Sportstar archives: Mahela Jayawardene on dream debut and cricket in Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka batting star Mahela Jayawardene plays the ball very late, invariably finds the gaps, and uses his feet exceptionally well.

Mahela Jayawardene is known to use his feet exceptionally well.   -  AFP

A cut here, a nick there and soon the opposition is bleeding.

Mahela Jayawardene wields his willow with the precision of an expert swordsman. Watching this diminutive batsman essay the delicate cut, the 'fine' flick, the expansive cover drive and the savage pull can be a captivating experience. Three key elements of batting surface when Jayawardene is waltzing in the middle. He plays the ball very late, invariably finds the gaps, and uses his feet exceptionally well.

The 24-year-old Jayawardene is in roaring form these days, with his two hundreds against India, at the Asgiriya Stadium and the Sinhalese Sports Club (SSC) Ground.

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Sportstar caught up with the young star in Colombo during the third India-Sri Lanka Test.

Can you tell us a little about your early days?

My parents were quick to spot my interest in cricket. They sent me to the NCC School for cricket in Colombo. There Lionel Mendis guided me. The time spent there was very useful. That really shaped my cricket.

You were known to be a prolific scorer in school cricket...

I made a lot of runs. But I must say that I always think positively. Now I am playing international cricket, but it still is the same game. We have to make the switch mentally, the standard of bowling is higher, there are less loose balls to be hit, but I am batting the way I did in school. The basic nature of the game never changes.

You had a productive time with the Sri Lankan U-19 and A' teams before moving into the bigger league...

That is true. That experience really helped me. It gave me an idea about things to expect at the international level. The adjustments we had to make.

Your Test debut came at the SSC in '97. That was a famous match. Sri Lanka made a mindboggling 900 plus and you got a half-century...

More than the runs I made, I remember the atmosphere in the dressing room. It was wonderful and taught me so much. There were men like Arjuna Ranatunga, Aravinda de Silva, Sanath Jayasuriya and Roshan Mahanama.
They made me feel comfortable. Never was I made to feel that I was a newcomer.

There are a lot of people who see a similarity between your style of batting and that of Aravinda de Silva's...

Everybody has his own game. I just want to be myself. It's difficult to be like some other cricketer. The most striking aspect of your batting is your positive approach. You don't bat under any kind of pressure. At the end of the day what really matters is the runs you get. My natural instinct is to go for the shots. That's the way I play.

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You use your feet very well against the spinners, seldom allowing them to settle down...

That's something I have done over the years. It is important that you do not allow the spinners to dominate you.

Two of the strokes you have played particularly well in the series were the cut and the pull. Your cut, especially, is so delicate...

I always had the cut, it comes naturally to me. The pull I practiced before the tour of South Africa last season. In those wickets, where  there is plenty of bounce, the pull becomes a very productive stroke. Now I think I can play the shot fairly well.

Despite averaging in the mid-40s in Test cricket, you have often been accused of giving it away too easily on occasions. Just when you are in your 30s and 40s...

The expectations from me are pretty high and when I get out after settling down, the people, who want me to do well all the time, are disappointed. I have also let myself down on a few occasions. I am surely working on this. The last six months have been much better.

Between your two Test hundreds against India in this series which one would you prefer more?

I think both were different. The ball was seaming around at Kandy on the first day when I walked in to bat. I survived a tentative early phase with Prasad and Zaheer bowling well. In fact I was lucky to survive. After that I felt more confident and the runs started to flow. That hundred was very satisfying because of the situation and the
conditions. In SSC, I was stroking the ball well. The conditions were more suitable for batting.

You made a huge 242 against India in the Asian Test championship game in the 1998-99 season. At the same SSC ground, for which you seem to have developed a special liking.

I thought I was a bit lucky in that innings. I was dropped a few times and I cashed in on the opportunity.

Among your hundreds, which would rank at the top?

It has to be my century against New Zealand in Galle, 1998. I got 167 on a real turner. Vettori was bowling well and it was a challenge. We had lost the first Test, and had lost quick wickets in Galle, so it was important for me to hang in there and get some runs. We went on to win the match and the series. That is my best hundred.

Coming to tours, which was the campaign that really made an impression on you as a cricketer?

The tour of Australia in 1999. It was a tough, hard series and the team went through a difficult phase. It was a good learning experience for me. I think it made me tougher as well. The South African tour last year was also demanding and we  can always pick up things from such series.

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You were vice-captain for a brief period. Were you disappointed when it was taken away? Even now you are considered bright captaincy material...

No, I was not disappointed, I myself wanted that to happen. I am happy representing Sri Lanka as a cricketer. Of course, leading the country is an honour, but I am not thinking about it now.

During the one-day triangular series, that preceded the Tests, you did not get too many runs in the first few games of the league phase. Did you feel the heat?

No, because I wasn't doing anything wrong. I had got out early a few times, because the team needed quick runs at that stage. And I had played my game to suit the interests of the team. At the end of the day, if I know that I had given one hundred per cent to the side. irrespective of whether I had succeeded or failed, I can sleep peacefully. You know you have given it your best shot.

What has cricket taught you about life?

There is so much uncertainty in cricket. One day you can get a hundred, the next day you can be dismissed for a zero. It makes you become practical about things. Teaches you to accept both success and failure. I think I have learnt a lot about life from cricket.

(The interview was first published in Sportstar magazine on September 22, 2001)

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