Mahela, great captain and a gentleman

Sanjjeev K Samyal

Colombo, Oct. 8 -- It's still early days for Sandeep Patil as chairman of the national selection committee, but he sure knows to identify talent. One of the boys from whom he predicted great things led Sri Lanka to the final of the World Twenty20.

Mahela Jayawardene was 18 when Patil saw him play in a match and the former India batsman immediately declared, 'Watch out for this batsman, one day he will play for Sri Lanka'.

That match was the opening game of Mumbai cricket club B Arunkumar's tour of South Africa in 1995. "Mahela scored a half-century in the very first match against NFO XI in Johannesburg and Patil, our guest player on the tour, said he had what it takes to play for Sri Lanka. Within two years, Mahela was in the Lanka team," said Niranjan Shah, who was the manager of the team.

Friends forever

Jayawardene and another current player, Thilan Samaraweera, had joined the Mumbai club on the tour after its owner, Bharat Shah, asked the manager of his diamond factory in Sri Lanka to recommend two talented players from the country. "It is nice to know Sandeep is the chief selector now. I have great memories of the tour," Jayawardene told HT.

Looking at a group picture of that team, Jayawardene's first reaction was to condole the death of one of his former teammates. "This is Raju (Salgaonkar)," he said identifying the 'keeper of that team. "It's sad he's no more, he was killed in a bike accident. I am still friends with the guys of the team," said Jayawardene.

That is Jayawardene for you - once a friend, always a friend. Since that tour, he's gone on to become one the most successful captains in international cricket but he has remained in touch with the lives of his former teammates. Caring for team members is key to his success as a leader.

Jayawardene's leadership skill came to the fore in Sri Lanka's impressive run in the World T20. The pressure was on him as his team came into the tournament at the back of an inconsistent run but credit should go to the captain for galvanizing the unit into a fighting force.

Memorable feats

In Sri Lanka, Arjuna Ranatunga sets the benchmark when it comes to leadership and Jayawardene's feats have evoked comparisons with the 1996 World Cup champion.

"He's doing the same what Ranatunga did in the 1996 World Cup, both have been able to get the best out of the boys," said his Nalanda College coach, Jayantha Senaviratne.

A former Lanka player, Senaviratne coached Jayawardene in his young days, and the player is still known to consult him. "You can say he's a born leader. His captaincy is why Lanka is doing well," Senaviratne said.

The home team may have lost in the final, but the Colombo boy's place in the pantheon of Lankan cricket history is secured.

Published by HT Syndication with permission from Hindustan Times.