'In my job as a referee, I watch the match as a player'
Your early days were spent in Kandy.
I was born in Kandy. My father was a career public servant. Most of them end up in Colombo when they move on in their job. So did he. I moved to Colombo when I was about 12. I had my formative education at Trinity College, Kandy, and then completed my education in Colombo at the Royal College.
What brought you to cricket?
I grew up in a household where there was always a ball around. So if it was not cricket, it would have been rugby, tennis or table tennis.
What was cricket in the 1970s like in Sri Lanka?
Cricket in the 1970s was still very amateurish. We always had the advantage of having a very good school system. We didn't have a first-class structure, but things started to change from the late 1970s and early-1980s.
What is your memory from your first World Cup, in 1979?
We had to qualify as an Associate member to get into the main draw. We were at a distinct disadvantage because we had to give a walkover to Israel. I think one game was also washed off. We had to win every game from that point. It was early May and the conditions were not conducive. For me, as a schoolboy, playing for the national side was a real experience as we were playing on pitches that were so very different to what I was used to. It was very cold too [in England]. It was a sheer team effort that got us through to win the ICC Trophy, which got us into the main draw.
What was life like as an international cricketer touring abroad?
It was a quantum leap in terms of cricketing experience, but it was also learning about life and people. We were trained to study and work. Suddenly we were thrown in a work environment which was sport. We were up against absolute professionals. So that adjustment was quite tough. We had a balanced life, we didn't have too much pressure. We looked to perform in the best way we could without having great expectations. We always had that bedrock of stability if things didn't fall right.
Do you remember the days leading up to Sri Lanka's inaugural Test match?
It was an absolute blur. We played practice games and three-day games against England, and then the next thing you do is play Test cricket. It may sound hilarious now but the first Test match I ever saw was the first Test match I played in. We didn't have TV or live coverage, so it was all [radio] commentary in the good old days. This was our background - very different from what the modern Sri Lankan cricketer would really see. I remember the board president of that time, Mr Gamini Dissanayake, a man of great vision, told us that our role was to ensure that we set a good foundation for the next generation of cricketers. He put simple objectives in place so that we never got too ahead of ourselves.
Is there one thing that you remember about that Test?
I will always remember the quality of bowling in that Test match. You had Bob Willis, Ian Botham, Paul Allott, John Emburey and Derek Underwood. It was relentless pressure. You could always get a loose ball every over in club cricket, but at this level you would be lucky to get one in three overs. It is the first memory I have.
What is the biggest highlight of your playing career?
Our first Test win was the highlight that supersedes everything. I think we took 13 Tests to win our first Test match, which was against India
What was it like being the captain of Sri Lanka?
It is anyone's dream to play for the country, let alone captain. I was quite honoured, but I was caught in the transition phase and captained two Tests in two years. I was gainfully employed at that time, so it was easy to switch off from cricket at the age of 29 and focus on a corporate life.
You were playing the best fast bowlers in the world and then you moved to a desk job. Was that transition jarring?
I had always worked from the age of 20. We were semi-professionals, so you had to have a job. So this was not too much of a challenge, but I missed the intensity of competition the most. I could work till 6pm and still have lots of energy left. I realised that it was the intensity. I used to work on rest days during Test matches in the good old days. It was simply to take my mind off and to look at the game differently.
What do you remember about Arjuna Ranatunga and Aravinda de Silva in the early days?
I know both of them very well. Arjuna is a good friend. We played the first Test together. He is a great personality and Sri Lanka cricket owes a lot to him for bringing that sense of steeliness and self-belief.
I have never met anyone as talented as Aravinda at the age of 15. We played for the same club. He used to make batting so simple. It was a delight to share dressing rooms as team-mates. We still maintain that friendship because I believe it is important to take memories of people as human beings rather than the cut shots or cover drives that they played.
In 1993 you became a match referee. What prompted you to take the job?
It wasn't anything I wanted to do. I was still working. I got a call from the cricket board about nominations as referees. The ICC used to just pick randomly from the board's nominations. I thought I had the cricketing experience and a corporate background. I found it interesting. I scheduled my annual leave after the ICC found a slot for me in 1993, in Pakistan. It was something that they were trying. I was just in the right place.
What were the early days like?
We were just pioneering a concept, so people didn't know who a referee was. The idea was to establish the concept. I remember in one Test match they didn't have a room for the referee. When I said we need a room for the referee and the third umpire, they said, "For what?" In the first days of that Test match, I operated from the stairway of the ground with the third umpire. Life has moved on so much from there.
How much has it changed?
It is unrecognisable. The referee, along with the four umpires, are called the playing control team. In effect, the third team in any international match. It is an accepted, integral part of any international match.
Ahead of major games, like an Ashes Test or an India-Pakistan game, do you feel the nerves?
I have butterflies ahead of any game. I prepare for every match as if it is my first match. Lots of things could go to chance. It may not be the right decision, but it shouldn't be because of lack of preparation. This has really been my work ethic.
How did becoming the chief match referee in 2001 change your role?
The basic role of the chief match referee is to head the group of match referees. I am also an international umpires' selector and a member of the ICC's cricket committee. My core role remains as referee.
Does your personality come through when faced with a volatile situation - like the crowd trouble in Karachi in 1997 or the forfeit at The Oval in 2006?
This is why I say: preparation is key. You cover all bases. Your job is to ensure that the game goes on, so what measures you take are actually veered towards that end objective. But there are some things management manuals don't tell you how to do, and that's where trust with players and officials comes in. If they feel that you are doing it for the best interests of the game, they are more likely to listen to you. As opposed to you trying to force it down. There are occasions where you need to have a different way of doing it. Your personality does come through then. But I think what's most important is to be flexible but to do what is in the best interest of the game.
What is a typical day like for a match referee ahead of and during a game?
It starts a couple of days [before the match] - in fact, many more. You get background information and get into the logistics of what we need to do. Brushing up on the laws and the playing conditions and meeting with your group. Also making sure I do my job, which is to run the game according to the laws, the playing conditions and with the spirit it is intended to be played.
Do we think we are ready to go back to home umpires?
The consensus among international umpires is that they are comfortable as it is now. The primary concept of bias has been taken off.
MCG or Lord's - your preference?
Both are great in their own sense. I think certain grounds have unique values and traditions. Some may appeal to you for history, or they are scenic. Some may be just lucky for you. I like Cape Town, Sydney and Kolkata as well.
How about in Sri Lanka?
Although it is my rival club, I like the SSC. It was a good ground and the conditions favoured the batsmen. You could always visit, score runs and come back.
Is there a law you think many players are not aware of?
I don't think the players know much of the 42 laws, which was the case with me when I was a player. Everyone expects people to know Law 43 - which is common sense. That's also missing sometimes.
What do you unwind after a game? Any ice baths for match officials?
I think sometimes you need to put your head in an ice bath. It gets cluttered so much. But we tend to unwind differently.
Which day would you say was your most challenging as a match referee?
To course-correct something that is not right and put it back on the right track. It could be from security to player management to lifting the umpires' morale. Even getting your own game in order, that's what is challenging.
Any game in particular that tested you a great deal?
Karachi  really tested me because I was between the devil and the deep blue sea due to a crowd disturbance. The spectators got really agitated over some issues. I could see myself on a flight to Colombo with the stadium on fire. It was that bad.
What did you do to fix the situation?
Just the fact that Sachin [Tendulkar] and some of the Indian players trusted my judgement to stay on the field and resolve the issues with the security personnel.
Do you know how many matches you've officiated in?
An umpire asked me yesterday and I told him that the only number I know is No. 5, which is my cap number for Sri Lanka.
I think it is more than 500 internationals, and that's what most people don't realise. It has been a lot.
Does the job tire you?
Travel is tiring. When I do my job as a referee, I never look at it from the eye of a referee. I watch the match as a player, which is what I am primarily. When you do that, you see the technical side, the plots and the subplots. While doing so, you might see something that you need to do as a referee. But if I look at it the other way, I miss all the great activity that is taking place. This is what I tell young referees to do always.
Do you have to be focused on every ball of a match?
Most of the time. I can see the replay, but I try to watch every ball.
Do you think cricket should have more technology?
I don't think we will go backwards from here. Technology is improving by the day. If at all, we will move forward. Lots of other sports have followed cricket. There are so many variables in cricket that there will always be debate. Technology has advanced so much. Decisions that were not out ten years ago are out now.
Is there any training that you undergo to spot what could be a corrupt practice on the field?
We are trained by the anti-corruption unit about the dos and don'ts. They are the experts at the ground. If they have anything to do with the technical side, they get in touch with us. So we are trained but we may not have the clinical eye for it. Between them and us and a few others, we can put the jigsaw together.
What would you like to your legacy to be?
I look at it in the form of having done my job to the best of my ability. In that process if I have left the game better, I will sleep well. I will always look at it as an absolute privilege to be part of a great game, first as a spectator, secondly as a player, for five years as a national selector, then for a short period as a commentator, and quite a bit as a referee. I think I have been lucky to see the game evolve from the 1970s till now. In the process, I have made friends on and off the field, which I value and treasure.
Mohammad Isam is ESPNcricinfo's Bangladesh correspondent. @isam84