Captain ready for World Cup joy
Mahela Jayawardene will lead Sri Lanka into this weekend’s World Cup final a much more determined cricketer than he ever was before captaincy transformed his career.
Jayawardene is grateful too to the tutelage of Sri Lanka coach Tom Moody for helping to ensure he makes the most of his batting and leadership talents.
His masterclass, unbeaten 115 was by far the most important factor in Sri Lanka’s 81-run semi-final win over New Zealand at Sabina Park on Tuesday.
Jayawardene ranks it one of his best innings, partly because it came at such an important stage of a competition which has been a personal triumph for him and a collective one for Sri Lanka so far.
His position among the top runscorers in the Caribbean over the past six weeks is certainly a far cry from his embarrassing World Cup returns from previous campaigns.
In South Africa in 2003 Jayawardene made 21 runs in seven innings - and his competition record overall before 2007 gave him an average of 11.18, an unthinkable statistic for such a talented batsman.
Having proved that all wrong with his first Cup hundred yesterday, he was happy to acknowledge he is a different player these days.
“I have become mentally much stronger over the last two years,” said the 29-year-old.
“The captaincy probably would have helped - but Tom definitely has pushed me to the limits.
“He’s not happy when I’m cruising - he’s not happy with anyone cruising.
“He has pushed me a lot, and I have found out I can push myself as well.”
The immediate challenge remaining for Jayawardene is to push harder still on Saturday as Sri Lanka bid to follow up their 1996 Cup glory. The captain is not about to heap pressure on himself or his team just yet, though.
His plan is to keep cricket simple, and cut out avoidable mistakes.
“For us, it’s another cricket match,” he said.
“It’s about sticking to our basics, as we have for the last six weeks here - and even the last 12 months as we built up for this final.
“This semi-final was a very big hurdle for us to jump - and getting there was tough.
“But we got there, and we’ve been preparing for this day for quite some time now. We’ll be ready.”
Jayawardene is in a position of strength, leading a team with at least three other world-class players as well as himself.
Chief among them is world-beating off-spinner Muttiah Muralitharan, with veteran opening batsman Sanath Jayasuriya not far behind.
But fast emerging as an equally potent weapon is express pace bowler Lasith Malinga.
New Zealand’s top order could barely lay a bat on the 23-year-old, as he took advantage of helpful conditions in a new-ball spell of one for five in four overs.
It was a performance which did not surprise Jayawardene, who was expecting Malinga to play with a point to prove after missing Sri Lanka’s previous three matches with an ankle injury.
“The guy has been putting in a lot of effort and was very upset he’s not been part of the team,” said the captain.
“The last two practice sessions, we’ve seen him eager and doing things he was doing before.
“I wasn’t surprised - because he’s got a big heart and he’s improved quite a lot as a cricketer over the last 12 months. His hard work has paid off.”
Jayawardene will be pinning his faith in that familiar recipe again in Barbados as the 2007 team try to emulate the boys of 1996, who first forced the world to take Sri Lankan cricket seriously.