Opening up a new vista

AP

Mahela Jayawardene's success at the top of the order has enabled Sri Lanka to breathe easy and not worry too much about dasher Sanath Jayasuriya's imminent retirement. Over to K. C. Vijaya Kumar.

In an arena that is supposed to be the playground of batting marauders, Mahela Jayawardene is an exception. Killing them softly is perhaps his motto and with a disarming smile and a dainty bat, Jayawardene has traipsed past dismayed bowlers while his teams, be it Sri Lanka or King's XI Punjab, have benefited from his purple patch.

For a man, who hails from the Emerald Isle, Jayawardene has now carved his own corner in the distant islands of the West Indies. He has reaped a rich vein of runs in the current ICC World T20 and is busy relishing his role atop the batting tree. A 64-ball 100 against Zimbabwe followed by an unbeaten 98 that ruined Chris Gayle's best laid plans, are proof that the 32-year old is in the form of his life. And interestingly he is getting these runs through classy shots high on aesthetics.

“To score a hundred in Twenty20 isn't easy but the way he is batting I think he'll keep on doing things that are incredible,” gushed skipper Kumar Sangakkara about his friend and former captain after Jayawardene's knock against Zimbabwe. Jayawardene's new stint as the opener also signals a shift in Sri Lanka's batting approach in the game's shorter formats. That Sanath Jayasuriya came in as low as number eight against Zimbabwe is a hint that the sands of time have caught up with the original mayhem-master and Jayawardene will be the new game-changer along with a strangely off-colour Tillakaratne Dilshan.

The opener's slot has found favour with Jayawardene and interestingly he had himself asked for the promotion. During the recent Indian Premier League, he requested Sangakkara, who is also the captain of King's XI Punjab, to give him the top slot. “I told Sanga and coach Tom Moody that I would like to open. I have been opening for my province and I felt really good opening the batting in this format. Given an opportunity, you would like to bat up the order. It's much easier to get your innings going and probably get big runs,” Jayawardene had said then.

Subsequently he has revelled in the opener's garb for Sri Lanka. “I had to challenge myself to be a bit different in Twenty20 cricket. So you keep pushing yourself to try and be a better cricketer every day,” Jayawardene said. The former Sri Lankan captain had a modest yield before he switched to opening in T20s as an average of 22.05 from 23 outings would obviously suggest, but with his promotion up the order, he is all set for a blue-chip phase.

With 9120 Test runs and a kitty of 8702 from 317 ODIs, Jayawardene has always been a prolific batsman walking close to the realm of greatness despite the giant shadows cast by the likes of Sachin Tendulkar, Ricky Ponting, Rahul Dravid and Jacques Kallis. With a languid batting style that is reminiscent of former Sri Lankan batsmen like Roy Diasand a consistency and impact that might soon rival the much-acclaimed Aravinda de Silva's, Jayawardene has performed exceptionally well.

Jayawardene may not have the power of Jayasuriya, the inventiveness of Dilshan or the flamboyance of Sangakkara, but he has proved that there is a place for a classy batsman in the T20 format. The man famous for his cover drives and dab-cuts has also unveiled the six straight down the ground, a shot hit with flourish while the bat paints a neat arc. It was a nugget that was often on display in the IPL and he had indulged in it against Muttiah Muralitharan in the nerve-wracking super-over face-off against Chennai Super Kings. One went for six and another found the fielder but they were clean shots with nothing agricultural about them.

That there is space for a poet in T20's arena of hurried prose, was stressed by Sangakkara during the IPL after Jayawardene's unbeaten 110 set up a welcome victory against Kolkata Knight Riders. “There is a place for a classical batsman. Look at the people who have scored a lot of runs like Jacques Kallis and Sachin Tendulkar. They play beautiful shots and look to hit the ball along the ground as much as possible unless necessary and today you saw another innings like that from Mahela. He just showed us again he can bat anywhere and bat really well. He didn't play a single ugly shot, just stroked the ball over the fence with ease,” Sangakkara said.

Jayawardene's prolific touch in T20 gained its early impetus through the IPL. In season three, he scored 439 runs averaging 43.90 at a strike-rate of 147.31. These are numbers that might offer some belated comfort for King's XI after the team scraped the bottom of the league.

When the IPL was launched in 2008, Sportstar had caught up with Jayawardene and he had then said: “We haven't played a big deal in the Twenty20 format and this tournament will improve our skills.” The IPL's spin-off in his batting is evident considering that his statistics have improved over three seasons. Jayawardene scored 179 in 2008, 219 in 2009 and he has breached the 400-mark in the tournament's latest edition.

Jayawardene's ascent has gifted serenity to the Sri Lankan dug-out and has also given Sangakkara hope that the imminent vacuum that will be created as and when Jayasuriya bids adieu, would be plugged adequately. Jayawardene's stirring growth that has gone beyond his efficient captaincy stint that concluded last year, is also proof that nice guys can also finish first.

The quintessential gentleman with no airs, Jayawardene comes across as a man who has avoided the trappings of celebrity. A few years back, a press photographer asked him in Bangalore, “Did I see you walking on M. G. Road last evening?” Jayawardene smiled and said, “Yes, it must be me because my wife and I had gone for a walk. She had studied at the Mount Carmel College here and we were catching up with her friends out here.”

Two years back when The Hindu queried him about his philosophy towards cricket, Jayawardene said: “You shouldn't be depressed when you go through a bad patch and you shouldn't go overboard when you are doing well. You just keep your feet down and work hard.” It is a thought that has kept him in good stead over the years and as he cruises merrily in the world of T20 cricket, Jayawardene still seems to have enough time to breathe easy and exhale with delightful shots.