December 24, 2007

Get out of your comfort zone

The mindset you bring to the subcontinent influences how you play. England came expecting it to be hard and, sure enough, it was hard

Chaminda Vaas: master of the low and slow © AFP

What makes our series win against England special is that we were coming back from a disappointing series in Australia, where as a team we had failed to make any headway. To come back and prove to ourselves as well as the spectators that we were still a good side, we needed a strong performance, and we couldn't have done any better than coming back from 42 for 5 on the first morning and showing the character and the fight that we did.

The last two matches were, of course, dominated by Mahela Jayawardene, who showed a ruthless attitude towards scoring runs. He just batted and batted and did exactly the job wanted of a captain and a leading batsman.

The first day in Kandy was the only time the sides were on an equal footing. After we restricted them to a lead of less than 100 and had a hundred-run opening stand in the second innings, we became a lot more positive with our game. Once England lost the first Test, they just kept hoping to get lucky in the next two. At no point did they look like forcing a victory or forcing us to do something we didn't like. All we had to do was play sensibly and we knew we could either win or draw. England were waiting for us to make enough mistakes for them to capitalise on, and we didn't. We never felt rushed or threatened at any stage after that first morning.

It's not that England lack the quality; they have some great players in their side who have performed well for them over the years. But when you come to the subcontinent, the mindset you bring is important. It's like when we tour England or New Zealand, where the weather is cold and it rains a lot. Obviously, we don't like going out and playing in the cold, but if we go out there ready to complain and to not like or enjoy the conditions, we struggle and don't do well. The same goes for a team coming into the subcontinent. They think it's going to be hot, humid and sweaty; that the wickets will turn and that it will be hard for the fast bowlers. The mentality you take to places that are uncomfortable to you is the key to how you approach your games, how you set the tempo, and how you pick teams.

Right at that first step England went wrong. They came expecting everything to be hard, and it was hard. They never had a solid, positive mindset of doing everything they could to win a Test match. It was a case of thinking that if they got away with a drawn series, it would be fantastic; and if they lost, well that was kind of expected. This indifference never helps in the subcontinent. The conditions of different countries are there to be enjoyed. All the things that are uncomfortable should actually make a team better. That's the beauty of cricket: you are challenged not only on your skill, but also by the conditions you play in. You need to relish these challenges and want to enjoy and do well in adverse conditions. After all teams are judged by how they do away from home.

Pitches are not always dead in the subcontinent. There are those that give the fast bowlers some assistance, but the bowlers have to exploit even the slightest help off them. There is this misconception that playing in Sri Lanka is a spinner's game. Spinners are important, yes, but the key to do well here is the fast bowlers. If they can come in and chip in by taking early wickets and keeping the pressure on with variable bounce and early swing, that takes a huge amount of pressure off the spinners and allows them to attack and be creative with their bowling. Also, it allows the captain to be creative and aggressive. How well a team does depends on how well the fast bowlers do with the new ball and reverse swing.

Chaminda Vaas showed exactly that in the final Test. He is a wonderful subcontinent bowler. He knows exactly what to do and how to exploit the conditions. He has been doing it for years and has been an ideal partner for Muttiah Muralitharan because he is accurate and never lets a batsman get away. This would have been a sweet series for him because he has proved again that he is our bowling spearhead, and there is no one as yet who comes close to giving us the early breakthroughs that he does on regular basis.

Indifference never helps in the subcontinent. The conditions of different countries are there to be enjoyed. All the things that are uncomfortable should actually make a team better. That's the beauty of cricket: you are challenged not only on your skill, but also by the conditions you play in

Chanaka Welegedara did well in the final Test. He has shown a lot of promise and is a fantastic prospect. But the team, the coaching staff, and Welegedara himself need to make sure he gets stronger and fitter and more skillful as a bowler by working hard. He can always work on his bowling technique and keep improving, but to sustain that he needs to be fitter and stronger.

Just like Welegedara, Tillakaratne Dilshan too pounced on the only chance he got in the series. Dilshan is a kind of player who can do anything. He is the kind of player who has the magic touch: you give him the ball, he will do something; in the field, he got us the special run-out of Ian Bell in the last Test. By the time he goes into bat, he has already saved 30 or 40 runs. When he bats, his natural aggression, his positive attitude, and his running between the wickets completely turn the momentum towards us. Of course he might get out quickly once in a while, but he brings so much variety that he is like two or three players rolled into one. That's exactly the kind of player we need in the middle order.

Now that Sanath Jayasuriya is not in the side, we need to look for the next best openers to come in and play. Right now those men are Upul Tharanga and Michael Vandort. Our openers need to have a clear idea of what our gameplan is, what their own game is, and what areas they need to work on. Discussions between our coaches and players will bring these into light.

The team has a lot of confidence in Vandort, especially looking at how well he has done in Australia and Sri Lanka. He is a much better player than we are seeing now, and even though he is scoring runs, he is capable of scoring much more.

Tharanga is a unique player who is naturally aggressive, not a run-of-the-mill defensive opener. In these two we have a wonderful combination which to build on. Vandort has actually started becoming the quality opener that Sri Lanka has been looking for, and he will have a long future in the national side. Tharanga needs to work more and make sure he is up to whatever challenge is ahead of him, especially going into the one-day series in Australia.