Jayawardene is out to test English patience to its limit

  • @stephenbrenkley

Mahela Jayawardene is among the nicest men in world cricket. Since Rahul Dravid walked into the sunset a fortnight ago he may actually sit alone on a mountain top of niceness: charming, cordial, capable.

Do not, however, assume this means that he is – any more than Dravid was – a soft touch. He has not scored 10,086 Test runs and 29 hundreds without being a supremely gifted operator who knows what a tough old game it is, and yesterday he issued a gently veiled threat about the likely nature of this short series starting here today.

Jayawardene has returned to the captaincy of Sri Lanka after a break of three years and, when the discussion turned to the general spirit of the next fortnight and whether his team might seek to play on England's occasional brittle temperament, he did not hesitate. "I think you need to play it as hard as you can, that's important," he said. "You're playing for your country and you're trying not to cross that line. But we will certainly push everyone to the limit and see who cracks first."

If England have a defect that can play into opponents' hands, it is their tendency either to sulk or become slightly fractious when everything is not going their way, or if the opposition ride their luck. In the sort of oppressive heat that will prevail here, ill-discipline can spread and tempers often fray.

Andrew Strauss, England's captain, seemed aware of the weakness and that it had the potential to be costly in many ways. "I think the heat does play a part in that, actually," he said. "I think you're more likely to get frustrated quicker but I totally agree there's no reason both sides can't play this series in the right spirit.

"That's what I'll be telling my players and I'm sure they want it to be that way as well. It's important in a Test match to make sure your level of emotion doesn't get over the top because it does affect your performance and that's something we'll be concentrating on."

In their early days, Sri Lanka were pushovers, awed by the surroundings of Test cricket and much too gentle of demeanour. That changed for two principal reasons: they found a gun bowler in Muttiah Muralitharan and a captain who brooked no nonsense and outfoxed anybody for pure cheek and wiliness in Arjuna Ranatunga.

With both men gone, there has sometimes been a tendency to regress. But, as Jayawardene showed in his first term of office between 2006 and 2009, he is not afraid to lead a side of awkward customers, who will give as good as they get if and when opponents get uppity.

Sri Lanka's spirit will have been emboldened by the receipt, at long last, of their wages. For most of last year, with the Sri Lanka cricket board flat broke, they were playing for nothing, justifiable anathema to a professional sportsman. After an earlier intervention by the International Cricket Council, which put up $2m (£1.26m) last December to ensure the team kept playing, the board has at last met its obligations, as Jayawardene confirmed. "Yes we got paid last week," he said. "We are paid up until the last series against Australia and, once the logistics are sorted out, they'll pay us the balance. It's something we couldn't control, but the newly elected board made us a promise and they kept to that."

The board is still cash-strapped, however, and may have needed government help to pay its dues. It has incensed many of the 5,000 or so English supporters here by charging 5,000 Sri Lanka rupees (£24.25) for entry. When Australia played in Galle last August, entry was 500 rupees. Supporters feel they have been duped and some were threatening a boycott yesterday. Others may try to watch the match from the ramparts of Galle Fort, which overlooks the ground and helps to make it one of the loveliest sporting venues on the planet. But the Sri Lankans are pretty sure, for once, that they have done their sums and are merely observing the first principle of economics: supply and demand.