I've erstwhile been guilty of underappreciating Sri Lanka’s Mahela Jayawardene, and probably still am to an extent. Perhaps it is that he averages a modest 37.94 overseas in contrast to a rather more imposing 64.60 on home soil. Perhaps it has something to do with circumstance; after all, there is a similarly diminutive batsman just across the water in neighbouring India that persists to put the achievements of his competitors firmly in the shade. Whatever the reason, the performance of Jayawardene in Galle today was a stark reminder that it is high time I began to form an appreciation.
After winning the all-important toss Jayawardene, back as captain after initially resigning the post in 2010, had little hesitation in sending his charges out to bat and make first use of what looked to be a typically flat Sri Lankan first day wicket. Entering the fray with his side ailing at 15-3 inside four overs and having to negotiate a hat-trick ball from the magnificent James Anderson was not what he would have intended.
Such situations are where great players distinguish themselves from very good players. That propensity for knowing when to dig in, knowing when to seamlessly switch between resolute defence and strategic aggression and more importantly possessing the mental strength to remain steadfast in the face of adversity are all major elements of a batsman’s game under such circumstances. Jayawardene has all of these in spades.
The phrase “a captain’s innings” is one habitually referred to in cricket. If there is such a thing, then this was it. Captaincy evidently brings out the best in Mahela Jayawardene, averaging a lofty 70.75 when leading his country. Few in the history of the game have revelled in the responsibility to such an extent.
From ball one the deep thud of leather meeting the middle of Jayawardene’s willow was every bit as rhythmic as the incessant musical ambiance conveyed from the terraces. Technically flawless defence complemented an assortment of classy strokes, combining poise and placement with power to send the ball sailing over the rope on three occasions, and racing across the outfield on many more.
Jayawardene’s majestic 168 not out by stumps on day one was not without chance, being dropped on 64, 90, and then rather more fortuitously by the hapless Monty Panesar on 147 and 152. Regardless, it was an innings in which his domination of each and every England bowler was absolute.
Watching Jayawardene in full flow today was a timely reminder that this is a cricketer worthy of great recognition. The inferior overseas record is a black mark against his name when comparing his achievements to those of other modern greats, and the key reason as to why I personally rank him slightly beneath the very top tier of greatness, but it certainly isn’t one to be scoffed at – just ask Michael Atherton. Jayawardene reminded the cricketing world today that he has the every bit the temperament, array of strokes and resilience of his fellow greats. I’m learning to afford him greater appreciation, and I can only apologise that I didn’t sooner.
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