January 2, 2009

'I've tried to do the best for my country'

Mahela Jayawardene plays his 100th Test on Saturday. He talks about his journey that has seen him become much more than just a seasoned Test cricketer

"The first hundred gave me a lot of confidence and, because it came so early in my career, it helped me kickstart it" © Getty Images

What does playing 100 Tests mean to you?

As a cricketer obviously it's a huge achievement, and I am very pleased with it. More importantly I am very proud to have played for my country. That's the most important thing. Not many players get the opportunity to play for their country, and then go on to play 100 Tests. We have got a very rich tradition in cricket. To be part of that is amazing.

At what point did you start thinking - if indeed you did -that you could play 100 Tests?

Cricket is a funny game, you can't predict anything. I have been fortunate that I haven't had any serious injuries and have been able to play consistently for quite some time. In a way I have been quite lucky, and at the same time my form has been pretty good. You need a lot of those things going your way to achieve this. When you start playing, you don't actually set yourself targets of playing for so many years.

One hundred Tests come much easier nowadays, but it still is a long journey. There must have been many tough periods?

When I started with a bang, getting so many runs, there were a lot of expectations that I would carry on with that. Cricket is funny, you turn a corner and all of a sudden you go through a rough period. A lot of people put you down so quickly but I have learnt that it's all part of the game. When you start scoring again, everyone starts praising you. That's a cycle you go through in your career - and when you play 100 Tests matches, you've probably gone through the cycle quite a few times.

Any such spells you feel especially proud of having come through?

The first one I had was the 2003 World Cup. I was dropped even though it was a one-day series. The next series we had was against New Zealand at home. I had to play a warm-up game against the New Zealanders, where I got a hundred. It's always good for me to play Test cricket after a bad run because I get to spend time in the middle and assess my batting, see what I have to do to get back to my basics.

Your first Test hundred was 167 against New Zealand on a rank turner, with the next best score in the 30s. What do you remember of that innings?

A moment of great relief. No matter how many hundreds you may have scored at first-class level - which I had done - that first international hundred gives you so much confidence. And once you do it, you then know how to do it over and over again. That first hundred gave me a lot of confidence and, because it came so early in my career, it helped me kickstart it. Especially under those conditions, and for us to win the Test and go on to win the series.

That ODI century in Adelaide against England. Did what happened with Murali [he was called during that match] give you extra determination then?

Not really. I was not part of the tour initially - Aravinda [de Silva] got injured, and then I was called and straightaway put in to play the tournament. I was very disappointed [when dropped] because I was getting so many runs back home. But when I was given the opportunity, not just that particular innings, I was determined to do well that whole tour to prove a point. And I think that helped me quite a bit. And what happened in Adelaide probably distracted a lot of people from their job and helped me to just concentrate and go ahead and do what I had to do.

Something I have learned when you are not scoring runs is you try to get quick runs when you go to bat. That could be the downfall because you are not paying attention to details. I try to get back to basics and say 'let's handle one ball at a time'. To do it out in the middle is not easy, though, in a difficult situation

Do you think that innings announced you to the world?

In the international arena, especially in Australia, for me to get a hundred in a crucial game and to win a match, people do tend to look at you in a different way. For me it was just another game. I reckon that first hundred against New Zealand in Galle was one of my best, if not the best. Because of the conditions, and the situation that we were in. But because I got that hundred in Australia, in that atmosphere, it's possible that people started looking at me in a different manner.

You came out of a slump in 2005 with 94 not out in a chase of 22 against India in the Dambulla Test. What is the mindset when going through such phases? Is it easy to forget that you have the necessary class?

Something I have learned when you are not scoring runs is you try to get quick runs when you go to bat. That could be the downfall because you are not paying attention to details. I try to get back to basics and say 'let's handle one ball at a time'. To do it out in the middle is not easy, though, in a difficult situation. Especially, as a batsman, you need one good ball or make one mistake to get out. I have tried to do the little things, tried not to concentrate on the bigger picture; sometimes it comes off, sometimes it doesn't. You just have to hang in there, trust your instinct and believe in your ability.

Do you speak to former players or coaches when going through bad phases?

Sometimes I tend to, but it's your inner demons, isn't it? You should challenge yourself to come out of it. I am not saying you shouldn't be talking to coaches and other people. But even with all these ideas and whatever they have to say, it is you who has to go out and do it. You shouldn't confuse yourself too much with many different things. If you are playing at the international level, obviously you have got the ability and the talent. You have to fight your challenges in your own way. Once you do that, you remember how you came out of it. In the future when you go back to situations like that, it's much easier for you to come out of it.

Lord's 2006. A century knowing the best you could do was save the Test. Being a natural run-scorer, how difficult was it?

That was a tough one. I didn't know what to do when I went in to bat, whether to play my normal game or whether to just try and survive. In that innings, I handled different situations differently. When the runs were coming, I went for it. When they dried up, I closed shop and waited for my opportunities. What helped me in that innings were the guys batting at the other end. They were doing different things, and I batted along, built partnerships with them without thinking about whether we need to save the match. It never occurred to us whether we could save the match or how long we had to bat, until the last two sessions.

"That [triple-century] probably was one of my best innings mentally, where I played not just with the talent but was much tougher mentally" © Getty Images

Does it - or did it - rankle that you couldn't get the record [highest Test score] against South Africa?

It doesn't. Ideally you should be satisfied with what you have got. I was very pleased with how I played that innings. That probably was one of my best innings mentally, where I played not just with the talent but was much tougher mentally. To bat for that period of time and never give a single chance - not even a half chance…when you go through all that you have to be very pleased. To have batted 12 or 14 hours, and to score that many runs. I know it's disappointing to not get the record, but at the end of the day you know you have done something special.

What goes into such a long innings, apart from the obvious talent?

Concentration and discipline. It's hard for me to explain, but once you get into that situation, and once you are focused in your own world, you get into a groove and continue to do that. If you hold on to that for a period of time, it becomes easier for you to control the situation. It's tough to explain, but once you are in the zone you carry on.

This zone that you talk about. How often have you felt that?

At different times you feel you are there. But sometimes you make a mistake, in concentration or shot selection. Every innings you get into that zone, that's what batsmen try to do. It's not the same zone each and every time. Sometimes it doesn't feel comfortable but at the same time it's a different zone and you do things differently. Whatever works for you that day, because the situations you will be in will demand that you change your game into different forms, play with aggression, play with different rhythms. It's the same zone but then you handle it in a different way.

When you came on, you were seen as a replacement for Aravinda. What kind of pressure did it bring?

I have always said I won't be able to replace Aravinda. And I have never replaced him. Aravinda is Aravinda. With the amount of talent he had, I wish he had the same facilities and the same environment to play. I'm sure his record would have been much better. With the situation that he was in, and the way things were, he handled everything brilliantly. Sri Lanka cricket was nowhere when those guys were playing. They were not given enough opportunities and facilities to improve their game but he found a different level altogether under all those circumstances. That's the greatness of a cricketer and you won't be able to replace that. I have tried to do the best for my country, and that's it.

What were the technical influences on you while growing up?

For me it was all about trying to be myself. I have had a way of playing, and at a young age people tried to change that. Even at international level, people wanted to change the way I batted. I didn't want to do that, and that was the key to it. Sometimes I was casual, sometimes I was playing shots and getting out and everyone was criticising me. Waste of talent. But that's me, that's who I am. It has brought me success, and at the same time I have made mistakes, and learned from them. But you have to be yourself. That's something I have always believed, and that has helped me to be who I am now.

An average of 66 at home, and 39 away. Seventeen centuries at home, seven away. Does that concern you?

Not really. A hundred is a hundred. Obviously you have to score runs at home, because you've grown up in those conditions. Away from home, you tend to make mistakes while getting using to the conditions. At the start, perhaps I wasn't adjusting properly. But right now I am doing pretty well. I think I understand my game, and I am adapting to those conditions quite well. It comes with maturity, which comes with more matches and gaining experience. I am quite happy with what I have achieved. Thirty-nine away from home is not so bad.

Jayawardene averages 66 at home and 39 away © AFP

Who are the toughest bowlers you have faced?

There are a lot of bowlers who have challenged me mentally and physically as well. You always get challenges, and I love it, it's brilliant. I didn't play Wasim [Akram] at his peak in terms of his pace, but as a cricketer who understood everything about a batsman and found it quite difficult to handle him as a youngster. Bowlers are a fascinating thing: on their day any bowler can be a handful. How you analyse is the way they think you out. If they can do that, those are the tougher ones to handle.

Which batsman would you pay to watch?

I love watching cricket, and it's difficult to say this and that. Every batsman has his unique ways. I love those situations. The way Steve Waugh handles certain things, the way Brian Lara comes in and does his own thing, how methodical Sachin could be at certain times, how Aravinda used to do it, how Sanath destroys the confidence of the bowlers from the word go, how Kallis goes out and does his own thing. It's unique to see all that, how Dravid stubbornly blocks everything out and controls the innings. Every batsman has his unique way of doing things, and that's what you need to admire apart from the talent they possess, and that's fascinating.

What has been your proudest moment in these long years?

The proudest moment was to play my first Test match. That's anyone's dream.

Sidharth Monga is a staff writer at Cricinfo