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James Lawton: Remarkable Jayawardene claims a prize far greater than mere victory

His unbeaten century was shot through with two qualities. One was ravishing technique, the other a humility and spirit seen in his treatment of Nuwan Kulasekara

It fell to MS Dhoni to represent supremely the character of a great competitor reaching out to win. Yet there was another prize available and if it was much less welcome, it still won unforgettable honour for Mahela Jayawardene.

When we look back to a tumultuous day at the Wankhede stadium in Mumbai, Jayawardene's performance and his demeanour will surely dwarf the usual chasm between victory and defeat.

Of course Dhoni's willingness to carry the extraordinary pressure that gathered around his team gave this World Cup – and India's triumph – an edge and a dignity beyond all the Bollywood-style hype and crazed pursuit of the rupee.

This was an achievement worthy of a place in anyone's pantheon of sport, a place which is never accommodating to anything remotely resembling a cheap victory.

However, the fact that India's win, and their captain's contribution, soared above such status after the swift dismissals of Sachin Tendulkar and Virender Sehwag, owed a huge debt to the spirit and talent of Sri Lanka, who were appearing in their third final in five attempts.

Most of all, it was enshrined in the fact that in terms of individual performance the garlands draped around Dhoni's neck might as easily have gone to Jayawardene.

Dhoni won the match and the hearts of his impassioned nation. At times, though, it seemed the 33-year-old Jayawardene had taken hold of something even more prodigious. It was as though he had in his possession some of the very best of sport, more than a little of its soul if you like.

Watching his unbeaten century was indeed a humbling experience for those of us most reluctant to acknowledge there is much chance of anything truly memorable occurring in any of the shortened forms of a great game. Jayawardene did not flail against this prejudice. He simply caressed it to death.

His challenge was in some ways greater than the formidable one faced by Dhoni later on, because the Indian captain was still surrounded by batsmen of proven steel.

When Jayawardene saw his successor as captain and close friend Kumar Sangakkara edge the ball into Dhoni's hands, in a moment that betrayed the perfect concentration and lovely technique that had brought him 48 runs, he knew that a huge burden had come to him.

A superior reaction, you have to believe, would have been pretty much impossible.

Jayawardene's innings was shot through, at times movingly, with two great qualities. One was quite ravishing technique, often when he played the ball so late, so exquisitely, that he would surely have provoked a storm of applause in a bullfight crowd. The other was a humility and a spirit exemplified in his warm and gentle nursing of the late-order hero Nuwan Kulasekara, who must have felt like an eager young student ushered into the study of a revered master.

Soon after hitting a glorious six, Kulasekara sacrificed his wicket in a formal run-out so that his senior partner could continue is surgical gleaning of runs that would take Sri Lanka to a total of 274 – a target that soon became much more challenging when the ferocious Lasith Malinga shot out Sehwag and Tendulkar.

Jayawardene embraced Kulasekara before he left – and in a way that suggested he was commentating on something more than some stirring defiance at the bottom end of a worryingly fragile middle order. He was, it seemed, saying that Kulasekara had conducted himself in a way that had carried him across the normal demarcation lines of win and loss. He had responded to the moment in a manner in which he could always feel pride.

None of this should deflect from a superb Indian resolve to live with a pressure rarely concentrated so fiercely in a single sports arena. Until caught in the last storm of Sri Lanka run-getting, Zaheer Khan bowled superbly, Gautam Gambhir was once again spectacularly resolute and Yuvraj Singh, he of the magnificently sullen demeanour, underpinned his claims as India's man for the most critical situations.

No, there was no doubt about it. From the moment Dhoni promoted himself in the order and said that it was time to expunge all questions about India's right to claim their second World Cup, there was an authority about the team who have waxed so strong and so wealthy these last few years. Yes, they had pressure as much as anyone could ask of first-rank professionals, but they also had a depth of talent and, understanding that this was a day on which all their credibility depended, that in end permitted only one result.

But then what losers we had on the premises – and what a performer in Jayawardene, whose expression in the post-game ceremonials spoke so eloquently of the frustration that comes when you do everything within your power and you are still separated from victory.

Perspective, though, is rarely beyond the reach of a man who lost a young brother to a cancerous brain tumour, a hurt so devastating that for a while the rewards of cricket scarcely seemed worthwhile. Another time of crisis came in Pakistan two years ago when he was one of seven Sri Lanka players injured in a terrorist attack which also killed six policemen and two civilians. Jayawardene passed the captaincy to Sangakkara – soon after scoring a double century.

Now he captains the Kerala Tuskers in the Indian Premier League, the Twenty20 playground for millionaires, but plainly at no cost either to a marvellously fluent technique or any understanding that there is another life and death beyond the boundary ropes.

One consequence is Jayawardene's high-profile role as the leader of a campaign to build Sri Lanka's first hospital devoted exclusively to the treatment of cancer.

Another was the superb bearing and equilibrium that brought him such distinction on a day of defeat. Victory and defeat, said Kipling, are twin imposters. If he hadn't, Mahela Jayawardene would surely have confirmed that it was so.