'I like challenges'

Interview

'I like challenges'

Peerless:  Mahela Jayawardene wants to see the youngsters carry the legacy of Sri Lankan cricket.

More than 18,000 runs in international cricket amassed with great élan, an innovative, attacking captain and a true ambassador of the game and his country, Mahela Jayawardene is a class act.

The 33-year-old right-hander, earmarked for greater things when only a teenager, spoke to Deccan Herald on a wide range of issues. Excerpts:

How do you look back on an international career that’s almost 13 years old now?

It has been great, you can’t even believe you have played for 13 years. It seems like yesterday when you started but once you start playing international cricket, time flies. I have enjoyed every bit of it. There have been ups and downs, plenty of challenges. I can be quietly happy about what I have achieved. I never expected anything but I have tried to challenge myself and get better. I am quite happy with my progress.

Coming in to the squad as a 20-year-old with the weight of expectations, how did you learn to handle the pressure?

When I started off, I did not think of any of that. I was so excited just to play for Sri Lanka. I was a bit erratic -- I was aggressive, just trying to play like I was playing at school. That probably helped me in a way to not think about the pressure or the situation I had been put in. When you start off with 50s and 100s – and I scored a double hundred in my fifth or sixth Test – you get that confidence because you know you belong here. That start gave me a lot of confidence. That’s because I was trying to play the same game I had been playing. I realised over a period of time, maybe in the second and third years, that people started to see where my strengths and weaknesses were and they were attacking them.

There were a few patches when I wasn’t scoring runs, and then I understood that I couldn’t be that schoolboy any longer. You have to learn, think on your feet, anticipate what the opposition is doing and then learn to develop, adapt and progress. I was making mistakes and I was learning from them. I had to change my game according to situations. Then, I had to play a bigger role when the senior players, guys like Aravinda and Arjuna, retired. There were a lot of younger guys coming in and I became the middle-order basically, until Kumar (Sangakkara) came in a few years later. Gradually, I had to take responsibility as a middle-order batsman and I started challenging myself to be a better player.

Did you feel overawed getting into a team that had won the World Cup the year before?

Oh yes, obviously. I wasn’t sure I would fit into that team. It was a very unexpected call-up, Hashan (Tillakaratne) had got injured in the West Indies and India were touring Sri Lanka. The night before the first Test, I was told I might make my debut, I was so excited. The first day in the dressing room, I wasn’t even sure where to sit in that group! I stood by in a corner because I knew everyone had his regular place. After they took their seats, I found a little place and sat and observed.

The first Test was just observing how people go about their jobs -- Aravinda and Arjuna, Roshan, Sanath, Murali. Murali has always been a friend. He is the best guy to have around as a youngster because he makes you feel comfortable in a dressing room. Yes, it totally overawed me but those cricketers were so humble as well. Arjuna and Aravinda never let it be known that you are a misfit in that unit. Roshan, Sanath and Hashan, they made me feel very comfortable in that set-up even though I was a youngster.

Did that rub off on you as you welcomed younger players into the team?

Definitely, it’s always the case. When youngsters walk into the set-up, you shouldn’t ask them to do too many things. It’s important that you take the pressure away from them completely and let them enjoy their first year of international cricket, so that they can be free and express themselves. They should be the rebels you want them to be on the field because they will bring a lot of energy, but they will also bring a lot of freedom. The first year is always a honeymoon period, but then you get challenged and that’s when you should talk to the youngsters and tell them that they need to start learning.

Do you sometimes feel you haven’t got you due from experts outside the sub-continent?

Honestly, I am not that concerned about it. Maybe, yes, but for what? For me, it’s all about playing this game. I grew up loving it, I was lucky enough that it was my profession too. Not everyone gets that opportunity. For me, it’s all about while I can, I play to my ability and enjoy myself. Once I finish, if I get recognition for what I have done, it’s great. If not, it doesn’t matter because I know that I have served my country the best I could. I know people in Sri Lanka recognise me, they appreciate me and what I have done. That’s more than enough for me.

What’s it that keeps all Sri Lankan stars so grounded and unaffected by fame?

I think the culture, the background that we come from. We started as small fish in a very big pond and we had to do a lot of hard work. A lot of credit should go to the ex-cricketers who played in the ’60s and ’70s. Without any facilities, they kept improving. They were doing well even though Sri Lanka didn’t have Test status, and everyone had to notice them because they had so much talent. In the ’80s and ’90s, we took the next step.

The World Cup-winning team, they progressed in what they did without having any facilities and with a humble background. You admire all that because you know the reason you are here now is due to all the hard work and the spadework done by those people. You must appreciate it. Once you realise that is your start, you always stay humble and grounded. You know you have a lot of people to thank for what you are now, the lifestyle you are living. We are trying to hand that same thing down to the next generation as well, saying it is not us you should look up to, but to that generation of cricketers who brought recognition for Sri Lanka cricket.

From the time you made your debut, it’s said, Future Sri Lanka Captain was written all over you…

First and foremost, to captain Sri Lanka was a privilege, something I never expected or anticipated or craved for. I just wanted to play cricket for my country. When I was given the responsibility, I thought let’s see how best I could do it my way. If it works, great. If it doesn’t, I don’t have to hold on to it. It was great because I always like challenges and at that time of my career, it was a great challenge.

A World Cup came along as well and after that, there was a rebuilding process. Everything fit in nicely. When I realised I was not going to be challenged anymore or I wasn’t going to enjoy it anymore, I knew it was time to let it go and concentrate more on me as a cricketer and how I could contribute more to the team. I had no bitterness when I quit as captain (last year). It was a personal decision I felt I had to take. My gut feelings have always helped me be who I am right now, that was a very good call at that time.

Sri Lanka cricket has always had some great pairs – Mendis and Dias, Ranatunga and De Silva, Jayasuriya and Atapattu, now Jayawardene and Sangakkara…

Maybe it’s a good thing. If we can keep that tradition going, you know there’s at least two or three people responsible for the team at that time. They control and guide the ship during that period and then the next generation takes over, which is great. You always need those leaders, guys that guide the ship in the right direction. The past players have done all the spadework, they took up the responsibility of taking Sri Lanka cricket forward despite the lack of facilities and recognition in the ’60s and ’70s. It’s our duty to keep doing that. They pushed themselves and set standards, we have taken over and moved them further. Hopefully, the next generation will take it much further so that we can keep improving.

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