When the little green notification innocently popped up on my screen as I worked, and I absent-mindedly moved the cursor towards it, there was no forewarning of the heart-sinking news that click of a button was to bring. The words didn’t register immediately, as I unseeingly glanced at them and continued writing, but as they sunk in a stream of ‘No no no’s tumbled out seemingly of their own volition.
‘We were supposed to have another year, he said we’d have at least another year’, and yet, despite my refutations the words remained unchanged. Mahela Jayawardene was retiring from Test cricket.
Mahela Jayawardena, the stories of how people flocked to see him even at the tender age of 15 are as common as was, I believe, the knowledge that he was destined for greatness at the time. The media darling in those early years, he was ear-marked to be Sri Lanka’s next ‘great’ from an early age itself, and now retires having fulfilled that promise and made a lasting impact, not only, on Sri Lanka cricket, but also on each and every person he has come into contact with, be it as a player, a person, or an ambassador of the game and the country.
The road that has got him here hasn’t been an easy one. Off the field, he is no stranger to loss. Professionally, too, he has had his fair share of ups and downs. The dips in form have come and gone, as did the leadership. He was prematurely thrust the vice-captaincy (apparently a nasty habit we picked up and haven’t broken free of just yet) in 1999, only to lose it after a slump in form.
Yet, when he was finally handed over the reins in 2006, that successful English tour heralded a new beginning, both, for the team and Mahela. His risk-taking, creative captaincy, saw him thrive in the role and make it his own, so much so that it was only natural that we turned to him again in 2012, when the experiment with Dilshan went awry.
The team taking their cue from him gained a new kind of steel under his leadership. If Arjuna taught us defiance, Mahela taught us to stand up tall, shed the diffidence, and believe in ourselves.
The naysayers will continue to dwell on and point to his numbers overseas, and yet, I think, we Sri Lankans, for the most part, have come to accept him for who he is. He is Maiyya, Mahela and Mahela Aiyya. His record outside of Asia may not be as good as it should or could have been, but that in no way diminishes him in our eyes or can overshadow all he has done for the country and all he has come to mean to us as cricket fans and a nation.
He may not always come good, but has always been the one to do so when we’ve needed him the most. Our big-match player, the ultimate team man, he is a fighter with nerves of steel. He is also pleasant, down-to-earth, forthcoming with the fans and humble to the core. There are no airs or graces. He is who he is, no apologies.
While his talent has always been untouchable, in his personality, and through his humility, the everyday man still found in him a kindred spirit, someone to relate to. At some point or the other, I think, we’ve all seen ourselves in Mahela.
There is a sense of authenticity about him. There are no facades of stoicism. He gives in to his feelings freely, no reservations, no holding back. I sometimes wonder if he can be any good at poker. Whether they’ve got stars in them or fire, his eyes usually betray him, and his emotions shine through. Yet, I’ve always felt, it wasn’t so much ‘his’ heart he wore on his sleeve, but the feelings of a nation.
We’ve seen fear in his eyes (following March 3rd, 2009, a fear and shock that matched our own that night), childlike glee in his smile, and beauty and grace in his batting. We’ve also seen heartbreak and despair, elation and euphoria. And if he takes the time to look around the stands come Monday, I think, he will see respect, admiration, gratitude, love, and yes, definitely some sorrow, and maybe a few tears. I hope he soaks it all up in, because he deserves every last drop of it all, even if the authorities might make him feel otherwise.
The decision to retire has come at the right time for him, both professionally and personally, I think. Professionally, with age catching up, his desire to play till the World Cup and an eye on the future, ever the ‘team man’ Mahela clearly believes this is the best time to go. Personally, he has just had a little girl, and that the desire to spend more time with ‘his 2 ladies’ played a part in his decision is understandable, but their gain is, most definitely, our loss.
We will miss the astute leader, the safe slip fielder, and the sublime batsmen, but of all the things, I think, I’ll miss the smiles the most. There’s the casual, confident, yet open, self-effacing one that he endears himself to people with. The fiery-eyed one that accompanies a fist pump after any close-fought victory. The mischievous one that goes along with a twinkle in his eye whenever he’s making a cheeky comment to an opponent or teammate. And then, there’s the unabashedly gleeful one that he only breaks out on special occasions, like when we win a World Cup or his best mate scores a long-awaited hundred at Lord’s.
A team without him is unimaginable, and yet, Galle has already bid him adieu, and now it is Colombo’s turn. The time may be right, and the decision made, but our hearts sure aren’t ready, at least mine isn’t.