• Friday, December 19, 2014

Freedom in the air

The 'old' poster boy

CricInfo, Dhaka

Long levers, a blacksmith's shoulders, the chest of Adonis and a disregard for batting's conventions: if a Twenty20 superhuman were assembled, Mahela Jayawardene may not be required for its parts. As the format hurtles giddily towards transitory millennial glamour, lighting up its stumps and jazzing up its dancers, by some small miracle Sir Mix-A-Lot has not been lured to reprise "I like big bats and I cannot lie" for a tournament song. Yet, through the neon noise, there Jayawardene was, dismantling attacks along with the brutes, crashing good balls over the ring, crafting T20 gems, but all on his own terms -- always on analogue.
Among the cliches evoked by Jayawardene's T20 success has been the thought that he makes quick runs "playing proper cricket shots" -- that he proves batting fundamentals can endure un-eroded in the age of "not losing one's shape" and "swinging through the arc". Yet, if he is an advertisement for old-world style, then he is its only poster-boy. The format at times seemed an indignity to Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman; it was too new for Mohammad Yousuf and too much for Michael Clarke.
Some might contend Kumar Sangakkara has also remained relevant in T20, but his innings have not been nearly as good, nor is his batting nearly as pretty as it pretends. Sangakkara has outstripped Jayawardene in so much in the past six years, but here, as they exit together, Jayawardene retains the higher ground.
Perhaps it should be no surprise he has been his country's best T20 batsman, because to label Jayawardene a purist is not to say he is a stickler for tradition. He wields the heave and over-the-shoulder scoop as well as anyone, and the reverse sweep has been among the most productive of his limited-overs array in recent years.
That stroke also reveals something of the cricket IQ that has seen him transplant his game. During a priceless 42 on a Colombo dustbowl in 2012's World T20 semi-final, Jayawardene had the gall to sweep Saeed Ajmal against the turn past short-third man, but when he manoeuvred to play the same shot against Shahid Afridi, he anticipated the bowler would fire in a googly, then sent it above the off-side field for four. The reverse-sweep would earn him close to a third of his runs that evening.
That he resorted to using the back of the bat during the 2009 World T20, because he could not play the shot effectively even then, seems flabbergasting now. Tempered by care and circumspection in Tests, he is unshackled by instinct in the shorter formats, sometimes to his detriment: he was out to the reverse sweep in the 2012 final. As he cuts spinners late as sin, or slinks forward to lift the fast men over cover, few good bowlers will feel they do not have a chance. The joy of his success is heightened by his daring. Each four feels like a caper, every big innings an adventure. On the pitch, he lives out the observer's wonder.
"While I enjoy all formats of the game, and Test cricket is certainly the pinnacle for any player, the journey in Twenty20 cricket has been fascinating," Jayawardene had said when he announced his T20 retirement. "In many ways it helped me get back to my roots, to bat like I used to when I was a schoolboy -- for the sheer love of playing attacking shots and expressing myself with full freedom."


He is the second-highest run-getter in the format, commanding an average of 32.81 and a strike rate of 136. As is the case in ODIs, those numbers have been dramatically better when he opens the innings. The versatility of his cricket is so often a boon for his team, but a bane for his record. He is one of the few players who say there is little value in individual accomplishment beyond its use for the collective, and truly mean it.
After the storm that cut West Indies short in Mirpur, Darren Sammy suggested the divine had intervened to send Jayawardene and Sangakkara through to the fifth final of their careers. So often the freest, most expressive Sri Lanka player at the big occasion, perhaps even the universe would not abide a Jayawardene diamond duck for a swansong.

Published: 12:00 am Monday, April 07, 2014

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