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The lion's on the prowl again

By Sanjay Rajan

COLOMBO, JULY 28. There he was, in the Taj Samudra pool, with his daughter Keshani by his side, guiding her around, like a lion guards its cub.

Sanath Jayasuriya is a lion. A true Lankan Lion. Ageing, yes. But when he picks up a willow, or grips the ball to bowl his left-arm spin, he competes with a ferocity rarely seen.

The first thing you notice, when you meet the `Marauder from Matara', are his forearms and wrists. Akin to steel, even at 35 years of age. Though he made his debut 14 seasons ago, it only seems like yesterday.

Talk about Jayasuriya, and images of the 1996 World Cup come to mind: his pinch-hitting — the powerful lofted drives and slashes — and the passion. The opener packed as much power into his shots during the course of his 132-ball 130 (13x4, 1x6) in the Asia Cup 2004 super-league match against India at the R. Premadasa Stadium on Tuesday night. It was a valiant effort in a lost cause.

The contest, though, was inconsequential to the host, which had assured itself of a place in the final. But Jayasuriya was waging a battle within a battle, a lone one at that against his critics, who want him out of the one-day side. At the start of the competition, they pointed to the fact that he had not scored a century in 30 One-Day Internationals spread over 17 months. He hadn't and it worried him.

Atapattu's support

Jayasuriya, a former Test and ODI captain, has a fixed slot in the Test side. But the Island's policy of youth in one-dayers, in preparation for the 2007 World Cup in the West Indies, has seen the system baying for the all-rounder's blood. Skipper Marvan Atapattu has been of tremendous support to the left-hander.

They go a long way; have batted together many a time. And, every time the topic of Jayasuriya came up, Atapattu would stand by the southpaw saying, "He is invaluable, has the ability to turn a match on its head in any of the three departments of the game."

Jayasuriya got just 21 against UAE in the opening match, did not play in the preliminary match against India at Dambulla owing to a side strain, managed 20 against Pakistan in a second-phase clash, and under mounting pressure, scored a magnificent run-a-ball 107 against Bangladesh — against the minnows, the critics smirked — and followed it up with that mind-boggling effort against India.

"I feel happy to have scored consecutive centuries. I'm also thrilled to have come off a lean patch. A comeback of sorts," Jayasuriya said. About the cramps he suffered during the innings against India, he said, "Nothing major, just a slight one. But I feel extremely sad that I was unable to win the match for my country. But I must say that this century is among the better ones of the 18 ODI centuries that I've got."

Thanks to critics

Referring to critics and their claims, he said, "I understand their point. I hadn't got a one-day century in a long time. It was something that I had to accept. In fact, it egged me on. Have to thank them for it."

On his apparent liking for the Indian attack, the left-hander said, "Runs are runs against anyone, so are hundreds. I like to score runs, period! I wouldn't say I have a special liking for India and all that.

"The knock against Bangladesh was special; in that it helped me come out of the run-less phase. I guess you can say it was a weak side, but it is the innings that got me back on the road."

Jayasuriya was all praise for his skipper's support. "Marvan was absolutely wonderful. Every time someone took my name, he'd say, "I have full faith in Sanath. I know his ability."

In fact, Atapattu's words still rings in one's ears. "I'm waiting for that one good innings. After that he'll be the Jayasuriya we know." It came, and Jayasuriya is back with a bang. Beware India!

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