I was a big fan of Mahela Jayawardena. I still am. However, buddhism teaches us impermanence and tides and time have travelled enough that in a not too distant future, there will come a time when we will have to say adieu to Mahela the cricketer. When I think about that day, I will be happy that I had the pleasure of watching him bat, proud that he played for Sri Lanka and grateful that he really cared about doing his country proud. But (there is always a but) there will also be a tinge of wistfulness of what could have been.
Mahela is close to my age and perhaps that was the reason for my affinity to him. He was not too tall, like me, and had a physique which I delusionally thought I could have if I just spent a few hours in the gym. We came of age in a time where Sri Lanka had just won the world cup and there seemed to be limitless possibilities of what Sri Lanka could achieve in cricket. There was talk about being the number one test nation and more world cup wins. West Indies was in decline and Austalia yet to grab the throne. and hell didnt we just beat them both. Central to our aspirations was this batting prince who we thought and hoped would be our Lara, our Tendulkar, who would bat like Ara did for a few years in mid to late nineties but instead over a full career.
And he was good. Nimbleness of his footwork, the grace of his shots, and the confidence in his stride, as he walked along the batting stripe between balls while twirling his bat around its vertical axis, all marked him out for greatness. He was no ordinary batsman; no one shot trickster, a cameo king or a batting butcher. The cover drive, the delicate but near suicidal dab inches from the off stump, the sweep, sometimes after moving far to his right to find the vacant space, the chipped shots over cover or midwicket, skipping down the pitch to a spinner for a lofted shot or cutting over point or gulley or even the pull shot, he had them all. Even his dismissals seemed graceful, pictures of cricketing art more so than of an ugly disaster. It also helped that critics everywhere recognized his talent which only served to inflate our expectations. And in late nineties and early years of new century, he showed flashes of greatness that we knew for certain would soon lead to a flood of runs.
2003 world cup was horrible and in hindsight perhaps the first indication that he might not turn out to be majestic emperor the whole country wanted. Mahela struggled like no other in the biggest stage just when we thought he should be hitting his prime. It was supposed to be his coronation, with the world was at his feet but instead he batted like the weight of the world was on his shoulder, muddled, tentative and perhaps mentally broken. On paper we had a very good batting line up (Ara, Jaya, Sanga, Mahela, Atapattu) other than for a guy who shall not be named but who clearly did not belong in our national squad ever. Murali and Vaas lead the bowling attack and I believe was more potent than when they were taken to cleaners by Gilchrist in 2007. I actually thought we had a good enough team to win and we gave the Aussies a serious scare in the semis (Damn Andrew Symonds), much more than they had in the finals. I cannot help but think that with Mahela in better form, we would have won it. It is why I am very happy that he did well in the next two world cups perhaps reducing the pain from the 2003 campaign. His 2007 semis knock vs New Zealand is hailed as a master class on pacing the innings and his 2011 finals century put him in the company of Richards, Ponting and Aravinda.
But therein lays a part of the tragedy of Mahela. "Whoever was before" era won us best of the minnows recognition, "Mendis Era" won us the test status, "Ranatunga Era" won the world cup and then comes the question what has the "Mahela Era" achieved? When you actually look at it they have won a lot but there is no triumphant peak, no exclamation mark, no victory parade. Post 1996 any generation of Sri Lankan cricketers would primarily be judged by whether they won the world cup. Now we are not selfish as to want our team to win every world cup but triumph once every generation and a good fight every time is par for the course. As a typical sri lankan patriot, it is as much for them the players and as much for the country as it is for us the fans. You had only to look at the concluding pictures of the last two finals to see the pain wrought on the faces of Mahela and team. Moment I saw those pictures (I was too upset to watch the last rites on TV) I really let go of my anger and realized that these machans really cared, that they gave their best shot and that this is thousand times more difficult for them than to us. Mahela, Sanga etc very well know the heritage of Sri Lankan cricket and deep down they must be devastated to know that their generation failed at the final hurdle.
It’s hard to think about Mahela, without also talking about his friend Sanga. As a Mahela fan, early on I was contemptuous of any comparison of Sanga with the chosen one, but the weight of runs led to a stage where you grudgingly accepted him as a peer and over the last few years, my statistical inclinations led me to see him as a superior. I must hasten to add that I never disliked Sanga but in comparison to Mahela and hoped that their amba yaluwo friendship meant that we had less dressing room drama on our journey to destiny. For me the difference between Sanga and Mahela was that Sanga still scored fifties when not in form while for Mahela, his troughs were as horrendous as his peaks were magnificent. It is also true that Sanga performs better against pace whereas Mahela performs better against spin. It is also said that Mahela was more talent and Sanga was more application. One could logically extend this stream of thought to hypothesize that it was Sangas hard work, application and adaptability which left him better prepared for pacy wickets whereas Mahela was perhaps blinded by his own talent into a state of arrogance and complacency which left him vulnerable overseas. Coalescing individual characteristics should only be allowed in virtual worlds, but for me it is a tragedy that Mahela did not or could not apply himself to solving the vicious problem of the ball just outside the off stump which seams away to take a faint edge to be gobbled up by the hyenas lined behind.
Management in modern times tells us that we need a dose of statistics to rectify individual subjectivities and in Mahelas case it is a painful correction. His limited over average, is well, very average especially when you consider his talent, reputation and longevity. His test average while formidable doesn’t approach the mid fifties that suggest greatness in his generation. Critics are also quick to point out his meager returns in Australia and South Africa which highlights his struggles to perform in alien conditions. His average and strike rate in T20 cricket is however more in line with his reputation but some deeper analysis has been unkind to him there as well. At the end of the day, painful as it is to admit, Mahela did not turn out to be an equal to Ponting, Lara or Tendulkar. However, he was still very good. He is a failure only in relation to our expectations. He was magnificent in patches and at certain locations though not consistent. The tragedy lies in our gut feeling that he could have achieved more for himself and in extension for us with his talent. But perhaps it lies in our fevered expectations and transferred aspirations. Who are we to know the burden of talent mixed with a country’s expectations.