Cricket: The elegant executioner

Double centurion pushes back boundaries on a day to savour
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The Independent Online
THEY HAVE brought in the boundary rope a few yards for this Test at The Oval, which makes it even easier for Sri Lanka's fluent batsmen to score fours. There were 33 of them in the record-breaking partnership of 243 for the third wicket between Sanath Jayasuriya and Avarinda de Silva, and they were achieved with such elegance that only a blinkered patriot would have wanted to see either of them get out. This was caviar for the general public - a full house of 16,500 spectators on a warm, cloudless day to remember.

De Silva we knew about. He scored one of the finest one-day centuries at Lord's for Kent in the Benson and Hedges Cup final in 1995. Jayasuriya we knew about only by reputation: he is the man who revolutionised one-day cricket by hitting wildly from the outset, and who scored 340 against India last year, the fourth highest score in Test history. He had not done much on the tour before yesterday, but we know about him now.

There was a notable moment is his innings in the 56th over when he was on 128. Ian Salisbury was bowling his dispensible leg breaks and Jayasuriya jumped down the pitch to drive deftly through the covers. The crowd sighed, because the remarkable thing was that he actually missed the ball and it dribbled away to Alec Stewart. As if to redeem himself, he hit the next nine balls he received for 26 runs. De Silva, who knows about playing in his pomp, had decided it was Jayasuriya's day. He was a good partner, said Jayasuriya at the close of play.

His 150 came in 212 balls. To get there he hit a six, which was also notable because it was the first of the innings. These Sri Lankans may be the world's one-day champions, but they play Test cricket according to classical norms. The ball stays mostly on the turf.

Jarasuriya, who had been mainly concerned with saving the follow-on the night before, had started the day on 59, yet his 200 came up four overs before tea (31 fours and that six). By then his mannerisms had become familiar. Waiting for the delivery, he taps the ground rapidly either side of the crease before placing his left foot in position. He is a left- hander, and he keeps his hands low on the handle which exaggerates his crouch, making him look even smaller than 5ft 5in.

The single one-day shot remaining in his Test repertory is a slash, hit hard over gully's head. For the rest, the stroke play is an impeccable mix of power and timing. When he drives through the covers he leans into the ball heavily with his bottom hand, and it doesn't matter what size the boundaries are. He glances fine and pulls square. Although he is only 29, when he takes off his helmet he reveals a bald patch. Jayasuriya is a country boy with bright eyes and a toothy smile, and a gold chain roun his neck. He was born in Matara on the south coast of Sri Lanka, where his father works for the council as a sanitary supervisor. He went to an unfashionable school, but benefited from the determination of Arjuna Ranatanga, his skipper, to spread Sri Lankan cricket outside Colombo.

One remarkable achievement at The Oval was to turn de Silva into his junior partner, outscoring him 89 to 26 in the 29 overs between lunch and tea. But three overs later he was gone, attempting to hook a ball from Ben Hollioake that was too full and giving a catch to Stewart. His 213 had taken six hours and 46 minutes; he had faced 278 balls and scored 33 fours and a six. It was, he said modestly, one of his best innings.

As Sanath Jayasuriya tucked his bat under his arm, 16,500 people stood and applauded him all the way to the pavilion. He said he was surprised by the warmth of the reception, and he smiled like a man fulfilled. He had every reason to.