A golden sunset

Written by Shamik Chakrabarty | Shamik Chakrabarty | Updated: Aug 24 2014, 08:02am hrs
It turned out to be a 26-ball tournament. Sri Lanka were hosting a high-profile tri-series, also involving India and South Africa, in the mid summer of 2006. But another LTTE bomb blast forced the Proteas to leave early, even before the start of the tournament. After much consultation between two cricket boards, India decided to stay back and play a bilateral one-day international (ODI) series against Sri Lanka. Then a cyclone arrived only after 26 balls were bowled in the first game and that was that.

As the series was cancelled and players were going through the check-out process at the Taj Samudra hotel in Colombo, this correspondent bumped into Mahela Jayawardene. A decent conversation followed. We discussed politics and cricket, and, as always, Jayawardene was very eloquent on both subjects.

Eloquence is Jayawardenes second nature as is dignity. His cricket was a by-product of his family values and the education he received at Nalanda College. He was an entertainer who became a run machine, especially in the subcontinent, without compromising his style. That was his real charm.

A total of 11,814 runs in 149 Tests at 49.84 and a further 11,681 runs in 420 ODIs (strike rate: 78.06) make Jayawardene one of the legends of the game. But his contribution was never restricted merely to run-scoring. He was one of the best slip fielders ever (205 catches are a testimony to his fielding brilliance) and also arguably the best captain of his generation who always stayed ahead of the game. And he did everything with silken grace. With Jayawardene, there was never a dull moment on the field.

Cricket has seldom seen a more elegant batsman. A touch of romanticism made the whole package beautiful. He opened the face of the blade to outswingers pitched on good length even in extremely seamer-friendly conditions. He repeatedly played reverse sweeps to doosras on dust bowls. He was always game enough to play the hook and the pull, ignoring leg traps.

Cynics might call this overambition and cite Jayawardenes moderate success overseas (11 centuries in 68 Tests, average 39.71) to bolster their logic. But it would be wrong to judge an artist by some arid numbers. Jayawardene has always been about the aesthetic value he provided, home and away.

Make no mistake, he had big scores in plenty. A monstrous 374 against South Africa at Sinhalese Sports Club (SSC) in July 2006 was his highest. A magnificent 123 in the fourth innings on a minefield of a pitch at P Sara Oval about a week later was even better. Jayawardene finished with 34 Test centuries, and the manner in which those runs and centuries were scored made him special. His batting was bereft of boredom.

He was magical. Everything about him was classy. He kept his composure even under intense pressure, spin legend Muttiah Muralitharan told The Indian Express in a recent interview. Mahelas presence in first slip always gave us, the bowlers, big confidence. Scoreboards have so many entries reading caught Jayawardene bowled Muralitharan... His retirement from Test cricket is the end of an era, he added.

It is indeed the end of an era in Sri Lankan cricket. He will continue to play ODIs till the next years World Cup, but Test cricket will be poorer without him.

Jayawardene signed off with a half-century (54) in the second Test against Pakistan at his beloved SSCa venue where he scored 2,921 Test runs and 11 hundreds (average 74.89). He left to a guard of honour and headed to the podium for a farewell speech. Thanksgiving began.

Honestly, I dont know what to say, but I promise I wont cry, he said, before acknowledging everyone who supported him through thick and thin. Let me thank Sri Lanka Cricket (SLC) for giving me this opportunity, helping me in my career and this farewell.

He talked about his teammates and fans before returning the gratitude to his parents.

Finally, let me (say) thank you to my parents whove been there for me from day one. And to my family and friends, thank you so much for being a strength to me throughout these years. Without you guys, I cannot do anything.

When he started in August 1997, Sri Lanka was a fireball, completely rattled by terrorism. Violence became routine. Jayawardenes batting allowed the edgy commoners to look on the bright side of lifeat least for seven hours, which is the duration of a cricket match.

He hung up his Test boots in happy times with political tensions gone and his team well-settled. On his dignified walk to a golden sunset, Jayawardene could afford that million-dollar smile.

His admirers shed a tear.