Very few players have scored more international runs than Sri Lankan superstar Mahela Jayawardene, but will he be remembered as a true great? Henry Cowen spoke with the man himself.
It’s an indication of the modern cricketer’s lot that Mahela Jayawardene barely has time to unpack after returning from his batting consultancy role on England’s tour of the UAE before he’s jetting off to the USA to take part in Warne and Tendulkar’s Cricket All-Stars venture. It’s an indication of the man that he has no issue with giving up half an hour of that time – precious family time – to speak with All Out Cricket.
That term, ‘modern cricketer’, is used frequently these days and generally, to adapt Nasser Hussain, it’s used about your Warners, your Buttlers, your Maxwells. It’s not used, all that often, about players like Jayawardene. Players who are now 38, who made their Test debuts in 1997 (a match which featured players from a different generation: your Azharuddins, your Ranatungas), and who made 123 first-class appearances before they tried their hand at this new-fangled thing called Twenty20. But in his own globetrotting way, Jayawardene is the epitome of a modern player. He always was adaptable, he excelled in the shortest format and now he’s as adept at carving out a niche as a part-time T20 specialist, part-time coaching consultant, part-time family man as he was at switching between the formats when he was still a full-time player.
Time was when sportsmen would slow down after stopping their day jobs. They’d move to the seaside and open up a pub, but not Jayawardene. He seems busier than ever.
When a player retires, the world of cricket ranks them. Are they a great? A demi-great? A ‘big loss to the game’? Someone who ‘never let his team down’? On numbers alone, Jayawardene is undoubtedly a great: he scored 11,814 Test runs, 34 Test hundreds and won a World T20. Somehow, though, he isn’t seen that way. He’s somewhere near, but he’s second division.
The reason for that is most likely his record away from Sri Lanka. He averages nearly 20 runs more at home than he does away. Another explanation might be his relationship with Kumar Sangakkara. You can’t have one without the other; they’ve always come as a pair. Sangakkara’s an operator, an orator – he has a regal air about him. Jayawardene’s different, he’s quieter, less dominant. It’s not about Sangakkara outshining Jaywardene, though, simply a case that to forever be judged as a duo affects the way you’re seen as an individual. You can’t discuss Tommy Cannon’s comedic prowess without touching on Bobby Ball, for example.
“We’ll definitely be partners for quite some time I think,” Jayawardene said in an interview with AOC in 2013. “It’s been fun and it’s a fantastic friendship we have on and off the field. It’s not overshadowing each other. It’s a very healthy partnership; we feed off each other and we complement each other.”
The complementary nature of the relationship has on occasion been underestimated. Some of the off-field moments in Sangakkara’s career, those moments for which he has built up a reputation as a cricketing statesman, have not been without Jayawardene’s input. Before his speech at the MCC Spirit of Cricket Cowdrey Lecture in 2011, a speech which attacked the “partisan cronies” within Sri Lankan cricket, Sangakkara used Jayawardene as a sounding board and after the pair returned to Sri Lanka in 2013, having won the World T20, it was Jayawardene who spoke publicly of his disappointment with the board after a disagreement about the way in which the pair had announced their retirements.
While that might point to an inner steel, stories abound which speak of Jayawardene’s humility – playing in a club game the day after a Test double-ton against England; using the term ‘aaiya’ (a Sri Lankan term of respect for elders) to refer to Sanath Jayasuriya; refusing to use his celebrity status to get through a security checkpoint in 2007; walking with a young fan after the boy had waited to catch a glimpse of his hero.
These stories might find their roots in Jayawardene’s upbringing. Like all Sri Lankans of his age, civil war raged for much of his life, and he has talked evocatively of his memories of bombs going off. The war wasn’t to be Jayawardene’s only brush with tragedy. His younger brother, Dhishal, died of a brain tumor when he was only a teenager, and one of the many ventures that Jayawardene is involved in now is the HOPE Cancer Project. It’s an organisation that has just built a 750-bed unit, the first hospital in Sri Lanka dedicated to the disease. These stories, more than the runs, give an indication of Jayawardene’s stature in the game as one of the good guys. He will be remembered for more than just his late cut.
As the legacy of his playing career is deliberated over, there comes another question: what happens next? If Sangakkara were to become president of Sri Lanka, Jayawardene would be a shoo-in as his deputy, or as a meticulous chief of staff, but short of that happening it feels like there are some choices to make. For such a technician, coaching always felt a natural fit but players just off the international treadmill are justifiably reticent to get straight back on it.
“I’ve always said I don’t want to be a full-time coach because I don’t feel that I have the patience. It’s not that I don’t love coaching – I love teaching people – but I’ve had a certain lifestyle of playing cricket for 18 years and to become a full-time coach so soon would mean carrying on that lifestyle. The consultancy role, whether it be with England or with someone else, fits in nicely and it means I have time for my family and time for other things.”
Until Jayawardene makes a decision on his future, there remains the fascinating prospectof him forming part of the England coaching set-up that will be trying to defeat Sri Lanka in the summer of 2016 (“I think I’ll cross that bridge when I get to it! We haven’t planned that far ahead, I think we’ll see how the next six months go and then make a decision”).
Such is the magnitude of the role that Jayawardene played in Sri Lankan cricket it’s hard to imagine him accepting a job that sees him go up against them: every move of his up until March of this year was about making Sri Lankan cricket stronger. “There have been a lot of foundations laid by a lot of Sri Lankan cricketers over the years and our challenge was to take Sri Lankan cricket forward from where it was,” he says. “We are a tiny island and what we’ve accomplished is amazing and we’re passionate about our game and very proud we’re playing for our country. We want to see new players coming through, breaking our records and going further forward, because that means we’ll have done a good job in giving them a pathway.”
His absence, and indeed the absence of his old mucker Kumar, left two giant holes in the Sri Lankan team – but it was planned for. “Two or three years ago, we had a discussion with the senior group, the selectors and the management and decided that Angelo [Mathews] should take over the captaincy while we were still in the team so he could get more comfortable in the role. He had Kumar and myself to talk to and plan with, which settled things, and I think now he’s settling into a very comfortable situation as a leader.
“We’ve invested in a lot of other young guys – guys like Chandimal, Kusal Perera, Thirimanne, Karunaratne – and they’ve all got 15-20 Tests under their belt, which is quite a bit for young cricketers. It’s still going to be tough, but I think they’ll learn along the way. The transition period will be tough for them but hopefully it won’t take too long.”
Jayawardene’s use of “we” is maybe telling; his desire to avoid a full-time coaching job – with all the hours and travel that comes with that– might one day be tested if his country come calling. He has long shared the values of the average Sri Lankan cricket fan, don’t rule out him returning to lead from the front.