It was 13th May of 2006, under grey and overcast skies, Emerald Isle's cricket team seemed to be outclassed and outgunned by a band of tall fast bowlers from England. It didn't look like they had a hope in hell, as the Lankans were about trillion runs behind after the first innings and were made to follow on. Enter their captain fantastic Mahela Jayawardene, who for the next two days plays with the level of concentration and calmness of a Buddhist Monk and takes his team from the brink of a sure defeat to a respectable draw. The former colonial masters are shell shocked as to how could a player from the subcontinent counter the exigent conditions on display and help his team to draw the match.
Fast forward to the just completed series played in the beautiful Island of Srilanka, both England and the Lankans are again battling it out under hot and humid conditions. Yes, some of the personnel on both sides had changed, but the one familiar face, who would again thwart England's efforts to win a rare series in the subcontinent would be that man Jayawardene. Every-time Anderson, or Swann threatened to take the game away from Srilanka, Mahela rose like a phoenix and took the Lankans to safety. It made England's players and their band of supporters feel like even if as predicted by some, the life on Earth will end, Jayawardene will be ready to take strike to the next ball.
So, what makes Jayawardene so tough to bowl at? Is he a wizard with a magic wand in his hand that hypnotises a bowler to bowl long hops, or is he a batsman, who has a copybook technique that allows him to handle bowlers with ease?
In simple words, when Mahela is playing at his best, it is difficult to understand the essence of his batting and explain it in mere words. The way Jayawardene plays can perhaps be understood by the epic battles he had in the series against England with two bowlers, who are at top of their game, Anderson and Swann.
The first test of the series played at the beautiful scenic Galle stadium with the famous Dutch fort on one side and the clock-water on the other, also saw an enthralling contest between captain fantastic Jayawardene and Anderson.
On the first day of the first test, it looked like Srilanka were staring down the barrel as they had lost three quick wickets and England were right on top. The Burnley Bullet with his well polished craft of swing bowling was stealthily preying on the batsmen without their knowledge and sending them back to the pavilion one by one. Yes, the king of swing Anderson was making the batsmen feel like they were in hell, but one man he couldn't knock over and send him back to the pavilion was Jayawardene. Actually, the engrossing battle between Anderson and Mahela is what dreams are made of for a cricket aficionado like me.
In this epic battle, Anderson tries every trick in the trade. First up, he looks to get Mahela out LBW with a sharp in-ducker as MJ early in his innings doesn't move his feet.The captain fantastic though is up-to the task, as he doesn't move long way forward, but just enough to defend it with a straight bat.
Next up, Anderson tries couple of well pitched tempters outside the off-stump to again test Jayawardene's footwork, but MJ doesn't fall to the bait as he leaves them with ease. Finally, Anderson goes back to his trademark outswinger that tends to slant in to the right-handed batsman before it leaves the batsman late. Jayawardene is again up-to the task as he is able to leave even those deliveries, or occasionally when he edges it, plays it with soft hands and it doesn't carry to the slip cordon.
The key point to note here is, economy of movement. There is always a lot of talk about trigger movements, but with Mahela, his technique is simple and wonderful to watch. If a quick bowler pitches it up, he won't move long way forward, but just enough to defend it and when it is short, he moves back just enough and either defends it, or plays a shot. So, we won't see any extraneous trigger movements with Jayawardene at the crease.
MJ came up with another classy knock at Colombo, where yet again Anderson sliced through the top-order. Unfortunately for Anderson, the number four batsman captain fantastic took Srilanka to a decent score.
The highlight of Anderson v Jayawardene battle in the second test was the way MJ handled a masterclass of reverse swing by Anderson. Late on the first day with the old ball, Anderson was reversing it both ways and was using the crease beautifully to create those slight differences in angles. Jayawardene though, showed great prowess of concentration and just moved forward, or back as and when required to take Lanka yet again to safety.
The beauty of his batting against a quick bowler could also be seen, when he was able to play the late cut against a bowler of the class of Anderson by just opening the face of the bat and guiding it to the boundary. It was again a case of Mahela's economy of movement, his balance and his great hands that came into play.
The other shot I remember would be that check drive he played against England's Mr Reliable Bresnan in the second test at Colombo. For the umpteenth time, he took a small stride forward and played the straight drive, but checked the shot just enough to make sure that it doesn't go in the air on a wearing pitch. A shot of sheer class and Mahela was in complete control of that shot. In the entire series, I can't remember many times Jayawardene looking off balance and when he played, it looked like a batsman was batting on a different track.
The other epic battle that Jayawardene had was against England's premier spinner Swann. Now, Swann just like Anderson is at the top of his game. Just like any other good or great spinner, he varies his pace, has variations like the under cutter, gets more revolutions on the ball than any other present day spinner and to put doubts inside a batsman's head, will bowl couple of them that would turn big in a particular over.
I thought Mahela was at his best against Swann in the first innings of the first test, when he played a gem of an innings. Just like most of the Asian batsmen, he picks the spinners from the hand which in turn helped MJ to use the depth of the crease to flick Swann onto the on-side. He also bats with softest of hands and that allows him to frustrate the best of spinners like Swann by just rotating the strike. Of course, he is very wristy which helps him to escape from getting out even if he is beaten by the flight, or turn.
The one shot that drove Swann crazy throughout the series especially, in the first innings of the first test was the sweep shot. Every-time, Swann bowled slightly outside the off-stump, Mahela was able to sweep him as though he is facing a club level bowler. This was a shot played by Mahela to show to Swann that he was the boss in the middle.
The greatest strength of Mahela in the entire series was his shot selection. The tracks in Srilanka were offering enough assistance for a spinner to come into play and were very slow too, so it required a batsman to show great shot selection.
MJ's shot selection was just phenomenal, as even when it was short and asking to be pulled, he just used the depth of the crease to take singles. He would also play those elegant drives mainly when Swann over-pitched it. Yes, at times those sweep shots were risky, but it just showed that Mahela was in complete control and when a batsman is in such great form, he starts believing that he can play any shot in the book. MJ is a batsman, who just doesn't seem to get unperturbed by anything that is happening around him, has the concentration prowess of a Buddhist monk and gargantuan stamina to handle tough conditions.
Yes, it wasn't like Jayawardene completely dominated Swann, as Swann had his moments too as he got him out thrice. I especially, remember the first innings of the second test, when Swann did what some fans including me were thinking that he could use it as a plan against MJ.
The plan was for Swann to go around the wicket and straighten it down the line to get Mahela out LBW. There was always a chance of Mahela occasionally misjudging the length and with him taking a small stride forward, Swann in theory could get him out LBW. The plan worked for once, as MJ used his pad instead of bat and Swann got him out LBW. Mahela never used his pad to Swann again though and it finally took a monstrous delivery from Swann which kicked off a wearing surface, turned sharply and took the edge in the second innings to dismiss the great man.
To be frank, just mere words won't be enough to describe the way Mahela played. It would require a cricket aficionado to watch the entire day's play made up of elegant drives, how well he uses the depth of the crease, those surgical like precision sweeps and flicks and his beautiful, but simple technique based on economy of movement to understand what a great player Jayawardene is. In short, I am just thankful that I was able to watch couple of tests of Jayawardene's wizardry though, it came against the team I support!