“I gave everything to cricket”

“As any other cricketer I have been through the ups and downs, at the start and then in the middle of my career,” Mahela Jayawardena tells Vijay Lokapally in this interview.

Mahela Jayawardena has been the mainstay of Sri Lanka’s batting, bringing a composed and confident approach to the crease. Unruffled in the toughest of situations, the 35-year-old, with 31 Test and 15 ODI centuries under his belt, is one of the last traditionalists when it comes to correct batsmanship.

At 15, he made the decision to become a cricketer. He has not regretted the decision, emerging as one of the finest batsmen the game has known. In this interview to Sportstar, the Sri Lankan speaks on various aspects of cricket…

Question: Is cricket progressing in the right direction?

Answer: I think yes. The competitive level of cricket is very high. The teams are quite equally balanced. Of course, the teams have a slight advantage when playing at home. You get to see good contests. I can’t really complain. The advent of T20 has changed the approach. Getting the right balance is the most important thing. Not easy, but cricket has evolved a lot. It has improved.

How much has it changed from the first five years of your international career?

It is much more challenging now. With technology coming in there is a lot of analysis. It’s not getting easy for cricketers because the technique and strong points are under scrutiny. Tactically, things have improved a lot. You are under constant scrutiny. All teams have improved.

You are a batsman who believes in playing the ball on merit, building an innings. Do you think there is place for such batsmanship now?

Well, I have also evolved as a batsman with time. Otherwise, I would be left out. Most of the batsmen from the last 10 years would tell you that. Technically I have changed my thinking from where I was as a youngster. Purely because of the tactics of the opposition and the situations that come along. It has happened at various stages of my career. It has benefited me.

The bowler studies you, but then you also study the bowler…

Exactly. That’s what I am saying. When you do that your game changes. It’s not the same from the time I started. Most cricketers have done that through learning and improving their knowledge.

With so much cricket being played now, do you think it is fitness more than your focus and overall game management that matters?

I think game management is the most important aspect. Fitness also plays a big part to meet the high demands. But then understanding the game and focus are also crucial. To be consistent in all forms of cricket it is important you understand where your game is and at the same time see how you can stay focussed. There is this need to study the game, watch more and more cricket, keep learning. You have to be open about the game and approach.

How do you view a Test cricketer in these times?

As a cricketer, you are being truly challenged in Test cricket, physically and mentally, different surfaces, conditions, the format itself is challenging. As a youngster you want to pay Test cricket. You can’t get tagged as a T20 player. If you want to leave a mark on the game you have to be a good Test cricketer. If you ask any cricketer, he wants to be a Test cricketer because of the versatility factor. There are some suited for T20, but that doesn’t mean a Test cricketer is a dying commodity. You still have individuals who only play Test cricket. Over a period of time you will find there are these cricketers who lend balance.

What kind of an innings satisfies you?

Tough to pinpoint one kind of an innings to cherish. It depends on the day, how you have been challenged, your game plan, has it worked… many things, many factors that make a good innings, has it helped you win, helped you dominate the attack. If all these come in one innings, I would say satisfying. Not just a century.

16 years in international cricket. Any phase which was your best?

As any other cricketer I have been through the ups and downs, at the start and then in the middle of my career. All those have been learning curves, but I am happy I could come out of them strongly. I think the best was from 2005 to 2011 (World Cup final). Now, being a senior, my responsibility has grown, helping to develop the team. The focus has been to remain consistent apart from a few hiccups along the way. I have learnt a lot.

How do you prepare a youngster for cricket?

One should not force him into anything. Let the young kid enjoy himself. Don’t push him to become somebody else. You can’t be somebody else. I don’t believe in that. You can’t be Sachin Tendulkar. Can’t be Brian Lara. The best you can be is who you are. I encourage every youngster to be that, help him develop. Let the youngster learn and make the decisions when the time comes. It helps him mature towards the challenge. He will understand how to come out of that. Let him enjoy.

How can a correct batsman like you preserve batting technique while playing too much of one-dayers and T20s?

It is for you to realise the strengths and weaknesses and improve on that. I had to change my game a bit, become aggressive and innovative to cope with the new version of the game. That’s the challenge you have to accept as an international cricketer but at the end of the day you can’t forget the basics of the game. That’s what keeps you grounded even while being innovative. From the strong basics you can become a strong cricketer. I trusted my game, my instincts and pushed myself to improve.

Were you influenced by any cricketer?

I have not idolised anyone. I have watched a lot of cricket on TV, watched tapes of old cricketers…Barry Richards, Graeme Pollock, how they have reacted, how they faced the bowling, the different things they have done. How Steve Waugh reacted to tough situations, guys like Arjuna (Ranatunga) and Aravinda (de Silva). The best way to learn is by watching and observing how these players went about their job. Helps you grow. Roy (Dias) was my coach in my learning days. I have heard a lot of stories about his batting. He is a great motivator.

How should one develop concentration and prepare for a match?

It is practice. You have to train your mind to do that. When you make mistakes, you have to correct them when faced again with a similar situation. Your mind has to be trained, can’t be cluttered. It comes from hard training and the body and the mind work in tandem. Your concentration level becomes better with experience. Preparation comes from not thinking too much about the next day’s play. You must analyse the bowlers and the opposition, but it all depends on that particular day. You have to be calm and collected when you approach a game, to see the ball better, hit the ball better. We all have butterflies in the stomach. If not then something must be wrong. I still have them. It is good actually. Basically, you have to enjoy the game of cricket and it will help you handle the pressures. You have to be honest to your work ethics and nothing but hard work will help you.

Your experience with Delhi Daredevils and Viv Richards…

Delhi Daredevils is an amazing place. In these two years I have found a great franchise, great work ethics. Sad we didn’t do well this time, but there are things to learn. I have had a wonderful time with the players and the franchise. To have Viv is brilliant. I grew up admiring his personality. But knowing him personally has been great, his insight, his approach to the game have been superb. He takes time to teach. He makes you so confident about your game. Amazing man!

How much has Buddhism helped you in staying calm and focussed?

I practice, but not to the extreme. I grew up being a Buddhist. You look to be a quality human being and make correct decisions, stay calm. On the field it helps to make correct decisions, to control your mind. You observe the situations and take the pressure on and react with calm and grace, as an individual and team. My practice has helped. It is the way of life in Sri Lanka. We learn from watching others play. How they handle and react to things and why they have been so successful. It is not about imitating somebody, but learning.

If not a cricketer, what would you have been?

I never had dreams of being a doctor, lawyer. I wanted to play cricket. Around 15, I realised I could have a career in cricket and took a call. I plunged into the game, driven by my hunger and desire to play big cricket. If not, I don’t know where I would have ended. I gave everything to cricket and have no regrets.