The Sunday Leader

What, After Mahela?

AT 37, and after eighteen years of international cricket, Mahela Jayawardene’s retirement was imminent. Evidence of his intention to wholly disengage from the game any time soon was provided last April when he terminated his involvement in international Twenty -20, cricket’s briefest form.

Last week he announced his retirement from the game’s longest form, and although the news evokes sadness – as goodbyes do – his retreat, however, ought to have been borne with equanimity by us. But there was instead discernible despair – a profound sense of doubt how Sri Lanka cricket might manage without Jayawardene, the country’s most successful leader and joint leading run-scorer, alongside Kumar Sangakkara.
Unlike when he debuted in 1997 to join a team whose batting wealth was so abundant that even the proven talents of Roshan Mahanama wasn’t guaranteed permanency, Jayawardene leaves at a time when impoverishment doesn’t seem far-off, a consequence of the prolonged dependence on established elders, and new, young talent inserted only through compulsion –not as a part of transition’s plan.

The retirements, in 2013, of seniors Thilan Samaraweera and Tillekeratne Dilshan from Tests meant that our batting was pretty much on thin ice, with faith residing mainly on the experienced Jayawardene and Sangakkara, and, to a lesser degree, the maturing Mathews. It has to be said that the doors were opened to more than a few young hopefuls in 2011-12, but of the lot only Dinesh Chandimal and Lahiru Thirimanne emerged the most suitable for permanency. And as demonstration of the selectors’ faith in the young duo, both were appointed, at different times, deputy skipper.

Clearly those appointments were conferred on them so early in their careers in the belief that their elevated status and the shouldering of the accompanying responsibilities might help avert any serious dislocation in the period of transition. In specific terms, the duo, as specialist batsmen, was expected to fill the boots of Jayawardene and Sangakkara.

It would’ve been nice had Jayawardene left with the issue of his successor settled by one of the two young prospects. But that issue is no nearer a resolution now than it had been earlier, and the few times when it seemed the selectors’ belief in the duo might be justified have only turned out to be delusional. Chandimal’s form has had such wretched run this year that the selectors excluded him from the entire ODI series against South Africa. Thirimanne’s last four Test innings, against England, collectively yielded just four runs and lasted 31 balls in all.

For a duo who both debuted in 2011 and share a collective experience of 25 Tests, the exclusion of one and the reduction to penury of the other (when their careers ought to be on the ascent), isn’t exactly a happy augury. Add to that, the recall of Upul Tharanga after six years spent in cobweb corner suggests of an approaching calamity.

So there’s reason to despair about life after Jayawardene. Consolingly, though, his retirement doesn’t take effect until the country’s next four Tests, two apiece against South Africa and Pakistan, are done and dusted.

The wish is that in Jayawardene’s final four Tests Chandimal and Thirimanne – too much has been invested in the duo to discard them at this moment in time – will deliver the returns on their investments by translating their talents to runs. No one expects them to be another Jayawardene, but if they show the durability and consistency expected of specialist batsmen then the post-Jayawardene period wouldn’t look this uncertain.

The legend’s retirement raises concerns not just about how his exit might impact on our batting strength, but also how much his absence might influence the team, on the field and away. Those other virtues of Jayawardene can’t be more eloquently illustrated than in the tributes paid by many of the game’s personalities. Thanks to Andrew Fernando, the admirable CricInfo critic, here’s a sample:

Paul Fabrace, former Sri Lanka head coach: Everything he does is for the team, for Sri Lankan cricket. There’s not a selfish bone in his body. For any overseas coach, he’s the go-to guy because he is thinking of everyone in the team – the seniors, the juniors, the support staff – everyone. He is a world-class player and a world-class person.

Angelo Mathews, captain: He was my first captain. I learnt a lot by looking at him, and by what he is doing on and off the field – the way he handles situation. He’s been tremendous for us in the past 15 years and I am thankful to him.

Sanath Jayasuriya, former captain now chief selector: Even when he was captain, he was someone who would always back young players in the team. They learn a lot of things from him, and that experience he shares will help them do well in Test cricket as well.

Sidath Wettimuny, ex Test cricketer and selector: He is a truly great player and one of the nicest guys. I think what Sri Lanka will miss most is his mentoring of the youth. It’s good to go while you still have a little left in you – you’ll always miss a player more when he does that. I think he’s made a sensible decision.

Hashim Amla, South Africa captain: In his last four Tests, I’m sure he’ll represent (his country) as honourably as he has done over the past 18 years. Definitely, he is one of the all-time greats of Sri Lanka.

Though retirement removes a wonderful batsman from our cricket, the team, however, need not be deprived of the man’s virtues that the aforementioned personalities speak so glowingly about. There’s a place for him in the management of the team – as mentor, advisor or any role that’ll keep the team in touch with him. You would expect administrators of honest intent to work out a suitable post-retirement role for Jayawardene. However, there’s time enough for that arrangement given that he is yet to depart from ODIs, a leaving that looks imminent sometime after the World Cup next April.

But Sri Lanka Cricket rides on political undercurrents, and if someone with powerful political clout prefers that Jayawardene not to be a part of the cricket set up, you don’t need exceptional intelligence to conclude that a post-retirement role in cricket would be taboo for the legend. In other words, he is far too familiar with the modern game and its demands, and far too pro-player for the comfort of the incumbents. In a word, the presence of a legend breeds insecurity among those with lesser knowledge.

He hasn’t been exactly a pet of the present administration either, thanks to his steadfast defence of players’ rights and his forthright ways. It will be recalled that as recently as last April, prior to the T-20 World Cup, he, together with Sangakkara, crossed swords with the Board over the manner in which they announced their retirement from international Twenty-20. That episode played out in public is too well-documented to render superfluous a repetition here. But it’s a measure of the bad blood that exists between him and the administrators that even the winning of the World Cup didn’t quite douse controversy over the manner of T-20 retirement. No sooner had the team stepped off the plane, the verbal blows resumed until the government intervened.

From an administrator’s perspective, player-Jayawardene might’ve been difficult to deal with, but cricket administration is about working for the good of the game – and drawing on the wisdom of a retired legend is a good thing for the game.

3 Comments for “What, After Mahela?”

  1. Lalindra De Silva

    A Modern cricketing great Mahela…
    Really disappointing stuff by Sri Lanka, against South Africa in Sri Lanka the home side has lost all games except for one sole victory across two formats so far and with final test match to be played on the 24th.
    The Sri Lankan Head Coach is under tremendous pressure to deliver results as his boys so far have not live up to their potential and shown the intended results when needed…!
    After some exuberant cricket throughout the year and abroad in front of a home crowd Sri Lankan cricketers consistency in recent past has absolutely been pathetic to say the least..!

  2. marcus fernando

    a thorough gentleman and a good leader

  3. MS D

    If as you say ” Cricket Admin. is about working for the good of the game” it does not refer to SL for sure. We should let MJ to relax until the current bunch of Admin. guy’s leave the board, even to think of helping out SLC.

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