never have broken into the national side. Even now he believes that those in what he calls the "out-stations" of the country have early ground to recover.

Despite being part of a Buddhist family, he went to the Catholic St Servatius School. It was only five minutes from his house. Equipment was a luxury beyond all the boys; Jayasuriya himself did not own a bat until he was 18. "I used to pick one from the school bag," he says. "There would be four or five in there and, if you opened like I did most of the time, you could have first pick. When I got out, I would often hand it to the new guy when we crossed."

When Merv Hughes was bowling, I struggled to watch the ball. I kept looking at his face, because it was so different

He made his Sri Lanka one-day debut, against Australia, in front of more than 45,000 people at the MCG on Boxing Day 1989. "When Merv Hughes was bowling, I struggled to watch the ball," he says. "I kept looking at his face, because it was so different. I found it really hard to come from school and club cricket, but that was the gap we had to bridge. It made us tough and I think my upbringing away from Colombo helped to make me tough as well."

On his first tour the backroom staff consisted merely of a manager and an assistant manager, who also took charge of the coaching. Jayasuriya cites the arrival of Dav Whatmore as coach and Alex Kontouri as a physio and fitness trainer as key to Sri Lanka's emergence. Whatmore was influential in the inspired decision to promote Jayasuriya to open in both forms. "For those five years up to then I never felt that I had an exact place that was mine in Test or one-day cricket," Jayasuriya says.

Since 1996, Sri Lanka have carried an allure for opposition cricket boards. Crowds the world over suddenly wanted to see Jayasuriya and his colleagues. Selectors, meanwhile, have set about finding a Jayasuriya of their own. His legacy can be seen in almost every successful opening partnership in one-day cricket these past ten years. It is pertinent to ask whether, without Jayasuriya, we would have seen the likes of Adam Gilchrist and Virender Sehwag play with such abandon.

But the biggest impact was on Sri Lanka itself. "When a new player comes into the side, I know it will not be long before he asks me about 1996," Jayasuriya says. "Younger guys would not have started playing cricket, or tried to make a living from it, but for what we did in that World Cup. They tell me that they wanted to play cricket because of that. They want to know how it happened, how we did it. You realise how important it was for our country and our cricket."

Jayasuriya blossomed amid greater expectations. Within months he cracked the fastest fifty in one-day cricket, from 17 balls, against Pakistan. The following year he was part of the Sri Lanka team that scored a Test-record 952 for 6, against India at Colombo. He entered the final day 326 not out, 50 short of beating Brian Lara's then record individual score of 375. "I was out for 340 and people asked me whether I was disappointed," he says. It is, in fact, his favourite Test innings, just ahead of his 213 against England at The Oval in 1998.

That game is best remembered for Muttiah Muralitharan's 16 wickets, and Jayasuriya has sympathy for those England batsmen and the hundreds of others to be tormented by the extraordinary spin bowler. He remembers the first time he encountered Murali himself, in the nets at the Nondescripts CC ground in Colombo around 1991. "He had taken a lot of wickets at St Anthony's College in Kandy. Somebody had sent him to our training and he spun the ball like nothing I had ever seen. I asked him how he did it and he just pulled a face as if to say 'Did what?'"

I ask whether back then, before Murali was a superstar who polarised opinion, Jayasuriya had ever privately questioned the action. "Never," he replies straight away. "From the way he walked you could see he was a different shape. His arm was not flat by his side because his elbow was bent; it was always obvious to me." There is clear admiration for his colleague. "Everywhere we go there is pressure on Murali from other teams," he says. "We see him as our unique bowler, our special one. We decided very early on to always give him full support."

Jayasuriya never took that to the extent of leading off a team, as Ranatunga had seen fit previously. "Arjuna was not bad for the game," Jayasuriya says. "He was bad for the opposition because he said what he thought and built us into a better side. For his mental strength, he was one of our great cricketers." As characters the captains were chalk and cheese, but Sri Lanka did not lose their toughness when Jayasuriya took over in 1999. Indeed, the 2000-01 series against England, fanned by dreadful umpiring, was contested as bitterly as anything on Ranatunga's watch.

And another: Jayasuriya heads back after hitting the fastest World Cup fifty, in 1996 © Getty Images

He was in charge during a transitional phase when the likes of Ranatunga and Aravinda de Silva were replaced as leading lights by the emerging Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara. He admitted being "a bit frightened" at taking office, but stood down four years later with a record of 18 wins from 38 Tests. "After a while I found captaincy quite easy," he says. "As more and more new guys came in, they looked up to me in the way that I looked up to Arjuna. Time changes so many things."

He continued in the ranks for three more years before the surprising decision to concentrate solely on the shorter form. "The selectors wanted me to do that," he says. "I was not ready, but I thought that if they were in that frame of mind, there was no point in hanging around to be dropped. Then a new guy came in, Ashantha de Mel, who said I should still be playing. I had not wanted to retire, so it was an easy decision."

The comeback was at Trent Bridge last year. Sri Lanka won to level the series, and Jayasuriya proceeded to hit two hundreds in the subsequent one-dayers. The assault at Headingley, when he and Upul Tharanga put on 286 in 31.5 overs, has become a reference point for England's one-day woes. Kabir Ali and Tim Bresnan, who shared the new ball, have not played since. "I am sorry about that," Jayasuriya says, sounding quite sincere. "But I did want to prove a point."

Richard Hobson is one-day cricket correspondent of The Times