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The Making of Mahela

23 July 2008.

Since he took over the captaincy of his country, Mahela Jayawardene has so surpassed expectations that it has become necessary not merely to take a closer look at him but also at our own complacencies. Cast as a man of moments, appearances and dalliances, as a rootless stylist, a member of the new in-crowd, who owed his promotion more to background and allegiances than to any special merit in his character, he has shown that he is a sticker, a fighter, a thinker, and not to be taken lightly.

In truth it was easy, but also lazy, to mistake Jayawardene. He had come from the new mainstream, the moneyed Buddhists of Colombo. He had attended their school, Nalanda, one of the new cricketing powerhouses, the school of the Great Guru, Asanka Gurusinha; of Roshan Mahanama, and several other internationals past and present. In the old days Royal and St Thomas produced the players and the administrators. The game was eager to show that it valued tradition and that nothing would change the way it was played in the country, or by whom. Of course, it could not last. It is not so much independence that changes things as democracy.

Mahela Jayawardene

Mahela Jayawardena in 2008.
Photo ©: Hashir Milhan from Colombo, Sri Lanka / CC BY (

Before long, boys from the leading Buddhist schools were appearing in greater numbers in a team increasingly distinguished by its diversity. Arjuna Ranatunga prised the door open. Every emerging nation needs a man like him (two might be overdoing it), a proud leader well aware that large and previously subdued parts of the population are following his every gesture, urging him on.

Ranatunga showed that there was no reason to feel inferior. In Muttiah Muralitharan and Sanath Jayasuriya he found the players he needed: extraordinary cricketers, raw, bright and blessed with untamed techniques far removed from the left elbows and decorum of the past. Moreover, these fellows came from the outstations – assuming cities to the north and south can nowadays be so described – and therefore offered a second breakthrough. Suddenly Sri Lanka had a team that more closely reflected the nation at large. Cricket cannot cure a country’s ills but it can reflect its state of mind.

Jayawardene started in these times, in the late 1990s, a junior alongside Ranatunga and Aravinda de Silva, elder statesmen and national heroes but a little inclined to ride in the sedan chairs of self-celebration. He might easily have contented himself with continuing their work – the radicalisation of Sri Lankan cricket so that it expressed the voice of an emerging nation, might easily have retained the anger and the underlying sense of injustice. Instead he had the maturity to realise that it was his job to take his team and his country’s cricket past all of that, the conflict, the protest, and into a time of true equality. To a realm where the mind is liberated, so that when the team loses it is because it has been outplayed and not undone by a foul conspiracy.

In short, he is playing his part (for no one can work alone in matters of such complexity) in replacing scars with something constructive and lasting. Ranatunga’s contribution was to show that the deed could be done. Jayawardene’s role is to develop the structures and outlook needed to sustain success. It is in many ways a more thankless task because it relies not on force of personality but strength of argument, not on mutual self-interest but service. Jayawardene had to persuade a community that it could match its mighty neighbours and even the formidable Australians. He had to convince them that occasional triumphs are no longer enough, that Sri Lanka must expect to win, and that setbacks must be regarded as instructive, not as a reason to chop and change. He had to change an entrenched way of thinking. He had to remove the littleness, and by and large has done so.

Besides instilling unity in his side and beyond, Jayawardene has helped to rid Sri Lankan cricket of its complexes, the shrillness that limited its progress

No such potential could from afar be detected in Jayawardene in his early days as a young batsman given to purple strokes and careless dismissals. He seemed to delight in lovely drives through the covers, shots that indicate ability but also a tendency towards profligacy. Since he was also glamorous, in a George Clooney sort of way, it was not long before he was patronised. Frilly strokes please the poets more than the professionals. Did one among us discern in him anything more than a promising batsman likely to delight but lacking the conviction required to become a heavyweight? It is convenient to say that he grew up. Everyone does that. It is supposed to be factored in.

Jayawardene was misread. He was not a young man on a journey of his own devising, an explorer of nothing more than himself. He was a man of his times, determined to play his part in shaping them.

Of course, life did force maturity upon him at a relatively tender age. The facts of the slow, painful loss of his brother Dhisal to cancer have been recorded. The effect of this terrible blow can only be guessed. Perhaps, thereafter, the survivor felt that he was playing for his sibling as well as for himself, and that is a swift route to a higher state of mind, for then the concerns of self are replaced by wider considerations. Perhaps his brother’s premature passing eradicated any remnant of the self-indulgence attributed to Jayawardene in his formative years. Significantly the bereft batsman did not restrict himself to a private sorrow. In a display of popularity and leadership that boded well, he organised the building of a cancer hospital to assist others unfortunate enough to suffer the same ailment. Moreover, his cricketing comrades assisted in the fund raising. Later the players were to show the same sense of humanity in their response to the tsunami.

But it was not until Jayawardene inherited the captaincy from Marvan Atapattu that his latent abilities truly came to light. The incumbent’s Scrooge-like approach had held back the team even as his devotion to duty sustained it. Injury forced him to withdraw from the position, temporarily it was assumed. From a distance Kumar Sangakkara seemed to be the obvious replacement: an intelligent, involved and fully grown player of proven ability. Instead Sri Lanka plumped for the middle-order batsman. It was a choice that raised eyebrows in many places, not least in Australia where the typecasting of Jayawardene had hardly been questioned, and where reservations about him had been heightened by the claming of a dubious catch at backward point.

Decisions of this sort are not lightly made. After all it is much easier to appoint a captain than to remove one. And still they had preferred the gleaming batsman from Colombo to the renaissance man from Kandy. It was a vote of confidence that could not be ignored.

From the moment he took office Jayawardene looked comfortable. It was not that he felt the position belonged to him, just that he intended to take his opportunity. Also, he knew his mind and felt he could carry out his duties, score runs, and carry the players along with him. At press conferences he was open and constructive (not that those qualities matter much – some of the worst leaders have been smooth talkers). Tactically he was imaginative, even innovative. Under his stewardship Sri Lanka played purposefully.

Moreover, he has been able to keep the senior players happy, and several careers have been prolonged. By now Jayasuriya and Chaminda Vaas might have faded from the scene. Clearly, they feel appreciated, consulted as opposed to insulted. Nor has Jayawardene allowed factions to develop, and he has been just as receptive towards younger players, some of whom have consequently blossomed under his care. Recently he sat down with Ajantha Mendis to discuss the best field placements for him. It is hard to imagine a better way to make a newcomer feel at home. Not that he is soft with his players, but he is patient and they know he is on their side and that is half the battle.

Besides instilling unity in his side and beyond, Jayawardene has helped to rid Sri Lankan cricket of its complexes, the shrillness that limited its progress. He has, too, formed close relationships with Sangakkara, his right-hand man, and various coaches. Far from protecting his patch or being headstrong, he has remained open and able to delegate. In short, he has bound together an often fractured community. It is a considerable achievement.

Sri Lanka has not won every match on his guard, and inevitably his judgment has been questioned and his form has periodically subsided, but always he has bounced back. And his team did reach the final of a World Cup, and has secured many other notable victories under him. Nor has his batting suffered under the weight of the captaincy. Nowadays Jayawardene counts amongst the most respected batsmen around. His recent hundred in Hobart is among the finest produced at that ground by a visiting batsman in recent years. He has laid to rest suggestions that he was a prince at home and a pauper overseas.

Doubtless he has risen as his responsibilities have grown but the qualities must always have been there, hidden by handsomeness. Jayawardene and company can be relied upon to give India a hard fight over the next few weeks, and to play organised and bold cricket that will honour a troubled nation even as its reflects well upon an impressive captain.

This article was originally written for ESP Cricinfo.
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