Monday, July 07, 2008

Sanath Jayasuriya - The old hand shows how it's done

The subcontinent has generally had the problem, almost impossible to prove but privately acknowledged, of over-aged players in age-group cricket. Conversely, it allows players to stay on beyond their sell-by date. On Sunday, at the National Stadium in Karachi, Sanath Jayasuriya - 39 years and six days old - turned both concepts on their head as he plundered 125 off 114 balls.

How is it that Jayasuriya can play the young man's game at 39? Especially since his game relies on instinct and hand-eye co-ordination? How is it that he is still, on his day, the most dangerous batsman in the word?

A great knock is one that can be seen independent of the situation, irrespective of the result, yet is inextricably linked to the team cause. Sometimes the greatness of an innings lies in how effortless it looks alongside others in the same contest. Today, Jayasuriya satisfied all these criteria.

Today he was cold-blooded rather than audacious, his innings built more on mental strength than the usual brute force. India, with Ishant Sharma in particular bowling superbly, had reason to congratulate themselves as they held Sri Lanka down to 67 for 4. They would have expected Sri Lanka to go through a quiet period of rebuilding, and hoped to get through the overs with their part-time bowlers. That is when Jayasuriya, then on 42, transcended the situation to launch a planned assault.

Just before Ishant took two wickets in an over, Jayasuriya welcomed Irfan Pathan with three boundaries in four balls. In Irfan's next, he showed some restraint, suggesting he may even take the conventional approach. In the following over, Ishant bowled him a short, rising delivery that had got him three wickets so far. This was an effort ball, quicker than he had bowled earlier, but Jayasuriya pulled it way over the square-leg boundary as if to say that's how it's done fashion.

Ishant was replaced by RP Singh, who had managed a maiden over in his first spell, and his effort wasn't a bad one. He was simply caught in the headlights and didn't know what to do. Fielders were moved helter-skelter, conferences were held, RP tried different things, and yet the ball was repeatedly hit where the fielders weren't present. Twenty-six breathtaking runs were taken, and the initiative had been wrested. At one point in the fifth-wicket partnership, Tillakaratne Dilshan had contributed only four out of the 50 runs added. In their 131-run partnership, Jayasuriya contributed 83.

Flat wicket or not, to attack in that fashion, in that situation, in a big final, needs a lot of mental strength. To slow down then would have meant a below-par total on a batsman's paradise, given especially the absence of big hitters in the Sri Lanka lower order. To get out trying to hit was not an option at all. The way he assessed the situation, decided to do what few others could, and went about executing it, stemmed from, and pointed to, his genius.

"I wasn't really surprised with the way he played," Mahela Jayawardene said. . "We have given him the freedom to go out there and play his way. That's the way he takes games away from oppositions. And on his day it will come off, if it doesn't it doesn't.

"He is in terrific form and we didn't try to stop him from what he was doing. But I think he made a conscious effort of picking his bowlers, his areas; he didn't go after everybody. That comes with experience. He was disappointed the way he got out; he wanted to bat till the end. It was a brilliant innings, and the turning point for us. I know Ajantha [Mendis] created so much, but we needed runs in the first place, and that's what Sanath did."

The innings was quite reminiscent of the final in Sharjah in 2000-01, where he scored 189. With wickets falling around him, Jayasuriya kept attacking - by the time Sri Lanka were 98 for 3, the other batsmen had contributed 27. What was missing, today, though, was the brutal assault he had unleashed eight years ago. It was something he had been setting himself up for today as well. His last 89 runs, then, had come off 43 balls, and taken Sri Lanka from 116 for 4 to 299 for 5.

India were humiliated then, bowled out for 54. Today they managed just a little better, because of the start Virender Sehwag gave them. When Sehwag went marauding the Sri Lankan opening attack, scoring 60 off 34, out of India's 68 then, it seemed Jayasuriya's effort would be overshadowed. When Mendis, the finger freak, was running through the Indian batsmen, who seemed to be groping in the dark, Jayasuriya's innings took a comfortable backseat in the mind. But Mendis, who was four when Jayasuriya made his debut, might want to thank him for the target he set.

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