Sanath Jayasuriya December 26, 2009

'Winning for Sri Lanka is what I enjoy the most'

Twenty years into an extraordinary international career, Sanath Jayasuriya looks back at his humble beginnings and the people who made his rise possible

You made your international debut in the same ODI as Mark Taylor and Taylor retired 10 years ago. How have you kept going?
I retired from Test cricket recently to play ODIs a little bit longer. I have always enjoyed my cricket. I'm still enjoying it and I've worked hard on it. And I still want to perform. The sad thing is, I don't know whether the Sri Lankan cricket board is even aware that I'm completing 20 years today!

Where do you get your hunger to perform?
That has come naturally. I know how hard it was for me to come into the Sri Lankan side. I was just a normal person, coming from a poor background. We did not have anything. I know how hard that life was. So once I started to play for the country, I understood I had to work harder and play longer. I never had anything to play with when I started cricket in school. I never thought I would play for Sri Lanka. I had never heard about any cricketer who had come from a village like mine, Matara.

My mother was very strict when I was starting seriously with cricket because we couldn't afford anything. My father was the only breadwinner then - he worked as a health supervisor in the town's urban council. So it was a very tough life for me and my elder brother Chandana. But our school principal, GL Galappathi, was very supportive and he encouraged and pushed me to play cricket and even convinced my parents to allow me to chase my dreams.

I started at Under-11 and moved up the ladder. Luckily I was selected for the U-19 World Cup in Australia and that's when I was noticed.

Exactly how difficult was it?
I had to travel to Colombo and back, which took at least four hours by bus one way. I would get back only at midnight. But that is where I cultivated that hunger to play hard, to perform, to stay fit. I cannot relax even now. Since I was coming from outside the Colombo circle, the only way to break through into the Sri Lanka set-up was to be an outstanding performer.

When I was going to the U-19 World Cup, all the boys at the school collected funds and gave it to me as pocket money. I can never forget that gesture.

My mother, Breeda, was the main pillar of the household. She pushed all the men in the family and instilled in us the belief that if we worked hard, we could achieve anything. That helped me a lot.

When I came back from the U-19 World Cup, my school - and later U-11 - coach Lionel Wagasinghe helped me get a small job at the company he was working in. It was a company manufacturing corrugated cartons and I worked there for two years.

In the early part of your career which do you think was the innings that announced your arrival?
It came during the Sri Lanka B tour of Pakistan in 1989, where I started off with a century followed by consecutive double-hundreds in the second half of the series.

Who were the people that influenced your life and career?
One of the two people I can never forget was Mr Dafter, who was a neighbour in Matara. From 1989 to 1997 he allowed me to stay in a spare room in his house [in Colombo]. He and his wife were like my foster parents.

The other was his friend Lalit Wanagasinghe. Those guys always pushed me and believed I would one day play for Sri Lanka. Coming from a small town to a big city like Colombo, one could easily lose one's way, but these two took good care of me and always gave me good advice. They would come and watch me play, and discuss cricket at the house later in the night. For the last 20 years, both of them have always picked me up from the house and escorted me to the Sri Lankan cricket board office each time I've gone there before every tour.

I learned a lot from Roshan Mahanama. He was a very neat guy whose house was always in order. That helped me a lot when I started my international cricket. I guess it taught me a thing or two about discipline.

"By the time we finished the 1995-96 tour of Australia, we were a real strong unit. We supported each other, we wanted everybody to do well. And then we won the World Cup. After that we started getting more opportunities to play international cricket"

Then there were the Ranatunga brothers, Arjuna and Sanjeeva. They took good care of me by offering me a place to stay in their house before I moved in with Mr Dafter. The Ranatunga family always took good care of outstation players and many have been thankful for their generosity.

Do you remember the moment when you got your first call-up into the Sri Lankan team?
I was in the house with Mr Dafter. The selectors were picking the squad for the 1989-90 series in Australia. I knew they were meeting at eight in the morning, and I was restless. Finally, at one in the afternoon, Mr KM Nelson, then the secretary of the board, called to say I had been picked. I could not believe it. Since it was going to be a long tour, the general thought was two wicketkeepers would be picked, but they had decided to go with one specialist, with Hashan [Tillkaratne] as the makeshift keeper in case there was need, opening up a slot for me.

You were a lower-order batsman when you came into the team. But then you started opening in the mid-90s. How did that come about?
The decision was taken by the team management: our coach Dav Whatmore, Arjuna, Aravinda de Silva, and Duleep Mendis, the team's manager.

The idea was to play the first 15 overs as the last 15. Till then I was batting at No. 6 or 7, where I couldn't do much, especially as I went in to bat around the 40-45 overs mark. I felt I was being wasted. So Arjuna said that I should open as Roshan [Mahanama] was injured during the first three ODIs of the 1994 home series against Pakistan. It was a successful move. I got three fifties in a row in those three matches.

A year later I started opening with Kalu [Romesh Kaluwitharana] in Australia. He, too, had by then got promoted and both of us gelled instantly.

How big a role did Kaluwitharana play in your success as an opener?
He played a big role. When he got going, he made things easier for me at the other end. He could hit the ball very hard, played all the shots. He was really talented and made batting look easy. He was as confident as me. I remember he failed for 20 innings once, but Arjuna gave him the chance, knowing he was a match-winner.

That Australia series in 1995-96 proved to be a turning point for you.
Yes. I got runs as an opener and also started to open in Tests. I also scored my first Test hundred [in Adelaide]. I was really happy to get a century against such a good bowling attack, which included Shane Warne. It was scored under pressure against one of the best Test teams in the world. When you do that you get a nice feeling in your system.

That tour also changed Sri Lankan cricket, didn't it?
It was a turning point. There was that whole chucking controversy about Murali, which we fought through the tour; but at the same time we did well. By the time we had finished that tour we were a real strong unit - and this was on the eve of the 1996 World Cup. We supported each other, we wanted everybody to do well. And then we won the World Cup. After that we started getting more opportunities to play international cricket. I remember we played something like 11 Test matches that year [1997] and I scored more than 1000 runs. It was a unique moment in our cricketing history.

All that Arjuna said was: We'll have to do well, we'll have to work hard, whatever happens. He backed Murali wholeheartedly, to the brink. He even risked suspension at one point. When we saw that, it gave us confidence. And we never looked back.

Did you need to change your technique to play as an opener?
I don't have the best technique as an opener, but I have worked really hard for 11-12 years. In those years the regular openers, like Marvan [Atapattu], were technically correct. But I understood clearly that I was an attacking batsman, so my role was different even as an opener.

It must have been helpful to have the support of Arjuna and Whatmore?
Sri Lanka became a professional unit only after Whatmore came. Alex Kontouris, the physio, was another man who brought in a big and immediate change, because he put in place a system for training and physical fitness.

Dav would pay individual attention, talk to the player and give him confidence. Naturally we fell into the professional way of thinking steadily. He always encouraged us to play our own game. "If you see the first ball for four, just hit it. Don't worry about anything, we'll back you."

Arjuna would tell me not to worry even if I got out on the first ball, or be afraid of getting dropped. That is the most important thing for a captain to do, to encourage a player. If he doesn't give the player the confidence, he will be in two minds.

To cite an example: I am going through a lean patch right now. If Arjuna was the captain he would have given me confidence. He understood I am an attacking player and so there is always a chance of failing. If the player doesn't find support, he will find it difficult to perform. It is important for the management to give the player that confidence.

Give us an example of a time when you were failing and Arjuna backed you.
On the 1998 tour of England I was miserable and was consistently failing. But even before the only Test, at The Oval, Arjuna still had faith in me. I scored a double-hundred, which was a match-winning performance. He knew I could perform on the big occasion.

You are 40 now. What keeps you going?
I don't want to prove anything. The only thing that I want to prove is: if I can win a match for Sri Lanka, that is what I enjoy the most. Every time I play a match I want to give my 110%. I might get dropped tomorrow, I might not play the next tournament, but I will work hard, train hard, and I'll show them with the bat and ball. There is no point talking, no point criticising anyone.

Tomorrow, in part two of the interview, Jayasuriya talks about the 1996 World Cup, Murali, captains, coaches, rivals and more

Read part two of the interview here

Nagraj Gollapudi is an assistant editor at Cricinfo

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • sean on December 27, 2009, 10:55 GMT

    Exactly chandau. That exactly what Ganguly did with sehwag. After a few matches ganguly gave a promise to sehwag doesnt matter what that he will be playing in the next 30 matches. You can clearly see sanath is scared, he knows he will be dropped if he fails onece, in a position like this he cant play his natural game.

  • chandana on December 27, 2009, 7:03 GMT

    cranaweera on (December 26 2009, 10:34 AM GMT) Chandau: The bottom line is this. 40+ is not the time to be building confidence. If you are in the team at that age, you should be brimming with confidence. If not, it is entirely justified to give the place to a youngster. Mate confidence is a 2 way street. no matter how confident one is if ur skipper does not feel the same way. Problem with Sanga is he lacks capacity to captain. Dont take my word for it, try speaking to some past captains (if u can), whom i dont want to name. Look at the number of guys under performing, Murali, Mendis, Malinga, Mahela, Sam, Sanath, Kapu!! Even Dilly is weighed down by expectation of a whole team. Point 1: to build confidence is say Sanath plays the next 10 no matter what. Then start writing. If Arjuna did not have such confidence in his 15 we would have never won a world cup. If u have watched or read about it, go look at the team that played from '95 onwards. There was hardly a change to playin 11!!

  • Sidhanta on December 27, 2009, 2:45 GMT

    Inspiring to read. Motivates anyone who comes from a small city, irrespective of which profession (s)he is into.

  • Naveed on December 27, 2009, 1:33 GMT

    Yes Sanath, hope you keep on playing. Great to see you still going strong. Enjoyed many a knock from you and your friends in the Sri Lankan team. You have performed at the highest level, against some of the best bowlers in the modern game. Good luck.

  • Dinesh on December 27, 2009, 0:22 GMT

    Dearest Sanath Aiya No more to talk. Check here all the comments. All the fans with you. Go head strongly. You are the hero.

  • vijay on December 26, 2009, 22:22 GMT

    Jayasurya, we grew up watching you. As some one said you are the most humble cricketer ever produced. Next to Sachin you are my idol. The thing about you is never ever you show any pressure or any disliking on your face. That is amazing for some one who played 20 years of cricket. How can you be like that? Really amazing and also Srilankan cricket is different in a way that everyone focusses more on the game and every one of you have determination. I hope once you call quits to this game you will come up with a great coaching camp where our kids can learn a ton from you. Please share any details about your future plans--All the best.

  • Philip on December 26, 2009, 22:21 GMT

    The one thing that always stands out for me about Sanath, is his humility. He has never forgotten his roots. The hallmark of a great human being is his humility. What wonderful experience of witnessing power hitting at the beginning of an innings. Sanath and Kalu changed the concept of one day cricket in turning it head over heels in batting the first 15 as the last fifteen. Who can forget the 1996 world cup. I can literally still see the Phi De Freitas being hammered for a six above the commentators box 4 floors high and about 25 yard away from the long on boundry... Gret contribution to international cricket and greater for the sri lankan cricket. Your batting will be remembered and talked about for years and years to come. Philip Gnana, New Malden Surrey

  • Abhijeet on December 26, 2009, 21:09 GMT

    Sanath is a treat to watch. It's a pity that the SL board may not even be aware that this warhorse has been playing for 20 years. The sadness with which he states this in the interview can be easily gauged.

    He has had to face numerous critisms like an opener with less than impressive technique, someone who can only hit through the line only on flat subcontinent wickets, can't handle the bouncing ball on fast Australian wickets etc.

    Sanath may not be a Sachin but then you dont necessarily have to be a Sachin to be admired. The determination, the work ethics, the clean image, the attitude to put team interests first always and 20 years of non-stop service are more than enough reasons to command respect and admiration.

    I hope the SL Board realises the services of this silent workhorse of their cricket team.

    Sanath deserves a huge round of applaud and accolades.

  • lokesh on December 26, 2009, 20:16 GMT

    Congrats! Sanath you are great representative for criket man.I love your passion towards game. I really admire your transformation from lower order batsman to opening batsman.After sachin you are the only player to giving your still 100% effort for 20yrs that's really great. I hope you will continue till 2011 world cup and give us good memories. Finishing your carrer on a high note. Best of luck for ur carrer and ur family.

  • sopaka on December 26, 2009, 18:38 GMT

    Instead of praising Sanath for his achievements, some of us have got carried away and made this a battle between Sanath and Sanga. I admire Sanga's batting but have a very different opinion on his Captancy and conduct as a Captain, but hey! can we please do it on another thread without spoiling Sana's party?

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