‘I have no regrets’

Sanath Jayasuriya will not play Test cricket anymore. But he’s keen as mustard to prolong his ODI career. Over to Rex Clementine for a chat with the champion bat.

More often than not, Sanath Jayasuriya’s contributions to Sri Lankan cricket are remembered for his batting exploits in the one-day game. At the same time, Jayasuriya’s contributions with the willow in the longer version of the game are also quite remarkable. His quick scoring gave Sri Lanka’s bowlers enough time to run through the opposition and the four-year stint he had as Sri Lanka’s captain was highly successful, too. He captained the team to 1 0 successive Test wins between 2001 and 2002 and to date he is the most successful Sri Lankan captain. He retired as the highest run-scorer for Sri Lanka in Tests (Mahela Jayawardene has now overtaken Jayasuriya’s tally of 6973 runs) and is the third highest wicket-taker for his country behind Muttiah Muralitharan and Chaminda Vaas.

Having made his Test debut in 1991 against New Zealand in Hamilton, Jayasuriya was cast aside as being fit for only the one-day game. It was felt that he didn’t have the temperament and technique to survive in the five-day version of the sport. But a whirlwind hundred against Australia in Adelaide in 1996 cemented his place in the side and a year later he scored a marathon 340 against India, sharing in a World Record partnership (576 runs) with Roshan Mahanama.

In the very next Test he scored 199 against India and a year later his 213 off 278 balls laid the foundation for Sri Lanka’s maiden Test win in England. Another highlight of his career was the 253 against Pakistan in Faisalabad in 2004, where he put on a record 101-run stand for the ninth wicket with Dilhara Fernando, the tail-ender contributing just one. Jayasuriya was the last man out.

The left-hander retired after the first Test against England in Kandy and he went out with a bang. He carted England’s bowlers for 78 runs and hit six successive fours off James Anderson in an over to equal another World Record. Jayasuriya’s quick scoring set the stage for a memorable Sri Lankan win.

Sportstar caught up with Jayasuriya and in this candid interview he speaks on a host of issues.

The excerpts:

Question: The trainers and physiotherapists say that you are one of the fittest players in the Sri Lankan side. Why retire when you are doing so well? Your last innings in Kandy was enough proof that there’s a lot of cricket left in you.

Answer: It’s just that I wanted to go on a high. Having played so much of cricket I don’t need to be reminded that you have to go when they ask why and not when. So that’s it. It’s been hectic and unbelievable. As a teenager growing up in Matara I never thought I would go on to play over 100 Test matches. Cricket was my life and I am grateful to all my coaches and well wishers. There have been so many good moments and some bad ones too. Playing for Sri Lanka has been a great honour and it’s a privilege to be involved in that period when our cricket really transformed. I leave with happy memories and very few regrets.

You speak of regrets, what are they?

People come to me and ask whether I regret not breaking Brian Lara’s record (the first record of 375) when I got that 340. I say no. I am a firm believer that whatever records you get, that comes in the process of helping your team to achieve things. It’s great that as a team we have realised that. We were made to realise that by Arjuna Ranatunga when he was the captain and we’ve remembered that very well to not to put self before the team. None of us play for records. One of my biggest regrets is not winning a Test match in Australia. True, that we didn’t get that many opportunities. I have played only five Tests in Australia despite playing cricket for 17 years. But I thought we had a great opportunity to do it when we toured there this time. As a kid, I used to look up to the West Indies. But when I started playing, it was to Australia we looked up to raise the bar. They’ve been the best team in the last few years and to not beat them is a massive regret.

It was in Australia it all started didn’t it? Tell us about that Test in Adelaide. We were told you were not supposed to play that game?

Yah, I played only because Roshan (Mahanama) was injured. I had played a few Test matches before, but that was as a lower middle-order batsman. Here I was asked to open. I had a decent series in the ODIs and when Roshan was not fit I got that opportunity. It was a very good attack too and had players like Craig McDermott, Glenn McGrath, Shane Warne and Paul Reiffel. We had already lost the Test series 2-0 and I was given the licence to be myself. When you get that kind of backing you feel great. I made a hundred in that game and that made me a permanent member in the side. How strange!

No one will ever forget you walking down the pitch to Shane Warne for the last ball of the day and hoisting him for a six. How could you have done that?

Well that was a poor delivery and that needed to be put away. It doesn’t matter if it’s the first ball or the last ball, if that’s meant to be hit, hit it. A lot of people have asked me about it, but for me, it wasn’t premeditated. Just before Warne delivered the last ball of the day, he stopped proceedings and walked up to Ian Healy and they were having a chat. I don’t know what they were talking, but probably playing some mind games. But he bowled a juicy half-volley and I whacked it.

Tell us about the early days. How tough was it playing the sport with the bare minimum?

It was never easy for us back in Matara. The entire team only had a couple of bats and a few equipment. I used to pick up a bat from the school’s cricket bag and pass it on to the other guy after I got out. Until I was 18 I didn’t have a bat of my own. It never occurred to me that I will go on to represent Sri Lanka. I was picked to play the Youth World Cup in Australia and that was a great moment. Then I hit two successive double hundreds when the Sri Lanka ‘A’ team toured Pakistan. That actually fast tracked me to the national side.

How was it playing alongside Muttiah Muralitharan? You guys have been ever present in the Sri Lankan side.

Oh, he’s a great bloke. Whatever people say about his action and all that they conveniently forget the hard work he puts in to improve. I haven’t seen anyone working harder. He’s simply amazing. He wants to be the best. We are very good friends and one thing that I like in him is that there’s no end for his enthusiasm. As Sri Lankans we are indebted to what Arjuna Ranatunga did for him. I wonder whether any other captain would have done it. Having captained the country in a high pressure situation I can feel what it takes for you to do that. Hats off to Arjuna for putting his own career in danger in backing Murali. He took the Aussies head on. He’s certainly the best captain we have produced. Arjuna taught us how to take on the opposition. Not to be intimidated by teams like Australia and he gave them as much as he got.

What about captaining the country? There too you left when everyone wanted you to stay on?

I enjoyed the captaincy. Once again Arjuna’s boots were too big to fill when I took over from him in 1999. There were some memorable moments. We beat Australia for the first time in a Test and that happened to be my first Test as captain too. We won 10 Tests in a row and we had a great team. A lot of young players came into the side at that time. Players like Kumar Sangakkara, Dilhara Fernando and Tillekeratne Dilshan all came in during that time and did quite well. The lowest point during my captaincy must be when we lost to England 2-1 after winning the first Test by an innings in 2001. But they did play really well to come back and beat us. Leaving the captaincy was not difficult. I felt after the World Cup in South Africa someone else had to take over. Captaining Sri Lanka is fun when you have a very united team.

It’s said that in 2006, you were forced to retire from Test cricket. What happened?

We were playing Pakistan and after the first Test at SSC, the selectors called me aside and said I should retire and if I didn’t, I could be dropped. I wasn’t thinking of retirement at that stage. But it was forced upon me. It was very demoralising. I went back home and thought to myself and said okay, if you want I will retire. Having played for so long it wouldn’t have been nice if I had been dropped and immediately I announced my retirement. But a few months later a new selection committee came and they asked me whether I would like to continue. I thought about it and said yes and I was sent to England. It was a fascinating series. We drew the first Test at Lord’s against all odds and were beaten in Edgbaston. But we bounced back in Nottingham to square the series.

You did commentaries during the just concluded series against England. How did it go and do you see a future as a commentator?

After I announced my retirement in Kandy following the first Test against England I got an offer from Ten Sports. I thought it went well and guys like Sir Ian Botham, Sanjay Manjrekar, David Lloyd and Ranjit Fernando helped me a lot. I haven’t thought about on a long term basis. I want to continue to play ODI cricket and my concentration will be on representing my country in ODIs for as long as possible.