June 30, 2008
The beauty about Sanath Jayasuriya, Virender Sehwag and Adam Gilchrist is that there are certain records they are the most likely to set - and they don't give a damn about it. For them the journey is the thing. They can't bear to take the joy out of their batting just because they are close to a record - in that sense, they derive a Keith Miller-like sense of pleasure from their cricket.
For some reason, in our consciousness, the difference between 200 and 190 is more than just the 10 runs. For these batsmen, though, nearing a landmark is not reason enough for them to not hit a ball that is there to be hit. Scoring, and not records, is their primal emotion. It could have been the ease with which Jayasuriya was playing, it could have been the pace of his devastating hitting, it could have been the flatness of the track, or it could have been how he suddenly exploded in the 10th over, but one sensed a special innings in the making and a threat to Saeed Anwar's record for the highest score in ODIs.
From 29 off 23 balls, he reached his century in 55 balls - in the 18th over. The wicket was placid, so was the bowling, the fielders demoralised and Jayasuriya going strong. Kumar Sangakkara, his opening partner, gave him most of the strike, and 200 no longer seemed a fantasy. Off went the helmet and, after a brief calm Jayasuriya cut loose again. The journalists in the press box rummaged for Anwar's contacts. Two fours and a six later, Jayasuriya had reached 130 off 87 balls, with 22 overs still to go. Then came a short one outside off, and Jayasuriya, perhaps going for a four and slightly misplacing, or going for a six but not getting the power, was caught at sweeper-cover. Had there been a crowd here, a loud sigh would have been followed by generous applause.
"I think it's more natural about instincts than milestones," Mahela Jayawardene, Sri Lanka's captain, said of Jayasuriya's batting. "He just looks to contribute to the team. If he is in his groove, he can score 250 on his day. But that's how he plays. If he changed his game, he probably would get out anyway. He knows exactly how he has been playing for 18-odd years. It's amazing to watch him bat." Jayasuriya has himself said previously that his batting is all natural; he doesn't even think about hitting fours or sixes, they come instinctively to him.
In the past, against India in Sharjah in 2000-01 (189 off 161 balls, out stepping out in 49th over), against Pakistan in Singapore in 1995-96 (134 off 65), against Netherlands in Amstelveen in 2006 (157 off 104), he has looked he would get to the record, but the approach didn't change with the record in sight.
Not long ago, though, Jayasuriya was too old and too out of form to be playing the young man's game of limited-overs cricket. When he was dropped for the West Indies ODIs earlier this year, he had gone 20 innings without having scored a half-century. "Due respect to selectors too, because when they dropped him he wasn't in form; he wasn't scoring runs," Jayawardene said. "They had to look at the future too."
Despite his replacements not doing well, Sri Lanka chose to persist with them. The selectors had picked a squad - excluding Jayasuriya - for the Asia Cup as well, but a not-so-happy sports minister delayed in ratifying it, in which time Jayasuriya made his case with a sizzling century for the Mumbai Indians in the Indian Premier League. The result: he won back his place.
He chose the perfect day to score his first century on return to the national side - the day he turned 39. Some of his team-mates hadn't even made it to primary school when Jayasuriya had made his debut. "He doesn't surprise me. I have been lucky to have him; his attitude is the same, he hasn't changed." It's just as well that Jayasuriya doesn't change, as 52 days from now he can have a go at another record: become the oldest man to score an ODI century. Are we being greedy if we ask the oldest centurion to score one that challenges the fastest one too?