© Getty Images

Sanath Jayasuriya became Sri Lanka’s first Test triple-centurion when he scored 340 against India at R Premadasa Stadium in Colombo in early August 1997. © Getty Images

“Twenty years? Are you sure? Has it really been that long?”

Sanath Jayasuriya’s eyes assume the size of saucers as he fires these questions rapidly at you. He is grinning like a Cheshire cat, even as form seems to dictate to him that a little modesty might not be out of place. But as he weighs up the battle of ecstasy with political correctness, he just lets his emotions take over. When you tell him that it has indeed been 20 years, he lets slip a huge, wistful sigh of contentment.

Twenty years since he and Roshan Mahanama put on a then world record 340 for the second wicket, in the first of two Tests on India’s run-filled tour of the teardrop island. Twenty years since he became Sri Lanka’s first Test triple-centurion. Twenty years since Sri Lanka posted the highest score ever in Test history.

“Roshan and I are very close, we were friends in any case. Day in and day out, we were together most of the time. Playing with him was like home, it was like I was playing with my brother kind of thing. It was a very natural feeling, there wasn’t any sort of fear or pressure. As a senior player, he gave me a lot of confidence but at that time, I was in too good a form.”

The fateful match in question began on August 2, 1997. It saw 1389 runs being scored over five days, for the loss of just 14 wickets. There were three centurions in India’s 537 for 8 declared – Navjot Sidhu (111), Sachin Tendulkar (143), Mohammad Azharuddin (126). Sri Lanka replied with 952 for 6 declared – Jayasuriya 340, Mahanama 225, Aravinda de Silva 126. The strip at the R Premadasa Stadium was a nightmare for bowlers, Jayasuriya and Mahanama the scourge of an Indian attack – for want of a better word – that comprised Venkatesh Prasad, Abey Kuruvilla, Anil Kumble, Rajesh Chauhan and Nilesh Kulkarni, the debutant.

“A very good memory,” Jayasuriya tells Wisden India, the spark in his eyes unmistakably growing brighter by the second. “Because we were playing against India, in a crucial game, and then to have a partnership of over 500 runs is always memorable. And also, me getting 300 in Test cricket. Everything sort of happened in that particular Test, it was a unique match for me in my Test career.

“It was a bit of a tough game for us,” he goes on, lest anyone should think that that partnership and his own magnum opus spread over more than 13 hours were a walk in the park. “India put up a lot of runs on the board. We were under pressure, we wanted to save the match. And then you go out and play your natural game and end up with the highest record partnership … that is why it was something unique. Also in that particular match, Roshan was under tremendous pressure for his position, for his place. He also proved himself with a big 200.”

Mahanama had come into the Test with the proverbial sword hanging over his head. He had made no centuries, and just three fifties, in the preceding four years and 43 Test innings. He almost didn’t make it to the final XI, until Arjuna Ranatunga, that wonderful leader of men, put his foot down and insisted that Mahanama should start. The rest, as they say, is history.

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“Playing with him was like home, it was like I was playing with my brother kind of thing” – Jayasuriya on batting with Roshan Mahanama; the two put on 576 runs together. © Getty Images

“Roshan and I are very close, we were friends in any case,” reminisces Jayasuriya. “Day in and day out, we were together most of the time. Playing with him was like home, it was like I was playing with my brother kind of thing. It was a very natural feeling, there wasn’t any sort of fear or pressure. As a senior player, he gave me a lot of confidence but at that time, I was in too good a form. It was kind of a homely feeling playing alongside Roshan. Even though we were playing in Sri Lanka, playing with him was like a family thing, that kind of a feeling – if you know what I am saying.

“During our partnership, we spoke mostly cricket, I am fairly sure, because he also wanted to prove himself, that he was worth his place. And for me to get a big 300 is something that I had never given any thought to. That was the key for me to get a 300 – till I passed 250, I never felt that I would get 300. And it is only after you actually get to 300 that you feel you have done something special.”

“Even though I had batted for so long, or maybe because of that and the fact that (Brian Lara’s) record was very close, there was a little bit of tightness in the body and mind. If I had to go through that again, I would have done things a lot differently. I would have been more relaxed. I would have been calmer, I wouldn’t want to think the way I did then. Everyone wanted me to get there, it was like a must-do thing, non-negotiable. And that really got to me.”

After much hemming and hawing, Jayasuriya finally concedes obliquely that he surprised even himself by making 300. “Yeah, I never thought that I would get there,” he shakes his head vigorously, as if recalling someone else’s accomplishments. “It was a very, very tough match to save. India had a big total on the board and Marvan (Atapattu) got out very early (with just 39 on the board). It was a very tough situation but we managed quite well. I was thinking of getting a big 100 or 200, but never a 300. It was totally out of my sight, to get 300. Having said that, even then I sort of thought that the way I play, I can get a 300 because of my attacking and positive brand of batting. But like I said before, it wasn’t until after I got past 250 that I really felt I had a chance of getting 300.”

Jayasuriya and Mahanama batted on and on and on, much like VVS Laxman and Rahul Dravid were to some three-and-a-half years later, in that Eden epic against the Aussies. After Azhar declared late on day two, the pair went to stumps on 39 for 1, Jayasuriya on 12 and Mahanama yet to score. The following day, both brought up their hundreds, added 283 runs and took Sri Lanka to 322 for 1. Day four was pivotal, historic, gripping – not from a match context, but for the records that were tumbling like a deck of stacked cards in a tornado. At stumps, Sri Lanka were 587 for 1, Jayasuriya had reached 325, the partnership was worth 548.

At that time, Brian Lara’s 375 not out was the highest individual score. Jayasuriya had moved to within nine hits of reeling that in, so the excitement and the tension overnight was palpable, almost tangible.

“Oh yes, it most definitely was!” pipes up Jayasuriya. “Everyone was talking about it, it was as if the whole of Sri Lanka was calling me on the phone the previous night, at the hotel. The entire country had just one thought in mind. And on the final day, they threw the gates open, they told everyone to come to the ground.”

Almost everyone did, in their thousands. Upwards of 30,000 had crammed the Premadasa when Jayasuriya and Mahanama walked out for a third consecutive morning. The atmosphere was electric, there was a constant buzz, the noise deafening with every run scored as Lara’s record loomed in the near horizon.

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“A very good memory, because we were playing against India, in a crucial game, and then to have a partnership of over 500 runs is always memorable. And also, me getting 300 in Test cricket. Everything sort of happened in that particular Test, it was a unique match for me in my Test career.” © Getty Images

“That gives you a little bit of nerves. Strike that, a lot of nerves! As a human, you get very tense. Even though I had batted for so long, or maybe because of that and the fact that the record was very close, there was a little bit of tightness in the body and mind. If I had to go through that again,” he muses, “I would have done things a lot differently. I would have been more relaxed. I would have been calmer, I wouldn’t want to think the way I did then. Everyone wanted me to get there, it was like a must-do thing, non-negotiable. And that really got to me.”

Got to him so much that Lara’s record was secure when he was dismissed reasonably early – and anti-climactically – on the final morning. Caught Ganguly bowled Chauhan 340; 799 minutes, 578 balls, 36 fours, two sixes. When Ganguly took the catch at silly-point, it was as if the wind was knocked out of a nation’s collective sails. Then, as Jayasuriya walked off, his place in history secured and cemented, the crowd rose as one, the applause rising to a crescendo as the left-hand destroyer was cheered off the park with enthusiastic abandon.

“Any player who wants to get 300 will have to play positive cricket, attacking cricket. That has gone down a little bit now, I don’t see that much of attacking cricket. If you attack, then you get your runs on the board. Then you know where to put the brakes a little bit. Then you start again, then hold back, it is like a game of chess. That’s how we played – Chris (Gayle), myself, (Virender) Sehwag, Brian (Lara).”

“Any player who wants to get 300 will have to play positive cricket, attacking cricket,” agrees Jayasuriya as he ticks off the names of modern-day triple-centurions on his fingers. “That has gone down a little bit now, I don’t see that much of attacking cricket. If you attack, then you get your runs on the board. Then you know where to put the brakes a little bit. Then you start again, then hold back, it is like a game of chess. That’s how we played – Chris (Gayle), myself, (Virender) Sehwag, Brian (Lara).”

The Jayasuriya-Mahanama association wasn’t the only big one from a Sri Lankan pair. Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene hold the record for the highest Test partnership: 624 against South Africa at the SSC ground in July 2006. Both pairs in question are obviously all terrific batsmen, but they were also great pals on and off the park.

“The friendship matters, as also the understanding with the partner,” says Jayasuriya. “Myself and Upul Tharanga, for instance, in one-dayers. We once put on nearly 300 runs for the first wicket in England. The combination, the partner – how you trust, that comes from your whole body. It’s not only the cricket, that trust comes as a human being. I know that when I batted with Roshan, I trusted him totally and he trusted me totally. We mainly communicated with our eyes, there wasn’t any need to call. That closeness has to be there, of course.”

Jayasuriya ponders over with who else he has enjoyed that same level of trust and closeness. “Quite a few. I had Marvan, Upul, Roshan … who else? Kalu (Romesh Kaluwitharana) and I never ran, we were like dealing only in boundaries! And when we did run, there were a lot of run outs!”