July 30, 2008

Express yourself

Sri Lanka's success in recent times has hinged on how they have encouraged players to be themselves

If one don't get you, the other will: Murali now has a spinner for a partner and it is good to see © AFP

I know Mahela Jayawardene called the last match "the perfect Test", but there is always room for any side to get better. And that's where you have to start: whatever stage you are at in your career or in a series, you can always get better. There are always loose ends that need tidying up. And that's what Sri Lanka have been trying to do. Not to be perfect, because that's impossible, but to be excellent: as good as we possibly can be on the field. If we can do that for five consecutive days, more often than not we will walk away with victory.

Ajantha Mendis' success at the SSC is an indication of where we're headed. When you bowl or bat it is always in partnerships. Muttiah Muralitharan had Chaminda Vaas all these years, and it's great to see that he now has a spinning partner. We have had Rangana Herath in the past, who has been brilliant, but now in Ajantha we have someone who is accurate and yet has so much variation that batsmen are under as much pressure against him as they are against Murali.

Because they are watching the variation and looking out for it, sometimes playing the ball becomes secondary. That has worked in our favour. If we have those two bowling in tandem, applying pressure, cutting the runs down, bowling the good balls in the right areas, they will get wickets and Sri Lanka will be in situations from where Tests can be dominated. That's exactly what we are asking of them, and they've been great in answering the call. Let's hope that they keep doing just that in the next Test and the next and so on.

Ajantha's improvement in the next few years will depend on how successful he is in thinking the way a batsman does when facing him. When he bowls he will have to think how batsmen will come at him, what plans they have to try and counteract him. When he has that, plus the positive intent and a good work ethic, he will be difficult to face.

The first year is going to be easy for him, but the more he plays, the harder he will find it. He'll have to come up with new things, and hopefully we will have an environment that will foster that kind of growth and thinking. That's what Sri Lanka work hard at. To make sure everyone fits in where he wants to, so he can give his best.

In India's case at the SSC, it was clearly not about technique. It usually is not. Just look at the quality and depth they have as a team. It was just excellent bowling backed up by very good fielding that put the pressure on.

Also, we had another bowler at the other end who dried up the runs. That pressure builds up, and you only have to make one mistake as a batsman. You might be the best player in the world, but it only takes one good delivery. It doesn't matter what record you have if questions are being asked continually from both ends. We had two bowlers from either side making it tough almost every single delivery. Some batsmen can counterattack successfully for a while, but sustaining that is very tough.

One of the good things about our dressing room is that everyone's opinion has equal weight, irrespective of whether you've played 100 Tests or one. We appreciate individuality, and that's been the best thing to have happened to Sri Lanka in the past few years. People understand that who they are is very important in a team environment. If someone comes into the side and becomes just another player, one among the many, it doesn't do anything for us. For them to remain who they are as individuals as well as develop their cricket - that is what our team is all about. We have had great examples in Murali, Vaas, and Sanath Jayasuriya.

The key to Ajantha and his improvement in the next few years will be how successful he is in thinking the way a batsman does when facing him. The first year is going to be easy for him, but the more he plays, the harder he will find it

Take someone more recent, like Lasith Malinga: everything about his personality, even his hair, is great for us. It gives us new energy and vibrancy, and that is so positive. So are players like Chamara Kapugedera. Just having the likes of him and Chamara Silva keeps competition alive and makes others hungry.

So far, well and good, but to go to the next step Sri Lanka need to play more Test matches. We played just eight last year, compared to some other teams who played 12 or 14. That is not enough; we are hungry for more. My personal opinion is that Test cricket is the ultimate because it tests you the most. It has so many variations and depth. We have batsmen who are not getting an opportunity to try and go for records because we play less Test cricket than other teams. That's sad.

You have rivalries such as the traditional Ashes, or India against Pakistan, or more recently India versus Australia. I would love to see Sri Lanka being included in such battles. It comes down to the men who matter sitting down and strategising about how to give Sri Lanka more Tests, but crucially it is up to the players to bring in that flair, that charisma, that will turn Sri Lanka versus India, for example, into a marquee event. We all play cricket, but it's our job as sportsmen to give it our best, to make people want to come and watch us. For that, Sri Lanka definitely need to play more Tests.

The recent innuendo about next year's tour to England hasn't affected the team in any way. It is sad that such an issue cropped up in the middle of an intense series, but we have just got to focus on the cricket and on winning the next match.

Looking to Galle, we're upbeat. Everything is in order. Personally, I would like some runs! Most of the time between Tests has gone in looking after day-to-day stuff - domestic responsibilities, mainly, as well as catching up with friends and relatives after our success in Colombo. You can bet that the other players have spent time catching up on world sport. We've got a bunch of fanatics in the dressing room. Cricket, football, rugby, tennis, F1 - you name it, they'll be watching it. The bottom line is: we're all sportsmen and it's our passion. You can't get it out of us.