July 27, 2009

Tough calls pay off

Dropping Vaas, having Dilshan keep - not all the decisions Sri Lanka made against Pakistan were universally acclaimed, but they worked in the end

When we won the second Test, and with that the series, I was at the non-striker's end. Thilan Samaraweera hit the winning runs, and I punched the air, not suppressing my happiness. It was jubilation because I knew we hadn't beaten Pakistan in a home Test series before. We all knew we hadn't.

In a statement before the series I said that we were extra focused to get this feather in our cap. We have dominated every other team in Sri Lanka, and also beaten Pakistan twice in Pakistan, but this one was missing. When I was captain, we won in the West Indies for the first time in our history, and it was a great achievement to be the first Sri Lankan team to do so. We like to grab every opportunity to create history; we all spoke about it before the series, about wanting to be the first team to beat Pakistan in Sri Lanka.

The success came because we made some crucial, bold decisions both during the series and before it. Not all of those decisions had the backing of everyone, but they worked for us. The first was perhaps the most difficult one: to not include Chaminda Vaas in the squad. It was a tough call for the selectors and for Kumar Sangakkara. But you need to make those tough calls as a leader, with regards to what combinations you require going into a tournament. The way Nuwan Kulasekara and Thilan Thushara were bowling, they were our in-form bowlers, delivering day in and day out. These calls have to be made, and people need to understand that.

The other choices we were forced to make were due to injuries to Muttiah Muralitharan and Prasanna Jayawardene. Murali's injury two days before the first match called for quick action. That was the sort of thing no side can be prepared for. Murali and Ajantha Mendis were our two spinners, and the next best spinners were both playing league cricket in England. It took us 24 hours to assess Murali's injury and whether he would be able to continue. Only after that could we bring Rangana Herath down from England.

It was a collective call. Herath is among our most experienced spinners, and he had played Test cricket recently. He had done well against Pakistan before, and we also knew in the back of our minds that Pakistan batsmen didn't play left-arm spinners that well. We saw that against New Zealand, when Daniel Vettori bowled really well against them. Same with England and Monty Panesar.

As far as Prasanna's injury goes, we got cover for him in Kaushal Silva. But we also wanted to play Angelo Mathews at No. 7 or even 6. He could bring in the extra bowling option, and he is a genuine batsman. We knew it was going to be tough for Sangakkara as captain to keep wicket and bat at No. 3. Tillakaratne Dilshan had done the job at provincial level, but to do it in Tests would be very difficult. Even the selectors didn't back the idea, but Sangakkara wanted it done and we all supported him. These days you have to think out of the box - you can't afford to be one-dimensional.

I have enjoyed this series - not having the responsibility of having to make tough decisions. I have much more free time for myself. I did enjoy cricket before too, but it's much more fun right now

Those decisions made, we went into the Test series with one of our most inexperienced attacks, a non-regular wicketkeeper, and under a new captain. We spoke about that in team meetings as well: how everybody would have to take on extra responsibility; and the young guys did just that, brilliantly.

It was pleasing to see Kulasekara, who is our No. 1 bowler in ODIs, put his hand up and say he was capable of spearheading the attack in Test cricket. Thushara helped him ably.

Everybody chipped in. After the first Test, the selectors were relieved at the brilliant job Dilshan did behind the stumps. Dilshan sums up the word allrounder: he can bowl, bat, field and keep wicket. He does everything for you.

The first Test was a tough game for Herath. He was tired, having been flown in so late. But it was a great opportunity for him to show what he was capable of. He was going to be our back-up bowler alongside Mendis, but after two Tests he was in front of Mendis in terms of performance.

It's an interesting phase for Mendis. We anticipated such a series because of the kind of start he had. Obviously a lot of batsmen and teams are going to focus more on him and how to play him. But he is enjoying the challenge; he is working very hard to be a better bowler.

The other factor of concern for us was the inconsistency of our openers. For the last two or three years we have had quite a few openers come in and go out. This time Tharanga Paranavitana showed a lot of promise. Malinda Warnapura had an up-and-down series; he was pretty consistent before. His technique is a bit orthodox when it comes to opening, but what matters is scoring runs. It's a good challenge for these guys. We would like to have a combination that is going to be there for some time. Right now it's not a huge concern, but definitely something that we are looking at. There are quite a few young guys coming through the system, which will keep these two alert.

Having Dilshan keep could come in for criticism because he fractured a finger during the third Test. It's always going to be a tough one. Injuries can happen to anybody anywhere. Murali injured his knee during fielding practice. You can't just say, "Why was he fielding?" Dilshan could have fractured his finger fielding at point too. You have to sometimes make these decisions, and our captain made this one for the good of the team.

Sangakkara has shown in his first two big tournaments that he is capable of making tough decisions at the right time. It will take him some time to really settle into the role and be very comfortable, but he is handling himself really well. He brings a new ethic to the team, a new culture. He is going to enjoy himself, and he is going to make his mark in Sri Lankan cricket history as a captain.

For me it didn't matter that I wasn't the captain. I have enjoyed this series - not having the responsibility of having to make some of the tough decisions that Sangakkara made. I am enjoying the other responsibility I have as a senior player, trying to guide younger players and helping the captain in tough situations. I have much more free time for myself. I did enjoy cricket before too, but it's much more fun right now.

Having said that, the first two Tests were not exactly fun throughout. Pakistan came hard at us. They scored hundreds in both those matches, while we had just three fifties. We always knew it was going to be tough. We knew we would have to fight and grind for each advantage. We were fighting for everything - half chances, run-outs, 20-30 runs here and there. Everybody chipped in, which was amazing. To have won the series without Murali and Vaas, beating Pakistan at home for the first time, and at the same time coming back from behind in both matches is a great achievement.

Former Sri Lanka captain Mahela Jayawardene is the country's leading Test run-scorer