He made his ODI debut on December 26 1989 just a few days after Sachin Tendulkar played in his first such game. All the same one is not sure Tendulkar will be around at 40 however enthusiastic he remains about the game. But here is Sanath Jayasuriya still playing limited overs cricket a few months after his 40th birthday and 20 years in cricket. ODIs and Twenty20 s a young man’s game?
Try telling that to the ever youthful `Matara Mauler’ who is still boyishly enthusiastic about the game, still hungry for success and still wants to win matches for his team. These positive factors have seen him carrying on when cricketers who started out after him have longed called it a day.
Just a few months ago Jayasuriya was the first cricketer to get an ODI hundred past the age of 40. Only last year he had become the oldest centurion in ODIs. At 39 years and 212 days he broke the record of Geoff Boycott who was 39 years
and 51 days when he scored a hundred against Australia in Sydney in 1979. I wrote then that a century past the age of 40 could not be ruled out for Jayasuriya and I was happy that the swashbuckling left hander proved me right. Verily he has sipped from the fountain of youth.
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Not too long ago Jayasuriya was the first to play 400 ODIs a mark soon equaled by Tendulkar. At the moment he has played 444 matches a few more than Tendulkar. In matters of runs (over 13,000) and centuries (28) he stands second to Tendulkar. But of course when you add his 300-odd wickets – Tendulkar’s tally is around the 150-mark - it can clearly be seen that Jayasuriya is one of the greatest one day players ever. Even at an age when people have long since called it a day from what is essentially a young man’s game there is no indication that he will be retiring even though it is about two years since he called it a day in Test cricket.
Clearly the secret behind Jayasuriya’s successful career is that he enjoys the game and that he is still young at heart. It was this upbeat attitude that saw him enjoy himself in the inaugural Twenty20 World Cup in South Africa particularly while hitting 88 off 44 balls against Kenya and following this up with 61 off 44 balls against a much stronger New Zealand attack. Even as Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid and Sourav Ganguly – all younger than Jayasuriya - opted out of the tournament Jayasuriya was still around to regale audiences in the newest and shortest format of the game. But then of course he has been
regaling audiences all over the cricketing world for almost two decades.
It is a tribute to his skill, enthusiasm and fitness levels that Jayasuriya has lasted so long and like good wine, seems to be getting better with age. Certainly the end of his career is nowhere in sight as yet. He did in fact announce his retirement in 2006 but almost immediately retracted his decision. Which was just as well for Jayasuriya still had much to contribute to the cause of Sri Lankan cricket and had still a lot to contribute by way of entertainment to spectators and the TV audiences all over the cricketing world.
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Jayasuriya has lit up one-day cricket at the highest level ever since his power-hitting at the top of the order enabled Sri Lanka to win the 1996 World Cup. At his peak in the mid and late 90s Jayasuriya the buccaneering batsman emptied bars as followers of the game rushed to their seats to watch him take the bowling apart. Similarly cricket fans rushed to the TV sets as Jayasuriya wasted little time in sending the new ball to all parts of the grounds. Fours and sixes flowed off his blade and I was once a happy witness to Jayasuriya and his swashbuckling opening partner Romesh Kaluwitharana bringing up Sri Lanka’s fifty in 3.2 overs against Kenya in the World Cup match at Kandy in 1996. He was certainly the batsman whom bowlers did not want to come up against for it was mayhem from ball one. He intimidated bowlers like few batsmen have done dispatching even good balls to the fence by extraordinary hand eye coordination and super fast reflexes complimenting his natural talent.
Where does one start to reel off Jayasuriya’s outstanding performances in ODIs? He still holds the record of fastest 50 (off 17 balls), has hit a century off 48 balls, shares the highest partnership (with Upul Tharanga) of 286 for the first wicket, is the only player to complete the double of 10,000 runs and 300 wickets, has hit the third highest individual score (189) and possesses a career strike rate of over 91 which is really quite mind boggling considering how long he has been playing. One must also not forget that he has been an outstanding player at the Test level – second to Mahela Jayawardene in the runs tally (almost 7000) at a pretty impressive average of 40 coupled with a bag of almost 100 wickets. Till Jayawardene overtook it in 2006 Jayasuriya held the record for highest individual score for Sri Lanka (340 against India in 1997).
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In the new millennium as players like Adam Gilchrist, Mahendra Singh Dhoni, Shahid Afridi, Andrew Symonds, Virender Sehwag and Kevin Pietersen have upped the career strike rate to anything between 91 and 110 Jayasuriya achieving the status of elder statesman has stayed in the background. And even if there are finally some indications that he is nearing the end of the road what a remarkable career it has been!