We have seen certain individuals in the cricket arena in the last two decades or so who have given their best performances when pushed against the wall. They thrived in situations when the going got tough. They delivered when their teams expected them, as individuals and as leaders, to produce something miraculous to dig them out of a rut. Steve Waugh, Ricky Ponting and now Michael Clarke have done that so successfully for Australia. Inzamam-ul-Haq did the same for Pakistan, Jacques Kallis and Brian Lara for South Africa and West Indies respectively. Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman lifted India out of the hole on numerous occasions. One man who is doing it consistently for Sri Lanka is Mahela Jayawardene.
Whether it was his marathon 374 and match-winning 123 in the same Test series against South Africa in 2006 or the 275 he scored in Ahmedabad against India in 2009, he, along with Kumar Sangakkara, has kept the Sri Lankan flag flying over the years. Jayawardene's back-to-back centuries against England in the ongoing Test series are further testament to this.
When Jayawardene walked into the middle on Tuesday morning, Sri Lanka were in trouble. James Anderson, England's new-ball hero, was in the thick of action, having reduced the hosts to 21 for 2 and on a hat-trick. With three close catchers on their toes to pounce on anything coming their way, Jayawardene, in his usual calm demeanour, glanced an angling delivery by Anderson for a boundary. From that point on an action replay of the Galle Test was on display.
In the first innings there, Jayawardene had come out with his side tottering at 11 for 2. When he departed the next day, Sri Lanka had scored 318, much more than they had expected considering the woeful start they got. And despite the Man-of-the-Match performance (12 for 171) by left-arm spinner Rangana Herath, it was Jayawardene's 180 that proved decisive behind the home side winning the first Test by 75 runs.
With Anderson swinging the ball, both in the air and off the seam, Steven Finn peppering the batsmen with short-pitched stuff and Tim Bresnan attacking the stumps every delivery, it was a grind for Jayawardene right from the start of his innings. But his style of play, which is based on playing the ball as late as possible and presenting the full face of the bat, didn't allow the England bowlers to get on top of him. In Thilan Samaraweera he found a gritty partner who kept going despite being struck twice by Finn, once on the head and the other on the ribs.
Having already seen it a number of times before, Jayawardene - who kept his innings going with the deftly manoeuvred singles towards the third man and the midwicket regions - was soon in his element, hitting a cracking cover drive off Finn through the covers and then slicing a short delivery from Anderson for four past backward point. And barring the chance he gave when on 79, as the ball flew past a diving Andrew Strauss at first slip after taking the outside edge, Jayawardene's journey towards his 31st century was spotless.
His batting has been the difference between the two sides so far in the series. When the English batsmen were once again unable to come to terms with the slow nature of the subcontinent wickets, and when the other stalwarts - Tillakaratne Dilshan and Sangakkara - of the side were exposed by the fast bowlers, it was Jayawardene who kept the Sri Lankan flag flying.
Having already scored over ten thousand runs with an average over 50, Jayawardene seems to have thrived in his second stint as captain. His strategy to open the batting with Dilshan - whom he replaced as skipper after the South Africa tour earlier this year - in the tri-series in Australia brought immediate success to the team. And despite finishing second best in that series and an early exit from the Asia Cup recently, Sri Lanka, under the leadership of Jayawardene, have once again shown the glimpse of the 'attacking cricket' they are so famous for.
His hundred on Tuesday also came just over a year after his breathtaking 103 off 88 balls, which almost won the World Cup for Sri Lanka. And though his effort on that night in Mumbai could not help his team lift the World Cup trophy for the second time, Jayawardene's two consecutive hundreds this time around could well take Sri Lanka past the No.1-ranked Test team in the world.