The retirement of Mahela Jayawardene marks the end of an era in Sri Lankan cricket – an era in which records were chased, winning became a habit, and standards reached new heights. The baton has passed to a new generation to emulate the standards he took such pride in.
Very few batsmen in the world played with the same ease, grace and technique. Mahela had these qualities even as a teenager – and carried them through an international career that lasted 17 years. When, aged 16, I first saw Mahela bat during a school match, his natural skill and flamboyance were strikingly evident. He was an instinctive batsman, aggressive but with a sound defence, and possessing an extraordinary combination of touch and power. Though he is only five months older than me, he had already appeared in 21 Tests by the time I played my first, and had a double-century under his belt. On my debut, against South Africa at Galle in July 2000, he made 167. More than two decades on from his school days, his game was still the same.
That finesse and force was his greatest gift. He could pick the smallest of gaps and rotate strike without effort, and also take on the boundaries with ease: he was a bowler’s nightmare. He prided himself on being able to dominate anyone in any conditions, and oozed positive intent.
He was masterful at reading the state of play, instinctively knowing when to consolidate or accelerate. In any situation his aim was to transfer the pressure back on the bowlers, constantly challenging them to rethink their plans. I especially remember a second-innings hundred against Australia at Galle in 2011, when he counter-attacked to make 105 after we had slipped to 68 for five. His innings were blessed with a natural rhythmic acceleration that never looked contrived or calculated, but seemed to flow like Roger Federer moving around the court.
Mahela played with fervent fairness but a tough competitive streak. His personality in the dressing-room encouraged others to approach him for advice and tips on the game, and for direction and conversations on life, both in and out of cricket. He exuded a simple charm; there was no arrogance or deceit. His friendliness, warmth and sincerity endeared him to so many cricketers and people around the world.
Yet beneath this gentle demeanour was a formidable steeliness, evident the moment he entered a competitive environment – be it a pre-match game of football, a domestic appearance for the Sinhalese Sports Club or an international. Many are the fights and arguments we got into over a marginal foul or line call: the referee would be accused of being blind, incompetent or biased, turning our gentle warm-up games into all-out war. The squabbles could take on epic proportions: Mahela never backed down. But, of course, we didn’t mind: his dislike of being anything but his best brought Sri Lankan cricket many a victory over the years. There was no better example of this match-winning temperament than what I consider to be his best innings: a six- hour 123 against South Africa in August 2006 on a raging turner at the P. Sara Oval as we pursued 352 to secure the series. At the time, there had been only five higher successful fourth-innings chases in Test cricket, and the South African attack included Dale Steyn, Makhaya Ntini and Shaun Pollock. Conditions called for strokeplay to be precise but free, cautious but calculatedly risky; he had to dig deep, but choose his moments to explode. Every aspect of batting was tested, and I marvelled at Mahela’s easy mastery. We were pushed to the limit – and won by one wicket.
In the previous Test, at the SSC, the two of us had put on 624. It was a partnership in which we were completely in sync. Taking turns to attack and defend, we enjoyed two days of batting bliss. The mind was not allowed to slow the body down: we simply reacted to what came our way, just as batting should be. At the end of each over, we spoke mostly about dinner plans, or complained about the sapping heat and humidity. Only when we neared the world record – 576 between Sanath Jayasuriya and Roshan Mahanama against India in 1997-98 – did we talk seriously about batting.
Mahela dealt with pressure in a manner we all envied. He wasn’t one to worry about bad form, or to spend time fiddling with his technique in the nets. He had complete confidence in himself, and approached each innings with a quiet self-assurance.
His captaincy was quick-witted and tactically progressive. He would push himself to think out of the box, and his players to find a competitive edge. It’s true that he was blessed with a team including Sanath, Chaminda Vaas, Murali, Lasith Malinga at full pace and fitness, and the best of Ajantha Mendis. But he was forever challenging himself to stay ahead of the tactical game. He attacked hard, pressed for wins, and expected his players to develop their mental skills, so they could innovate at will, think freely and express themselves on the field.
He was the architect of some of our best performances, including a magnificent showing in England in 2006, where we drew the Tests (Mahela’s century helped save us at Lord’s after following on) and took the one-dayers 5–0. His constant quest for improvement, and an enquiring mind, meant he would watch any sport – football to baseball, rugby to golf – to see if he could pick up tips that would help his thinking and the team’s make-up.
It is easy to get lost in the brilliance of Mahela’s batting and forget how he helped transform the Sri Lankan attitude, dressing-room and ambitions. When Arjuna Ranatunga retired, and Sanath became captain, the archaic and hierarchical system of Sri Lankan cricket and its dressing-room started to be broken down. Sanath, Hashan Tillekeratne and Marvan Atapattu, now our coach, made great efforts as captains to create equality and a team built upon mutual respect, while always emphasising the importance of individuality. But it was under Mahela that this transformation gathered speed. Soon, it became set in stone. Respect for individuality, unorthodoxy, and the game itself, for lateral thinking, tactical awareness, and the challenging of comfort zones – these all became important team values.
On the field, he tasted great success, but it was Mahela’s off-field legacy that has earned him the highest respect. Simple, unassuming and empathetic, fiercely competitive but fair, he has been a true role model to a generation of cricketers and Sri Lankan society at large. His work with the Mahela Foundation (promoting rural sports), the Colours of Courage Foundation (fighting cancer), and the Foundation of Goodness (a grassroots rural-empowerment project), has touched the lives of thousands. And he constantly pushed Sri Lanka Cricket and the players’ association to better understand the needs and requirements of the modern cricketer.
He is also a devoted family man and a doting father. The tragic loss of his teenage brother to cancer taught him to value family and friends above fame, glory and records. Mahela always played cricket with a lot of love and passion, a wonderful freedom and, most importantly, an understanding that it was just a sport, at which he happened to be gifted. That it was not all-consuming enabled him to express himself joyfully on the field in a manner that brought pleasure to millions of fans.
For a man whose life had room for more than cricket, the birth of his daughter Sansa in December 2013 gave him a new direction. He became more relaxed, with a new-found understanding that his best years were still to come. In the last few months of his international career, he came to see that resigning himself to letting go of this wonderful sport was the ultimate liberation.
I am fortunate to call him my friend. We have different personality traits, but our friendship has been based on common values and mutual respect. His raising of benchmarks inspired me to raise my own. I feel that the best of Mahela will be seen now that his cricket has finally stopped. Strong and disciplined, with a correctly aligned moral compass, he is a man for all seasons. And, whatever he does next, he will leave behind an inspiring legacy to generations of Sri Lankans.