It’s a gorgeous, bright afternoon, belying the rainy season, in Port-of-Spain, Trinidad. I am stood behind the nets at the Queen’s Park Oval watching Sri Lankan cricket royalty hit cover drives towards each other, on the eve of their crucial match against West Indies. Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene, are on the wrong side of 35, and are closer to the end of their glorious careers where they have accumulated more than 21,000 runs in Tests and 22,000 runs in ODIs. They were the captains of the side not too long ago and are now content watching Angelo Mathews grow in to the role of leader as they dispense wisdom.
Jayawardene spent a few minutes talking to me about the transition that is about to happen, compared it to the time when he came in to the squad, the revolving door of captaincy in the recent years, paucity of Tests, Graham Ford as their head coach and his outlook towards retirement.
Subash Jayaraman: Mahela, you joined a squad that had just given Sri Lanka their greatest day in cricket, by winning the World Cup in 1996. Taking over from the ’96 world cup winning squad to handing over to Angelo Mathews and others, how are the two situations same and/or different?
Mahela Jayawardene: Not much of a difference. Obviously, the quality of the senior players in the side I walked in to, [it was] an amazing group players who had won a world cup the previous year and had a lot of experience; Arjuna [Ranatunga], Aravinda [de Silva], Sanath [Jayasuriya], Hashan [Tillakaratne], Murali(tharan) and Vaasy [Chaminda Vaas]. Murali and Vaasy were the younger guys in that team. I blended really well with both of them. I gained a lot of experience by moving around those players in the dressing room, talking to them, learning the game – the finer points. This younger generation is keen to learn as well. We have a lot of serious talent and that’s the reason we have been consistent lately. Lot of the seniors are gone and it’s just me, Sanga(kkara) and Dilli [Tillekaratne Dilshan]. It’s our responsibility to handover the reins to the next generation, to guys like Angelo.
SJ: Murali is an irreplaceable bowler. From the Test side point of view, there is still Rangana Herath who is one of the top bowlers in the world but age is not on his side. So, the teething problems for this squad moving forward will be that much harder, especially in Tests?
MJ: It is extremely hard to replace guys like Vaasy, Malinga and Murali. But, players will have to find a different way to adapt and have means and ways of winning matches. Like I have always said, we need to have a group of 4-5 bowlers to get 20 wickets in a Test match and play to the conditions we get and play horses for courses, play quicks or spinners in different conditions and see.
The younger talent is not too bad. We are getting a lot of good fast bowlers in the last 6-7 years. The crop has been pretty decent. The spinners have come through as well, like Sachithra [Senanayake], who has a lot of potential as an off spinner. We have P Kaushal who is an under-19 off spinner; he needs experience. Akila Dhananjaya, and a couple of other lefties, they just need experience. It is tough to replace guys like Murali(tharan), but, I think the game will evolve. Everyone will come and go. You keep moving on. That is the passion of the game in Sri Lanka. Everyone wants to come in and win now. They have got into that habit of winning culture, where you want to play to win. That is something that we want to put into the younger generation as well, so that they continue to do all the good work.
SJ: There was a period where the captaincy changed hands between you, (Tillekaratne) Dilshan, (Kumar) Sanga(kkara) and now with Angelo (Matthews). What sort of effect does it have on you as players, what kind of effects does it have on the dressing room, the younger and as well as older players?
MJ: The culture hasn’t changed inside the team even-though the leadership has changed hands. The way we think, the way we go about doing things hasn’t changed much. We have guys taking more work. That has been our success, because if things were different, I don’t think we would have been that consistent in world cricket, going forward to winning tournaments or getting into finals and all that. The transition has been pretty good. This is an important stage for the team because we are giving to a younger guy who probably will have for a bit longer period and will grow up with the younger leadership like [Dinesh] Chandimal or (Lahiru) Thirimanne or whoever comes through. Those are the leaders, the future [of Sri Lanka cricket].
Dressing room wise, it is pretty much the same. There is more responsibility on me, Kumar, Dilshan and Malinga to make sure that we guide these guys in the right direction and help them when they need it on and off the field.
SJ: That was going to be my follow up question. You and Sanga, what kind of inputs do you have on and off the field in guiding Angelo and rest of the young guys?
MJ: We continue to be in that role, where whatever happens we continue to have a role in the team – a leadership role. We try to guide the guys in the right direction. On the field, we try to let Angelo do things on his own as much as possible. That is the only way he will learn. Up to now, he has had some big tournaments – the Champions Trophy, and even here [in Caribbean], I think he has done some good work. He looks a very genuine leader, in the sense of the thinking process, and he is very calm out there as well, which is great. We keep giving him ideas and help him in tough situations so that it makes things easier for him, but we make sure that it is his job now and give him the freedom to do that work. That is important to him and [vice-captain] Chandimal.
SJ: Let them make mistakes so that he will learn?
MJ: Let them make decisions. If they make mistakes, it is fine. We will have a chat about the decisions and make sure that they don’t keep repeating them. But, that is the only way forward on and off the field. That is the contribution we are trying to make. Not get too involved, but stay behind the scenes and help them run the show because it is their show right now.
SJ: You have had very successful coaches in your career – Tom Moody and Dav Whatmore. What is Graham (Ford)’s role in the squad, especially because you have a young captain – how does he gel with them?
MJ: We are very fortunate to have some outstanding coaches in our career, especially, Kumar and me: Trevor Bailey, Tom, Dav, and Bruce Yardley at the beginning and a lot of good guys have helped us. Graham is no exception. He is a fantastic coach, stays behind the scene and that is the most important thing. He does all the dirty work for the team, doesn’t take the lime light, and doesn’t want to be in the front. He lets the boys do the talking out there in the middle, gives us the freedom. It is a great platform for a younger leadership to come in, which is absolutely brilliant in the sense that he can then control things. He is actually doing a similar role as what we are doing sitting from behind and giving them information as much as possible, analysing a few things here and there– where we can improve. [He has] a good relationship with Angelo Matthews – that is the most important thing. I think Graham has fit in nicely. He has a lot of experience and is a fantastic coach.
SJ: Talking about this [Celkon Mobile Cup] tournament, this has replaced a Test series. What sort of impact – the underlining reasons are understandable from one point of view – but from the cricketing sense, does it have on the growth of Sri Lankan cricket as Test players?
MJ: It is a bit unfortunate. There are two sides to the story. Obviously, after considerations of certain individual boards, it makes [sort of] decision making that much harder. They need to look at that angle as well, because that sustains the development of future in cricket and keeps things together. Unfortunately, not every board is rich. They need to make sure they take those calls and it is tough.
If you look at this year for us, we are only playing 4 Test matches. For both Kumar and me, that is unfortunate because this is probably our last few years in international cricket, and we [would like to] play at least 10 Test matches in a year, but we are not. Next year, we have a good calendar. [It is helpful] especially for the youngsters, if you can play together and guide them before we leave. In that aspect, it is a bit unfortunate. I always like to look at the both sides and not criticize too much because the situation is such that most boards would have to make those tough calls.
SJ: We have seen Marvan (Atapattu) and Chaminda (Vaas) – they are giving back to cricket as coaches, and Sanath (Jayasuriya) is the chairman of selectors. You have been playing international cricket for 16 years, and are hence much closer to the end than the beginning. Do you see a role for yourself within Sri Lankan cricket, after retiring at whatever time you choose to?
MJ– I don’t know. The time will tell, to be honest with you. I honestly don’t know if I have the patience to be a good coach. But, I will definitely be around Sri Lankan cricket, try and be around the younger cricketers. I don’t know in which capacity, I don’t know how that is going to happen. Only the time will tell. But, yes, I will be up to give back to cricket purely because it has given so much to me over the years. The person who I am, the player who I am is because of the game of cricket. I would love to give that back to the younger generation. In what capacity, I have no idea.
SJ: It is surprising that Mahela doesn’t have the patience, because you always seem to be the calmest head in the team…
MJ: That is true, but you can be a decent player, but obviously it doesn’t mean that you can be a good coach. That is a different job altogether. You need to have different skills; you have to have a lot of patience. You need to have a billion things. I don’t know whether I have that. It is something that I haven’t thought about it, because it is not fair for me to go onto things in a different way if I am not suited for it. Let’s see. You never know if I am up for that. If I think I can contribute more in that manner, maybe yes. But, I just don’t want to make a commitment right now.
SJ: 16 years in international cricket. You have (Sachin) Tendulkar who has been in there for 23 years; (Rahul) Dravid has been there. What motivates you guys with an aching body, waking up every day and still keep pushing? What is it that separates those who have been playing for so long?
MJ: It must be the passion. The passion drives you. You love the game and you love playing it. I have always said that it is about us, we as individuals, performing out there, having the hunger in the stomach, and making sure that you go out and push yourself to the limit and contribute to the team. If I can do that, that is the most ultimate thing. You need that passion and hunger to do that. I am sure, like you said, one day I may wake up and say “that’s it, my body is not going to do it. I don’t have that hunger in the stomach, I don’t have the passion” and go back to the bed and sleep.
SJ: So, you have any tentative idea about how long you may play?
MJ: I don’t know. Like I said, in the last couple of years when the question came if I was going to be around till be next World Cup, I said that it is so far away. I take 6 – 8 months at a time and see how my body takes it, how I contribute to the team, how passionate I am. Two years down the line, still going strong, then, it is not too bad. Right now, I’m contributing and body feels OK, touch wood. Let’s see, the next World Cup is a year and a half away. If I can manage myself and keep things fresh, I will try and push myself to the World Cup. And then, make a call. We will see what happens.
SJ: Alright, Thank you!
MJ: Thank you, Subash.
An edited version of this was first published on Wisden India on July 9, 2013.