August 9, 2006

Sri Lanka's mental revolution

Sri Lanka's recent past reflects a paradigm shift for the better
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Mahela Jayawardene: the epitome of an evolving Sri Lankan side © Getty Images

At the close of the third day's play in the second Test in Colombo, one of Test cricket's classic matches, the most common conclusion was South Africa held a clear upper-hand with a lead touching 300 and three wickets in the bag. Only once in a 164-match history had Sri Lanka successfully chased such a total. But when asked about his team's position, Mahela Jayawardene announced himself "very happy". Journalists are used to cricketers talking nonsense, but Jayawardene spoke with such calm conviction that you started reassessing your own assessment (or pessimism).

Then after the match, following a sublime century, he said this: "Everyone is learning and everyone knows that if you put your mind and belief in the group of the players that we have got then we can do a lot of things that people have not seen before." In one simple sentence it summed what is different about this Sri Lanka side, a team that has gelled as a unit and grown immeasurably in self-belief during recent months. The self-imposed boundaries have been removed. They are no longer constrained by history or by expert opinion. The word "can't", that dreadful word that springs from fear, has been banished.

In the old days Sri Lanka rarely won tight matches. They crumbled when the game was for the taking, succumbing to the pressure, allowing fear to cripple their cricket. The past is littered with closely-fought Test matches that they could have won: South Africa at Kandy in 2000; England at Kandy and the Sinhalse Sports Club in 2001; India at Kandy in the same year; Australia at Kandy in 2004 - to name a few. The matches that were won tended to be by a landslide margin, victories secured by huge first innings scores and the wiles of Muttiah Muralitharan.

The same problem blighted their cricket overseas. History said they travelled poorly and the truth is that, more often then not, many players expected to lose overseas. Unsurprisingly, they then did lose, often with embarrassing ease, reaffirming the stereotype: tigers at home, pussy cats away. Coaches came and coaches went, they all tried to tackle this belief deficit but there is no magic potion as changing mindsets takes time. But, right now, one senses that the work of Dav Whatmore, John Dyson and Tom Moody is starting to bear real fruit. You can see and feel the difference.

It would be wrong to heap all laurels on Moody and Jayawardene because this has been a long process. Sri Lanka's mental revolution has been evolutionary, slowly sinking into the psyche of the players and becoming ingrained. But the partnership of Moody and Jayawardene has clearly reaped huge dividends. Confidence has snowballed since the Lord's Test back in June, most important drawn Test in the history of Sri Lankan cricket. That match was a pivotal moment, a time when the team realised they could script their own history. Ever since, they have been growing as cricketers.

At the centre of this has been a return to Sri Lanka's cricketing roots, an acceptance that the island's natural flair is it's greatest strength. Sri Lanka should not play the game like Australia or England or India, it must play the game like Sri Lanka. Watch cricket on the streets, beaches and coconut groves and one thing smacks you straight in the eyes - sometimes, literally even - the attack. Batsmen hit, spinners rip, fast bowlers stretch every sinew in their body. There is no holding back. This approach won the World Cup and this approach has been re-introduced by Moody and Jayawardene.



Sri Lanka now has a team that has discovered a brand of positive cricket that is working © Getty Images

The new mantra is "playing your natural game" and being "positive". You hear it nearly every press conference and you see it on the field. Sri Lanka had five sessions to win this Test match, oodles of time, but Jayawardene said this afterwards: "If we had wanted them to hang around for five sessions I don't think we would have lasted three." So, after an early wicket, Kumar Sangakkara did not patiently accumulate singles on the leg-side, he puffed out his chest, drew a deep breath, calculated his best odds and the greatest risks, and smashed Dale Steyn out of the attack.

Sri Lanka's run chase at the P. Saravanamuttu Stadium was a masterful mixture of attack and defence. It was intelligent and calculated. Risks were carefully assessed. Weak links, such as in England when a concerted attempt was made to break the confidence of fragile bowlers, were targeted. But the aim was to play with natural flair and aggressively hunt out run-scoring opportunities. Jayawardene was the star performer but so many others contributed, all prepared to play their strokes when the opportunity arose.

Sri Lanka now has a team that has discovered a brand of positive cricket that is working. The players, including the ones that Jayawardene always praises for "doing the dirty work", have discovered that believing in yourself and the ability of your team-mates really is enlightening, opening up doors that would otherwise remain shut. This paradigm shift in the Sri Lanka team offers huge hope for the future. As Moody rightly says, there will always be slip-ups along the way, but if the team remains on this path, playing this brand of cricket, then the future is bright.

Charlie Austin is Cricinfo's Sri Lankan correspondent