'A captain has to be decisive'

S. DINAKAR

CRICKET was a game of chess for him and the 'Grandmaster' created possibilities, closed out the options for his rivals, scripted sensational triumphs.

T. A. HAFEEZ

Elected a Member of Parliament after bidding adieu in 2000, Arjuna Ranatunga is in a different role these days. Yet, this extraordinary man yearns to contribute more to his country's cricket, battling against the odds to take over as the Lankan Board President.

"I don't want to do this for money or prestige like some others. The Lankan cricket and the players should receive a better deal. That's all," he says candidly.

Ranatunga, who recently participated in an exhibition match at Thalassery to celebrate 200 years of cricket in Kerala, spoke to The Sportstar in Chennai on a subject that's close to his heart - captaincy. As always, he didn't hold back his punches.

Strategically brilliant on the field, he was a formidable leader of men off it. Let's begin the journey into the mind of the Grandmaster.

Question: What is the primary requisite for a captain? How did you go about your job as Sri Lanka made the transition from being a good side to a winning one?

Answer: A captain has to be decisive. When you are captaining, you have to identify your strengths and weaknesses. Your planning depends on the players you have, whether it is for Test or one-day cricket. When I first got the captaincy I was young. It took a little time for me to realise how to go about the job. I was more comfortable when I came back a second time.

It has become so technical now. When I was captaining it was only the videos that we had. Those days, I used to watch the video of the day's play - for three to four hours. Then I sat with the players.

We talked about the good things we did and also the bad things. Discussed how we could further improve on the good, and recover from the bad. We had a very good batting side, but our bowling was, I would say, average.

As we neared the '96 World Cup, the support given by the team was important. I still feel that '96 World Cup winning side was the best we had. We had some controversial players, some silent players, but they responded to their captain.

You have often plotted the batsman's downfall with the bowler. Can you recall any two dismissals where you spotted something and the plan worked?

I remember the way we got Sachin Tendulkar in two one-dayers in Colombo. I realised he was hitting slightly uppishly in an area that was not really a normal fielding position. It was neither gully, nor point nor the cover-point. I created an unorthodox fielding position in that arc, waited there and Tendulkar twice fell in the trap, Vaas and Wickremasinghe being the bowlers. The next innings, he did not lift a single ball, and this is why I consider him so great.

Then Steve Waugh. We had a third man and a fly slip which is an unusual fielding position. We were feeding him, not for the cut really, but to play the glide shot. He appeared so concerned about the man at fly slip that he nicked the ball to the 'keeper. I loved to put things in the batsman's head. Make him think differently.

Field placements were one of your strengths as captain. And you loved to be different.

When I was the captain I was not happy with the basic field settings. I wanted to change that. It has helped us a lot. I was very successful putting up a field for Murali. It's more like a chess game, you put a player there, pull another back. It was so creative.

What was the ideal field for Murali?

Even on a very good track, you should have at least five on the on-side, with a minimum of two in catching positions. You have to put things in the batsman's mind, build up the pressure, and the wickets would come. I created the mid-on 'up' field. Then I had the mid-wicket straighter and invited the batsman to go over the top.

But I watch a lot of cricket these days in Colombo and other places and I feel sad that most of the captains are not creating things in the middle. They wait for it to happen. Often they let the game drift away.

You made the most of a limited attack. A match-winning Muralitharan, a useful Vaas and the rest. How did you achieve the results?

I made the most of Muralitharan's wicket-taking ability. What I used to do in the ODIs was to get him to bowl two to three overs, stop him if he wasn't getting a wicket, keep the pacemen on, and once again bring Murali back to get a wicket. If they lost a wicket, then I would bring him back straightaway. At the start of his career, Murali was the kind of guy who would want to finish his 10 overs in one spell. I told him 'you are our main bowler, I might stop you after an over or give you ten. You should not grumble.' He got the message. When you can convince a player about what you require of him, it can be helpful. Now we have, apart from Murali, men like Dilhara Fernando, Zoysa and a more mature Vaas. Jayasuriya has a much stronger attack.

During my time, Vaas was a cricketer who needed to be given a lot of confidence. But he listened well and tried hard.

On Lanka's amazing transformation under your leadership, how did you manage to make the team think differently? After all, this is a mental battle at the highest level.

When I started, we used to go on tours, perform well, but ultimately we would lose. It came to a stage when I had to have a long chat with the seniors, Aravinda, Mahanama, Tillekeratne and Gurusinghe. Along with myself, we were like five fingers of the team. We used to discuss a lot. We often argued. Ultimately, we decided to create a lot of happiness amongst the players. And my door were open for any player for 24 hours. Soon the players started treating me like their elder brother. They still call me Aiya.

However, when it came to cricket, I was tough with the boys. I made it clear to the bowlers that they would have to tell me at the team-meeting what to do. It went like this: 'You come to the team-meeting at 7 p.m. tomorrow and tell me how to get Sachin Tendulkar out. I need two to three plans.' It made them think as cricketers. And we discussed a lot. I remember, when I started in the Lankan side, the meetings ended in about twenty minutes. But when I was captaining, it used to go up to two to three hours. We could discuss everything. For instance a junior cricketer could tell Aravinda: 'you played a cow shot today. That is why we lost the game.' Aravinda would explain why he played that shot. Then I would step in and say 'Aravinda is not the only batsman in the side. What about Jayasuriya, Mahanama, Tillekeratne, myself.' It was a healthy, frank discussion.

It was made clear that if Lanka was bowled out for a low total like say 200, the bowlers could not complain that they didn't have the runs to back them. It was up to them to do the job. And if the bowlers got massacred for 300 runs, the batsmen had to make an honest attempt, without offering excuses.

And then the set batsmen had to finish the job. I can tell you that the players who got out after getting settled almost got dropped from the side. I used to be very harsh on them. I would call them to the room and blast them. And if they still didn't get the message, I would do it in front of the other players.

On surface you appear a soft person with a ready smile. But you also have the reputation of being strict with discipline.

I insisted on discipline in the team. I was very particular about that. They are representing the country. They are representing 18 million people. I told the players, 'the people look forward to you achieving a lot of things. You have to make the sacrifices for the country.' The players responded. You always have one or two characters who love to go out in the night but the rules were clearly laid out. I made it very clear to them that they couldn't go out on the eve of the match, and they could not drink alcohol. Rules are rules. Before the match, I wanted all of them in the room at 10 p.m. by latest. At the start some said they couldn't sleep before 12 p.m. I told them 'stay in the room till 12 p.m., watch television or do something else, but you just cannot go out.' The players gradually got used to it. It really helped the team. Despite being tough, I was successful in keeping the morale of the players up. It was perhaps a gift God gave me.

There was strong camaraderie in the team, is it not?

I worked on this. We formed groups of two, with the players helping each other out in different aspects of the game. This system of having pairs during training helped. For instance, I had to ensure my partner's batting and bowling would improve, while he would concentrate on my fielding. I used to be with the junior most cricketers in the squad and they used to gain in confidence. At first they were hesitant to tell me that I did not run properly or couldn't bend at the right time but gradually they opened out. It really helped us. So we were in a situation when one person was helping the other out. There was a sense of togetherness.

Different players respond differently. There is a lot of psychology involved here, isn't it? As captain, how did you get your message across to them?

You do have to see how a player reacts. Sometimes if I shouted at a person, he would take it in a very bad way. If I talked to him nicely, he would do the job in a better way. Some others, if you spoke pleasantly to them, they would take it in one ear, and leave it from the other. But if you shouted, they would absorb things. Each cricketer is different. You are dealing with emotions. It is easier to run the cabinet of a country than a cricket team!

Under you, the Lankans became a lot more aggressive. The change came in Australia '95-96. It was a conscious decision to give it back to the Aussies, wasn't it?

It came to a stage where we had to give them back. It was more like we were being gentlemanly and they took advantage of that. I told my players 'we had tolerated enough.' So when we became aggressive ourselves, they were rattled. When we realised that they were getting panicky, we knew we were winning. Even in the World Cup final in Lahore, when I walked in, they were talking in a different way, and I realised they were panicking. I used to hear whatever they said, but never reacted. I had a smile on my face that used to irritate them even more (laughs).

Jayasuriya's promotion from a lower-order batsman into a destructive opener - it was a master-stroke from you.

He was batting at No. seven or eight and bowled left-arm spin. He played as an all-rounder but was very unsuccessful at the start. I can remember when he had played about 70-odd one-day games, his batting average was just eight or nine. He still found a place and the media guys in Lanka called Jayasuriya my blue-eyed boy. The same people write differently now. He was an aggressive batsman, and once, when we sent him at No. 3 in Sharjah, he got a half century. I called him over to my room and asked him whether he would like to open. He was a little scared. I told him 'don't worry about it, do your best.' He liked to hit over the top and had a reasonable defence. I told him 'I'm counting on you. Just hit the ball.' He was very successful. When you identify a quality in a player, then you must allow it to flower.

I will point out to Kaluwitharana's case too. He was batting in the middle-order when I asked him to open in Australia. He was worried about failing. I told him 'Don't bother, I am the captain, I would take up the responsibility.' He opened, and got an eighty in about 60 balls against McGrath, Gillespie and Warne and he went on to play several brilliant innings for Lanka.

In Marvan Atapattu's case, the confidence shown in him, despite his disastrous start to Test cricket, has paid off isn't it?

Marvan is a fine player. The selectors had a lot of faith in him, and kept recalling him despite some bad failures early on. He scored heavily in domestic cricket, had a good technique but was not mentally strong. We identified his problem. He was batting at No. 3, wearing pads and watching the openers, and he didn't like that. We believed he should open, because we wanted him to avoid all the nervousness while watching and waiting.

You were the one to spot Mahela Jayawardene's precocious talent. He is making waves these days.

Coming to Mahela, when I saw him playing school cricket, I asked him to come to my club, the Sinhalese Sports Club. I knew he was special. He's one of the most naturally talented batsman I have come across. Can play all the shots in the book. In the Lankan side I feel Mahela and Sangakkara are the two brains. Both are very good boys. That matters a lot. Discipline, culture, respect for elders, they have them.

I feel Mahela will be a better captain than me. He's a thinking cricketer.

Now to Lankan cricket's most prized possession - Muttiah Muralitharan. You've seen him from his early days, groomed him, backed him to the hilt. The bond between the two of you is strong.

A lot of people did not like Murali when he started. They said, he had a freak action. I saw him bowl, realised his action was clean, and backed him, because I knew he was going to be our match-winner. Murali didn't bowl the straighter one then, he didn't bowl leg-spin, he was just spinning deliveries past the batsmen's leg-stump from wide of the crease. There were a lot of people complaining about Murali bowling 30 to 40 overs and getting wickets. I told them 'just allow him to develop. He's worked hard. He's evolved as an off-spinner. He is the biggest single match-winner in World cricket now. If Murali doesn't finish with 750 Test wickets, I would be very disappointed.

Actually, he's very easy to handle. He listens to suggestions. We used to discuss a lot of things. About field settings, about the plan. Sometimes he didn't like the changes, but still accepted it.

What did you actually tell Murali, on the day he was called for chucking in Australia? It must have been a particularly testing moment for you as captain.

He was alone in the room. He told me that he wanted to go home. I said 'no way. You are not going home. No one is going home.' He stayed, even fielding as the 12th man. When he was called for a second time, he was shattered. He said 'Arjuna aiyah, I want to go home now.' My reply was 'I have put my neck out. It is up to you to perform now. I will sort out my problems, but just do me one thing for me. Take wickets.' The way we accommodated him, not just me but the entire team, it was incredible. I never went out for dinner without Murali. It was like the Sri Lankan team was Murali. The way we supported him, whether the player was Sinhalese, Muslim or Tamil, was incredible. Even the Aussies told us, 'We are sorry about what's happening to Murali.' Murali emerged from the episode a much stronger man.

Your views on this subject of chucking are very strong.

I feel 80 per cent of the present day fast bowlers have suspect actions when they bowl the short ones. Why is nobody being called? Actually, Murali was called for chucking when he sent down a leg-break. Everyone knows, it's impossible to chuck a leg-break. If a player can be punished for a mistake, why can't an umpire be? My personal view is that the match referee should sit with the third umpire, to keep a closer eye on the decisions. He has to play a part in this.

I was very happy when Sunil Gavaskar commented about Brett Lee's action. At least there is one person who is speaking for the Asians. The Asians are being targeted. I have no doubt about this. Much of the criticism of Murali's action is due to jealousy. The Aussies are worried that he would soon leave Shane Warne behind. And the Englishmen are scared.

Your presence of mind surfaced even during that chucking incident. You cleverly stopped short of taking the team out.

I wanted my men out, but had I done that the team would have been disqualified. I realised it as we approached the boundary rope. I asked the others to stop. I walked out. The captain can go out at any moment. It was just the presence of mind.

When at the helm, you often backed your instincts.

I am a person who liked to gamble on the field. I could take some hard decisions. The success ratio about my plans working was 70-30.

Any 'instinctive' bowling chance you can recall, where you went by your gut feeling.

Aravinda in the '96 World Cup final. We did not get Aravinda to bowl much earlier in the tournament. But in Lahore, I somehow had the feeling that he would be the match-winner. I threw the ball to him when the Aussies were going along well and he got three important wickets. Turned the match for us.

Your comments on Jayasuriya's captaincy. Lanka is winning a lot these days.

I am happy for the team. Jayasuriya has got a good bunch of bowlers and he's winning.

What about India's Sourav Ganguly? He's come under a fair amount of criticism.

I like the way Ganguly handles things. He is committed, is a little aggressive, which I like, and is a guy who will give it back to the opposition. Unfortunately, such a captain will not be the most popular guy. I have a lot of respect for him.

Sachin would have been a better captain, had he received the job now. He was given the job far too early and it created far too many expectations. Sachin is an intelligent cricketer and he will be right for the job now.

Were you surprised about Steve Waugh's ouster from the helm for the one-dayers?

Steve Waugh is good. I was shocked when he was removed as captain of the Australian one-day team. They should have continued with him till the World Cup. The Aussie selectors have made a mistake.

Your views on Nasser Hussain. Would you agree with his tactic of getting Ashley Giles to bowl over-the-wicket to frustrate Tendulkar?

Hussain has an ordinary side, but makes things happen. England will not be a pushover in the World Cup. But I would not recommend his tactic against India. Had an Asian captain done it, people would have said it was negative. When an English captain does it, it becomes brilliant. The Asian media does not support its captain and its players enough.

You have often said that the Aussie media gangs up to attack a particular cricketer.

When they attack a captain, then it means he is good. Even players. Why did the Aussie media attack Murali and Aravinda? They do not go after any ordinary cricketer. All this is planned.

On the field of play, how would you plan against someone like Australia's Adam Gilchrist, who can swing matches in a hurry?

You have to keep him at the non-striker's end. He likes to go after the bowling, you have to play on his patience, frustrate him, deny him strike. You might get your chance then.

To the Big Question now. Which captain will hold the World Cup next year?

It should be between Australia, South Africa, Pakistan, New Zealand, and Sri Lanka. I like New Zealand. They are a very useful team of performers rather than brilliant players. They remind me of the '96 Lankan side. India has a chance but it will have to select a proper team, especially the right pacemen for the South African pitches.