Spectators gather to watch the final day's play next to a cut-out of Mahela Jayawardene

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Sri Lanka's heartbeat

Tactical genius, match-winner, touch artist, fans' darling, and the centre of the team: Mahela Jayawardene was all this and so much more

Andrew Fidel Fernando  |  

Mahela Jayawardene is moving seven-month old Sansa to the toy-strewn living room in their Colombo home when, in a huff, she spits out her dummy. He bends his knees and intercepts it at waist height. "See," he says to her, smiling, "I've still got the reflexes." He rubs her nose with his index finger.

He says he has been "getting rostered on babysitting duty" on his days off, while his wife Christina runs errands, but within a few minutes of observing father and daughter it's clear he couldn't be more thrilled with the assignment. He feeds her lunch and puts her in her bassinet on the floor. I remark that she seems an easygoing baby. He laughs. On cue, her sudden wailing fills the room. Still laughing, he picks her up.

In three weeks Mahela will be a former Test cricketer. He announced his retirement before his penultimate series, three weeks prior, but in the last few days he has had calls from the selectors asking him to reconsider. They want him to stay for the series in New Zealand in December and January. "The question is whether playing those Tests will help me prepare for the World Cup," he says. He doesn't seriously consider staying for that tour.

He is lounging about in grey sweatpants and a loose white exercise t-shirt when Christina arrives and steals the baby away for a cuddle. Mahela has been among Sri Lanka's most popular personalities for over a decade - a world-renowned batsman and captain, and an IPL millionaire - but to spend an afternoon with his family is, by their own admission, a mind-numbing exercise in normality. "Sorry, this must be boring," Christina says as she returns to the living room, "but this is what we do when we're at home. We just hang around."

Mahela has been among Sri Lanka's most popular personalities for over a decade, but to spend an afternoon with his family is a mind-numbing exercise in normality

The house is large, beautifully furnished and elegantly decorated. It reflects success yet never screams big money. There are hundreds of grander homes in Colombo. "All this is just stuff," Mahela says, looking around. "When I started playing cricket I never looked at it as something that would lead to a good life. I was playing because I loved everything about playing cricket, being part of a team, and expressing myself on the field."

Over the last 17 years, Mahela's cricket has never seemed like work. When others grafted for runs, he coaxed them from the surface. When gym-built batsmen beat the ball like it owed them money, he dismantled attacks on his own terms, always on analogue. Time was an illusion when he was at the crease. Only minutes seemed to have passed, but the scoreboard had him on 40.

"There have been many, many games, across the three formats, when we've been in a bind," says Kumar Sangakkara. "Then Maiya comes in and the scoreboard just starts to move."

Sangakkara was at the non-striker's end when Mahela walked into the belly of a heaving Wankhede Stadium in the 2011 World Cup final. Sri Lanka were waist-deep in a mire at 60 for 2 in the 17th over. Upul Tharanga's 2 had swallowed up 20 balls. Tillakaratne Dilshan had swung and missed, then thrashed the ball straight to fielders. Sangakkara was not scoring quickly either.

Big-match mojo: Jayawardene turned in classic hundreds in the World Cup semi-final in 2007 (above) and the 2011 final

Big-match mojo: Jayawardene turned in classic hundreds in the World Cup semi-final in 2007 (above) and the 2011 final © Getty Images

The first ball he faced, Mahela turned his wrists and clipped through mid-on. Two overs later he leaned forward to cream the ball low through point, like a pebble skipping on water. "I knew he was going to get runs that day," Sangakkara says. "He just had that look."

That look. Sangakkara knows it better than anyone. It is the intersection of focus and finesse, where runs don't just drip off Mahela's bat, they flow out of his being. In Mumbai, late cuts scorched a straight line to the fence when there was little more than a whisper from the arc of his blade. The pull was determined, the lap sweeps daring, and the drives intense and crisp. Each stroke was a whole-body visual autograph. "It's almost in slow motion, is this," said David Lloyd on air.

Only on 96, when he made room to sock Zaheer Khan over mid-off for four, did Mahela attack the ball in the manner you associate with most batsmen. He left the field unbeaten on 103 off 88, having given everything of himself to the innings. He had left an indelible thumbprint on cricket's biggest occasion.

I get into a different mindset for those kinds of matches," Mahela says, sitting on his chaise. Christina hands Sansa back to him. The baby begins to bawl again as Christina leaves the room. "What's going on today?" her father asks her. "This isn't going to work, ah, Sansa. You can't just start crying when mummy leaves."

He soothes her wails down to whimpers, then switches back to cricket. "The big games have always got something extra out of me. Sometimes the meaningless games - I just go through the motions, I guess. I don't know if I get bored out in the middle or what."

© Getty Images

Consistency is not among Mahela's chief virtues. The languid cover drive that could send the ball in any direction on the off side seemed more dependent on his mood than the physics of the delivery. The sweep that went anywhere from deep midwicket to the finest fine leg, in any combination of power and elevation, was chosen in an instant, on a whim.

Detractors often point to his ODI average. "Only 33? That would at least be passable if his strike rate was over 80," they say. Only, despite all the half-baked knocks and soft dismissals, Mahela is the only batsman with tons in both a World Cup final and a semi-final - the latter, against New Zealand in 2007, the more extraordinary of the two.

"I think I was on 10 off about 34 balls," he says, bouncing a pacified Sansa on his knee, recalling that Kingston hundred. He was subdued for much of the innings, reaching 40 off 70 balls. Then in an instant, in the 43rd over, Mahela took flight. It was less a shifting of gears, more a volcano blowing its lid. A loft over midwicket off Jeetan Patel was placed so exquisitely, two converging fielders, close enough for a kiss, couldn't stop the boundary. A flick off the toes off Jacob Oram somehow carried way over the rope. In what was then the biggest match of his life, Mahela savaged 60 off 27 and finished unbeaten on 115 from 109.

Mahela and Christina are big Game of Thrones fans. Their daughter's first name came from a character on the show. "It's one of the things we like to watch together," Christina says. She has to make that distinction - there is plenty that her husband watches that she is not keen on.

Mahela is a self-confessed sports nut. He doesn't like to watch cricket in his leisure time. "Sometimes I start over-analysing and think, 'Why aren't they doing this? What's the point of having a fielder there? He should be somewhere else.'" But he watches virtually every other sport.

He is a diehard Manchester United fan. He was mocked by team-mates for visiting Old Trafford two days before Sri Lanka were wiped out for 67 in an ODI during their recent England tour. "Sri Lanka were probably inspired by United's shocking season," was the running Twitter joke.

In rugby, he likes watching the Crusaders (he has been taking in bits of a repeat telecast of a Super Rugby match during our chat). Pete Sampras is his all-time favourite but Roger Federer gets him going now. He makes plenty of time for the NBA, catches a bit of kabaddi, even wakes up early in the morning to watch the New York Yankees play baseball. He says he is part of the "Tiger Woods generation" of golf fans, but others excite him just as much. "I've been a big fan of Phil Mickelson as well," he says. "He's one guy who, if he gets into a tough spot - like he goes off the fairway and is behind a tree or something - most people would lay off and take the extra stroke, but Mickelson always tries to go through with it. He takes that risk."

Mahela is one of the most approachable elite sportsmen, and fans are often so relaxed by his manner that they launch into criticism. There is one question he often gets: "What was going on in your head when you played that shot to get out?" The stroke that brought him the most grief from the public was a reverse sweep off Sunil Narine in the World T20 final in 2012, when he was caught at point. "How unnecessary - and he's the captain," moaned the nation.

Three nights earlier, in the semi-final on a Colombo dustbowl, Mahela had reverse-swept a vicious Saeed Ajmal offbreak, against the turn, for four. He played the shot to supreme effect two more times. The stroke supplied more than a quarter of his match-winning 42.

In the dining room, where an antique window from the Jaffna Kingdom hangs, Mahela uses his fingers to mix the mellum on his plate with spicy karola (dried fish) and some rice. He has developed worldlier tastes since meeting Christina - who is half-Danish and half-Sri Lankan - but at his core he is quintessentially Sri Lankan. "When I started touring, I used to really crave our food," he says as he attacks a sambol. He dutifully declines the chocolate biscuit pudding for dessert but can't stay away from the chocolate.

"Being a professional sportsman doesn't mean you have to live a complete self-denial kind of lifestyle," he says. "There are some people who are more disciplined and that works for them, but for me the major thing is loving what I do. As long as I do that, then cricket won't be like a job for me. If I wasn't having fun, I would never have performed like I did."

Mahela has always been trim, and sufficiently fit for his job, but when Sangakkara arrives for a business meeting later in the afternoon, the differences between the two are clear. Sangakkara has the bigger frame, of course, and in everything from his tight yellow polo shirt to his erect posture, his bulging forearms, and his robust handshake, he exudes the confident energy of a top sportsman. When the two sit next to each other, you might think Mahela works in a bank or a high school.

Sangakkara is here to discuss the possibility of investing in a promising start-up. They are considering going in with a third, more experienced, business associate. Sangakkara absorbs the pros and cons of the business, asks pointed questions, and states clearly and concisely what he is comfortable with. Mahela moves in and out of the meeting, attending to his guests, then turns on some cartoons on TV for Sangakkara's five-year-old daughter. When he rejoins the conversation, he carries it off towards a subject that interests him. Soon they are talking about China's authoritarian approach to raising young sportspeople.

Sri Lankan cricketers rarely emerge from the local circuit fully formed. In the past two decades, the first-class competition has been diluted and beset by overused surfaces. Selectors know that players who top the charts in the Premier League do not necessarily have the best chance of succeeding in Tests. Instead, Sri Lanka try to discover talent in its raw state, then hope the rough diamonds are suitably cut and polished at the top level.

Sanath Jayasuriya, Asanka Gurusinha and Thilan Samaraweera all changed their approach significantly when they began playing Tests. Aravinda de Silva did not truly unlock his potential until his county season with Kent in 1995. Sangakkara too went through a metamorphosis. He had been a limited accumulator to begin with, but he altered his stance, switched up his trigger movements, and tightened his technique tirelessly, until he became one of the world's most consistent batsmen - not a title you would potentially have associated with him in his early years.

"Maiya always tried to dominate, tried to attack. He didn't really care what terrors the pitch held, or the terrors of the opposition bowling" Kumar Sangakkara

Mahela has been at the other end of the pitch for much of Sangakkara's transformation, yet, uniquely for a Sri Lankan, he has been uninterested in change for himself. Unvarnished instinct has always served him well. When he came to bat in his fourth Test in Galle, on what he says would have been a "sub-par club wicket", Sri Lanka's spinners had already claimed all ten New Zealand wickets for 193. Mahela then bent space-time as if occupying a parallel universe.

That was the first time Sangakkara, watching on TV, began to fathom the depth of Mahela's ability. "On a track in which New Zealand couldn't even get a run, Mahela came and just scored a walk-in-the-park 167." The next-highest score from his team-mates was 36. No one else made more than 53 in the match.

"When you look at those innings you see what kind of a player he is," Sangakkara says. "Maiya always tried to dominate, tried to attack. He didn't really care what terrors the pitch held, or the terrors of the opposition bowling. It was all about him trying to impress upon the opposition: 'I am here to score runs and score quickly.'"

Of the 11 batsmen to have scored more than 10,000 Test runs, Mahela has the lowest average. He needed 94 runs in his final Test in Colombo to average over 50, but though he scored a valuable 54 in his last innings, he ended with 49.84. It's strangely fitting. Mahela's batting has never been exact - his career was rarely a chartable, predictable thing.

Sansa has fallen asleep in her bassinet when I suggest he could have been more cautious and raised his average to the mid-50s. He breaks into a grin and shakes his head.

A reluctance to adjust has also been his greatest bane. Many tours to South Africa, Australia and England have produced a blooper reel of familiar dismissals: Mahela stepping forward to drive outside the line of the stumps - the ball seeking out the edge, then a pair of hands in the slip cordon.

There has been only one significant technical shift in his career. "I used to hold the bat a bit like Gilly," he says, getting to his feet quietly to demonstrate. "My hands used to be up here, right at the top of the handle." In the early 2000s, he felt he needed a little more control. "Once the experienced guys like Aravinda started leaving, I thought I should probably become a bit more responsible."

Yet responsibility never weighed heavily on him. He was a coach's pet and spoken of as a captaincy candidate since his youth but the instant he crossed the boundary rope, freedom was his hallmark. In Mahela's fourth Test series at the helm, Dale Steyn had Sri Lanka at 14 for 2 at the SSC when he arrived at the crease. Twelve wickets had already fallen that day but he cut loose, and Sangakkara followed suit. His fifty came from 72 deliveries, the hundred from 162. It was the counter-attack that grew colossal - his 374 is the highest Test score by a right-hander and the fourth-best overall.

Joined at the hip: with long-time friend and team-mate Kumar Sangakkara

Joined at the hip: with long-time friend and team-mate Kumar Sangakkara © ICC

In July this year, in another SSC Test against South Africa, Sri Lanka were 16 for 2 inside the first 15 minutes. They were down 0-1 in the series and Mahela was up against the best pace attack on the planet. Age often tempers top batsmen, goads them to smelt down their arsenal of strokes until only a few weapons of torment remain. Mahela uppercut Morne Morkel over the slip cordon to go from 34 to 38. His 50 came off 58. He slunk down the track to flick the spinners over midwicket and hooked Steyn's bouncers to the backward-square-leg fence en route to a 137-ball hundred.

"You have to learn from experience," Mahela says. "But you can't suddenly become a different player. That's one thing I tell the younger guys as well - look to learn from others, but in the end you have to be true to who you are."

A gated driveway in northern Colombo opens up into a sizeable, well-manicured lawn, and on the left a tall and elegant home rises up. Trees skirt the edge of the whole property. This is where Sunila and Senarath - Mahela's parents - have lived for ten years. The house is large, with high ceilings and tall windows. A skylight pours sunshine into the middle of the lounge. The same architect who designed Mahela's and Christina's home drew this one up, in a slightly older style.

Dav Whatmore talks during a training session, Lahore, October 1, 2013 © AFP 'Super, super-competitive'

Former Sri Lanka coach Dav Whatmore on the Mahela he knew

My early recollections are from 1999. He had only been in the team for about two years. I remember we talked about doing well against Makhaya Ntini. Ntini would angle the ball into the right-hander and Mahela was initially not sure which ball to play and which one to leave.

But as we started discussing, Mahela said he would look to play the outside half of the ball. His idea was to cover the ball that straightens, and even if he got an inside edge it would be okay. That was something only a really smart cricketer could think of.

He was never captain during my time as Sri Lanka's coach, but he showed attributes as a potential leader. During team meetings most youngsters, especially in the subcontinent, are quiet, despite coaches encouraging them to speak up. Mahela was an exception: every now and again he would come up with a point that was very pertinent. Back then everybody expected Kumar Sangakkara to lead Sri Lanka at some point. But I must tell you Sanga was not as competitive in some of the warm-up football drills as his friend. Mahela was super, super-competitive. If he did not agree with the referee's decision, he would not be shy to have a go. He hates to lose.

Mahela always gave confidence to his players. When the captain - who is himself such a good player - openly supports his team-mates, it goes a long way towards team-building.

We met for drinks during his farewell Test and he was very much the same person: one with deep affection for Sri Lankan cricket. He was already thinking about getting involved in grass-roots cricket, where he wants to increase the frequency of matches and improve quality.

As a leader you leave a legacy. Mahela always stuck to what he thought was correct. He never changed his mind. He was stubborn and decisive. And he was right most of the time.

As told to Nagraj Gollapudi

"The architect wanted to do Mahela's house first," Senarath says. "But Mahela said, 'No, you should finish my parents' one first, and then we can do mine.'"

They are gentle people, like their son: earnest, genuine, down to earth and thoughtful. Angelo Mathews recently suggested Mahela takes after his parents, but Senarath and Sunila are adamant he is his own man. "He was always the same way he is now," Sunila says. "There were occasions when we corrected him, but we were also blessed to have a child like him."

They are fiercely proud. Dozens of photographs of Mahela adorn their home. From among the wedding portraits and holiday snaps one image leaps out. Set inside the frame of a large portrait is a landscape shot taken during his second stint as captain, at Adelaide Oval in 2012. He stands front-on in his ODI kit, shades on his cap, and defiance writ across his face. What sets the photo apart is his outstretched right arm and an index finger pointed accusingly at umpire Bruce Oxenford, who is closing in.

Mahela's parents are defined by the humility and soft-spoken grace that are model virtues of the Sri Lankan middle class. Senarath grins as he recalls his son's flaunting of authority. "We thought he would get a fine for that. He did."

The exchange had taken place over nothing more than a delayed waist-high no-ball call, which Mahela believed the umpires were goaded into making by the Australian batsmen. Although Sri Lanka eventually won the match handsomely, with Mahela making a 76-ball 80, his spat with the umpire had a profound resonance.

Thirteen years earlier, also at Adelaide Oval, a furious Arjuna Ranatunga had pointed an index finger at Ross Emerson for no-balling Muttiah Muralitharan. Ranatunga's lifting of the 1996 World Cup, with a crush of bodies behind him on the dais, is perhaps Sri Lanka's most famous cricket photograph, but for emotional significance, the Adelaide shot can't be beaten.

Sri Lanka was an insecure place in 1999, and Ranatunga's mid-match rebellion became a wellspring of national pride - a moment when one of their own used his voice on the global stage. "We may be a small player in all of this," his actions conveyed, "but if you think you can bully us, you've got another think coming."

Ranatunga was the pillar on which Sri Lanka's first fully professional generation was raised, but for much of Mahela's time as a senior player and captain, he worked to dissolve the senior-junior dressing-room hierarchy that Ranatunga had perpetuated - even helped entrench. There is a mutual admiration between them, though they no longer agree on most things. Yet when Mahela stepped down from the captaincy a final time in 2013, and again when he retired from Tests, fans shared the two Adelaide photographs online, side by side. Sri Lanka's two greatest captains were bound together in the public imagination by acts of anti-establishment resistance.

Who's easygoing now? Jayawardene gets into a finger-wagging argument with umpire Bruce Oxenford in Adelaide in 2012

Who's easygoing now? Jayawardene gets into a finger-wagging argument with umpire Bruce Oxenford in Adelaide in 2012 © Getty Images

Their greatness lay in their ability to make Sri Lanka more than the sum of their parts. Ranatunga challenged his team to become better, cracking the whip on countless occasions, shouldering the burden himself at times. Mahela, it is widely believed, was Sri Lanka's greatest tactical leader, always with a finger pressed to the pulse of a match, and with an itch to innovate and attack.

As a thinker on the game, his youth coaches say, Mahela was peerless. "In Under-13 cricket, usually the coach is calling out to the team about what the fielders should be doing, and who should bowl," says Leslie Narangoda, his coach at Nalanda College. "With Mahela, all I ever had to do was tell him the game plan, and he would carry it out perfectly. After some matches, some parents from the other team used to come and ask, 'What's going on? Does this team not have a coach?'"

Mahela had to wait until his final year to lead the Nalanda senior team but long before that he had set himself apart tactically. "Even when he wasn't captain, he was the guy I would trust," Nalanda's 1st XI coach Jayantha Seneviratne says. "When I needed to get an idea of what was going on, I would ask him first: 'What are the batsmen like? How do you think we can get them out? How is the pitch playing? What is a good score?' He just read the game like no one else."

© Getty Images

Captaining the national team for the first time is a moment of intense pride for most, but Mahela has not worn a crosser look all afternoon than when - stretched out on his chaise - he recounts his first brush with leading Sri Lanka.

In February 2006, when defending 257 against South Africa in Hobart, captain Marvan Atapattu injured his back and was forced to retire to the dressing room, leaving the team in deputy Chaminda Vaas' command. Sri Lanka's grip was loosening, and by the end of the 16th over South Africa were 76 for 2.

"When they saw what was happening in the game, Marvan and [coach] Tom Moody called me into the dressing room and said, 'Can you take over from Vaasy?'" Mahela refused at first but when the captain and coach said they would speak to Vaas, he reluctantly agreed. As Mahela took the field, Vaas was called into the dressing room and told he was not in charge.

Sri Lanka went on to win that match comfortably, but the episode irked Mahela. "I went to Tom and Marvan after that and said, 'Don't you dare do that to me again.' It was totally unfair of them to put Vaasy and me in that position."

A few months later Mahela was named the team's official captain. His first major tour at the helm was wildly successful. Sri Lanka drew the three-Test series in England and won the ODIs 5-0. Over the next few years, Mahela would inspire Sri Lanka to regain the identity that Ranatunga had shaped - chasing down tall scores, setting bold fields, rising steadily in the Test rankings, as well as progressing to a World Cup final.

Murali, who was nearing the end of his career at the time, says he felt most energised under Mahela's leadership. When Murali bowled, the men around the bat were not just vultures hovering over a prospective meal, they were a living, breathing, sharpened phalanx, as central to the threat as the man whirring the ball in.

Mahela's parents have another framed photograph in their home - one they have not given to reporters over the course of their son's career. In it a light-skinned boy of no more than 14, wearing a light-coloured shirt, is looking away from the camera, into the distance.

Family album: young Mahela at play; with wife Christina and baby daughter; his parents at a temple

Family album: young Mahela at play; with wife Christina and baby daughter; his parents at a temple © Senarath Jayawardene, AFP/Getty Images

Mahela had an annoying younger brother once. Mahela was always mature beyond his years, his parents say. Punctual and honest. Meticulous in the classroom; hard-working on the cricket field. Basically: a square.

"Dhisal was probably a bit more fun than I was," Mahela says. "Dhisal used to get into a bit of trouble at home, but then he was cheeky enough to get away with a lot of things. He was always more spoilt - being the younger one. He'd get the best equipment and everything."

The boys were only a year and a half apart, so they played the same neighbourhood games. "Dhisal would always sneak out and go and play cricket. He would say, 'No, I've done my homework', play, and come back. Then when he took his books out again our mother would ask, 'I thought you said you finished?' He would say, 'Yeah, I finished maths, but I've got other stuff.'"

More than 20 years later, sitting in a house that would have once seemed like a palace to him and his brother, Mahela is still shaking his head. "He knew how to get away with all of that."

At 13, left-hand opening batsman Dhisal earned a cricket scholarship at Nalanda College. Before long, he was in the U-15 team that his older brother was captaining.

One day in school, when he was 15, Dhisal collapsed. His parents took him to a doctor, hoping for an easy fix. They found a brain tumour instead. The next 18 months were a blur of hospitals, doctors' appointments, and cycles of draining treatment. Sunila and Senarath, who was a technician at Sri Lanka's state broadcaster, sold many of their belongings and scraped together enough money to take Dhisal to England for surgery. They returned with renewed hopes, but soon discovered the cancer had returned. This time it had spread so far, the second surgery was ineffective.

On March 8, 1995, 16-year-old Dhisal died.

For Mahela, the death was cataclysmic. "His brother passed away the year he was captaining the Nalanda first XI," Sunila says. "The big match against Ananda College that year was on March 18. Mahela didn't go to practice during that time. The principal came himself and asked Mahela to come back, but he refused.

"A monk at the Wellawatta temple, where Mahela often went, was the one who helped heal his heart, even a little. He told Mahela, 'Your brother loved you to play cricket. I don't think he would be happy if you stopped because of his death, so why don't you play in his honour?'"

Mahela played the big match. Senarath and Sunila went to watch the toss, stayed a little while so Mahela would see them at the ground, and then returned home.

From that day, Mahela has carried Dhisal with him. A photograph of his brother is by his bedside the night before each game. He sometimes wonders what Dhisal would have been like. Would they have played for Sri Lanka together?

"Cricket probably helped me get through that grieving process," Mahela says. "Because I know Dhisal loved cricket. I know he would have wanted to see me play for Sri Lanka. It's something we loved doing together, so everything I have done in cricket is for him as well. When I play, I honestly feel like I have him with me in the middle."

Fans are often so relaxed by his manner they launch into criticism: "What was going on in your head when you played that shot to get out?"

Team-mates know Mahela for his intensity during matches, even when he is watching from the dressing room. When Sri Lanka ran out to defend 119 in a must-win game against New Zealand in this year's World T20, Mahela was not officially captain, yet he was barking out curt orders, racking his brain for strategies, and rousing those around him.

Perhaps that is where Mahela's passion comes from. If he seems intense, it is because he is playing for two people. If he is refusing to give in, it is because he is fighting for himself and his brother.

Nothing puts life in perspective like death. "When I was playing at Nalanda, I was probably in a cricket bubble," Mahela says. Every weekend crowds turned out to watch him play. Friends would set off firecrackers on the boundary to mark his milestones. When Mahela was seven, his class teacher took him to see Roshan Mahanama win the Schoolboy Cricketer of the Year award. Nine years later Mahela was the high-school hero. It was easy to get caught up in that world.

When Dhisal left him, Mahela knew that no defeat, no bad decision or poor stretch of form, could ever match the despair of losing a loved one. Cricket had defined him since the age of one - when he wrapped his hands around the handle of his first bat. But since 1995, it has always been a game: a source of enjoyment, a lifelong thrill, but not so great that people went out of focus.


He has fought players' corners, campaigned for better wages for junior cricketers, and is a fountain of advice. He has been a go-to man for foreign coaches, the most recent of whom, Paul Farbrace, calls him a "world-class person as well as a world-class player".

Most of all, Mahela has been a man of the people, always aware of what fans bring to the game and to his life. He believes long, toilsome days on the field are no excuse for refusing an autograph or a photo. If he ever appears ungrateful to his supporters, his wife is the first to let him know. "I know you're tired, but it doesn't take much effort for you to smile when someone asks for a photo," she tells him.

His fans came in their thousands to watch him in his final Test series. Sri Lanka's cityscapes are ruled by images of politicians, but for two weeks in August, at least in Galle and Colombo, Mahela took over the shop corners and news stands.

His team sent him into retirement with a 2-0 series win over Pakistan. True to character, he finished one match short of becoming the first Sri Lankan to play 150 Tests. His 205 catches were five away from the world record.

"I don't think anyone is bigger than the game," he says, reflecting on the final days. "But I've tried to play it in the right way: to enjoy every moment and to always play it as myself - as Mahela Jayawardene."

Many have competed with passion. Many have entertained. But to have watched Mahela play was to have known him. To have known him is to have been borne along in his adventure.

Andrew Fidel Fernando is ESPNcricinfo's Sri Lanka correspondent. @andrewffernando