CLASS ACT

Where does the innings of Mahela Jayawardene rank in the list of tall scores? The consensus is that it was very high. It was FAR SUPERIOR to Lara's 375 and 400, the two record-breaking innings at the dustbowl of St. John's, which were separated by a decade, writes NIRGUNAN TIRUCHELVAM.

The highest Test score has been called the most coveted record in the greatest of ball games. I rushed to SSC Grounds in Colombo on Saturday, July 29, in the hope of witnessing history. In the last 68 years, the record has only changed hands four times. I was both disappointed and gladdened that Mahela Jayawardene fell short of Lara's monumental 400. Lara's pedigree as a batsman places him in the exalted class, a category in which Mahela can only appear as a pretender.

But great innings and great batsmen are mutually exclusive. There have been holders of this record who were not the best of their age. Bradman never held it for long, because Hammond and Hutton had outscored him.

The record eluded Viv Richards, the finest of post-war batsmen — in fact he never crossed 300 in Test cricket. Matthew Hayden broke the record in 2003 with his hard-hit 380 against a hapless Zimbabwe. Six months later he had not only ceded the record to Lara, but his place in the Australian team was in doubt.

Where does the innings rank in the list of tall scores? The consensus is that it was very high. It was far superior to Lara's 375 and 400, the two record-breaking innings at the dustbowl of St. Johns, which were separated by a decade. Both matches ended in run-filled draws. Both of Lara's run feasts were followed by frustration for his bowlers as England piled on the runs in meaningless draws. It was several notches better than Matthew Hayden's 380 which was against a struggling Zimbabwe side, who were out of their depth.

Jayawardene's opponents were no mean attack. They had one of the world's best fast bowler, Makhaya Ntini, and the fiery Andre Nel. Nicky Boje, who went wicketless for 223, is a wily and seasoned spinner. Jayawardene's shot selection and his determination in the baking Colombo heat will be difficult to surpass. He was hardly beaten in his chanceless and controlled innings. The innings victory, which followed Jayawardene's innings, put the statistical achievements on a higher pedestal.

Those who are ignorant of Sri Lanka's cricket heritage will dismiss this innings as one of the many examples of tall scores on the flat pitches of South Asia. Such a view is indefensible. This was only the second triple century in the history of first-class cricket in Sri Lanka, the other being Jayasuriya's 340 against India in 1997. Until 1997, the highest first-class score in Sri Lanka/Ceylon was the 285 that Worrell scored for the Commonwealth XI at the SSC in 1950/51 against Ceylon.

On the other hand, India and Pakistan have produced pitches that have devalued the game and yielded astronomical scores of 300 and above. The list of mediocre Indian Test batsmen with first-class triple centuries is a long one. Arun Lal and Sanjay Manjrekar, whose dry and inane commentary provided the backdrop for Jayawardene's innings, have scored triple centuries. In his heyday, Sanjay Manjrekar was a correct and elegant batsman, but like his commentary his Test career never sparkled. Others on this list include Raman Lamba and Pankaj Dharmani, who never made an impression at the highest level. In fact, Pakistan and India have produced quadruple centurions (Aftab Baloch and B. B. Nimbalkar), who are remembered only by the statistically obssessive.

Jayawardene's innings has capped an outstanding year where he has grown as a batsman and a leader. Ever since his debut during the run-feast at the Premadasa Stadium in 1997, Jayawardene has divided Sri Lankan fans. He is the first captain to have entered the Test arena in the happy afterglow of the 1996 World Cup triumph. The 1996 World Cup win will punctuate the history of Sri Lankan cricket in the same way that world history is divided into BC and AD by the birth of Jesus Christ. Jayawardene missed the years of struggle and isolation that shaped the careers of icons such as Arjuna Ranatunga, Aravinda de Silva and Sanath Jayasuriya. He entered the team as a prodigious cherub, who was soon elevated to the vice-captaincy. His middle-class Sinhala-Buddhist credentials, underlined by his schooling at Nalanda College, meant that he was singled out for the leadership at an early stage.

Jayawardene's rise in the team hierarchy to vice-captain in 1999 enraged many fans. His batting, especially abroad, underperformed. He could never match his domestic consistency, when Sri Lanka was under pressure overseas. In 2003, a string of failures by Jayawardene was key factor in Sri Lanka's ignominious exit from the World Cup in the semi-finals.

He was always seen to lack the cavalier hitting and brute power that is emblematic of the Sri Lankan batting pantheon of Duleep Mendis, Aravinda de Silva and Sanath Jayasuriya. He is a master of deft touch and timing, in the mould of Roy Dias and the Pakistani Salim Malik. His batting is marked by an upright elbow and a rare ability to play a wide range of shots with textbook correctness. There were no doubts about his stamina and perseverance at the crease. His first two Test centuries (167 and 242) were scored as a callow 21 year-old who was feeling his way at Test level. But often, he flatters, only to deceive.

The summer of 2006 has removed any questions about Jayawardene's discipline as a batsman. He moved from a very good player to one of the finest players in the world. His brave rearguard innings at Lord's was a unique example of defensive batsmanship. It provided the bedrock for Sri Lanka's surprise 1-1 draw in the Tests. From that innings, he has gone from strength to strength. He ravaged England in the one-day series, as his unfancied team went on to win 5-0.

At 29, Jayawardene has entered the summer of his career. It is said that the late 20s and early 30s are the pinnacle of a batsman's career. He could easily play another 70 Tests and score another 6000 runs. If he does so, there is no doubt he will not only lead the statistical tables but find recognition in the elite class of great batsmen.