`Teamwork is crucial'

Mahela Jayawardene is determined that Sri Lanka does not rely too heavily on star spinner Muttiah Muralitharan. "I like to focus not on individuals but on teamwork and guys rising to the occasion," he tells Ben Rumsby.

Every Test-playing nation has its coming of age. For England and Australia, it was the 1882 Test series that spawned the Ashes. For the West Indies, it was the victorious 1963 tour of England. And for Sri Lanka, it was the 1996 World Cup final.

Mahela Jayawardene was still at school at the time but the man leading Sri Lanka in the Caribbean will never forget 17 March 1996, the day everything changed.

"I was playing school cricket at that time," said the Sri Lanka captain, who was 18 at the time.

"I watched the whole game so it was a fantastic feeling. Well, 1996 changed Sri Lankan cricket completely. Before that, we were just considered minnows and not many people recognised the brand of cricket we were playing at that time.

"But, after the 1996 World Cup, everyone seemed to enjoy the brand of cricket Sri Lanka played.

"Even financially, things changed drastically. A lot of money came in and caused a lot of development.

"The 1996 World Cup changed cricket completely in Sri Lanka and there was a lot of interest among the community. I think that was the turning point." Sri Lanka's victory over Australia sent shockwaves across the world and it would have doubtless inspired a generation of the nation's children to pick up a bat and ball and emulate their heroes.

Jayawardene may well have been one of them had he been a little younger but he was already well on the way to becoming his country's next batting superstar and needed no extra incentive to break into a winning team. "When you're playing for your school, you always want to play for your country," he said. "That was my dream ever since I was about 10 years old. The World Cup was an amazing feeling, even though I wasn't part of that side. But I don't think it contributed to me wanting to be an international cricketer because I always wanted to play for Sri Lanka."

It did not take long for that dream to become a reality. Less than 18 months after watching Arjuna Ranatunga lift the World Cup, Jayawardene was playing under him in the Test side. And what a debut — the then 20-year-old contributing 66 runs in a world record Test innings of 952, in which Sanath Jayasuriya became the first Sri Lankan to score 300 runs in a Test innings.

Jayawardene's one-day international debut came the following January and he has not looked back since.

Now 29, he has already beaten Jayasuriya's top score for Sri Lanka and holds the world record first-class partnership of 624 with Kumar Sangakkara. Now he is trying to emulate Ranatunga at this year's World Cup in the West Indies.

It is a responsibility he was not expecting to receive until injury struck then-skipper Marvan Atapattu last year.

"It's definitely a great honour, it's a really unexpected honour as well," Jayawardene said.

"I hardly had an idea of leading the team at this World Cup but that's the opportunity that has been presented and I'm looking forward to that challenge."

So successful has the side been under Jayawardene's leadership — the highlight perhaps being last summer's 5-0 one-day whitewash of England — he has retained the captaincy despite Atapattu's return to fitness.

Jayawardene has his own ideas about how the team should play and, like his coach Tom Moody, is determined they do not rely too heavily on star spinner Muttiah Muralitharan.

"I like to focus not on individuals but on teamwork and guys rising to the occasion," he said.

"There is some good young talent coming up as well and the senior guys have a lot of responsibility as well.

"Even in the last six to 12 months, we haven't put that much pressure on Murali to perform. We know he's a class act and he does his share of work for the team but everyone else has got to contribute as well.

"I know there are key players who will come up big and deliver for us but then again I think the most important thing is we collectively perform."

Should they do that, Sri Lanka is more than capable of adding to its 1996 triumph in the Caribbean.

While that is Jayawardene's ultimate target, he is looking no further ahead than qualifying from the group phase. "The first target would be to get into the second round, then the semifinals. Then, anything can happen," he said.

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