'Winning for Sri Lanka is what I enjoy the most'
You made your international debut in the same ODI as Mark Taylor and Taylor retired 10 years ago. How have you kept going?
I retired from Test cricket recently to play ODIs a little bit longer. I have always enjoyed my cricket. I'm still enjoying it and I've worked hard on it. And I still want to perform. The sad thing is, I don't know whether the Sri Lankan cricket board is even aware that I'm completing 20 years today!
Where do you get your hunger to perform?
That has come naturally. I know how hard it was for me to come into the Sri Lankan side. I was just a normal person, coming from a poor background. We did not have anything. I know how hard that life was. So once I started to play for the country, I understood I had to work harder and play longer. I never had anything to play with when I started cricket in school. I never thought I would play for Sri Lanka. I had never heard about any cricketer who had come from a village like mine, Matara.
My mother was very strict when I was starting seriously with cricket because we couldn't afford anything. My father was the only breadwinner then - he worked as a health supervisor in the town's urban council. So it was a very tough life for me and my elder brother Chandana. But our school principal, GL Galappathi, was very supportive and he encouraged and pushed me to play cricket and even convinced my parents to allow me to chase my dreams.
I started at Under-11 and moved up the ladder. Luckily I was selected for the U-19 World Cup in Australia and that's when I was noticed.
Exactly how difficult was it?
I had to travel to Colombo and back, which took at least four hours by bus one way. I would get back only at midnight. But that is where I cultivated that hunger to play hard, to perform, to stay fit. I cannot relax even now. Since I was coming from outside the Colombo circle, the only way to break through into the Sri Lanka set-up was to be an outstanding performer.
When I was going to the U-19 World Cup, all the boys at the school collected funds and gave it to me as pocket money. I can never forget that gesture.
My mother, Breeda, was the main pillar of the household. She pushed all the men in the family and instilled in us the belief that if we worked hard, we could achieve anything. That helped me a lot.
When I came back from the U-19 World Cup, my school - and later U-11 - coach Lionel Wagasinghe helped me get a small job at the company he was working in. It was a company manufacturing corrugated cartons and I worked there for two years.
In the early part of your career which do you think was the innings that announced your arrival?
It came during the Sri Lanka B tour of Pakistan in 1989, where I started off with a century followed by consecutive double-hundreds in the second half of the series.
Who were the people that influenced your life and career?
One of the two people I can never forget was Mr Dafter, who was a neighbour in Matara. From 1989 to 1997 he allowed me to stay in a spare room in his house [in Colombo]. He and his wife were like my foster parents.
The other was his friend Lalit Wanagasinghe. Those guys always pushed me and believed I would one day play for Sri Lanka. Coming from a small town to a big city like Colombo, one could easily lose one's way, but these two took good care of me and always gave me good advice. They would come and watch me play, and discuss cricket at the house later in the night. For the last 20 years, both of them have always picked me up from the house and escorted me to the Sri Lankan cricket board office each time I've gone there before every tour.
I learned a lot from Roshan Mahanama. He was a very neat guy whose house was always in order. That helped me a lot when I started my international cricket. I guess it taught me a thing or two about discipline.
Then there were the Ranatunga brothers, Arjuna and Sanjeeva. They took good care of me by offering me a place to stay in their house before I moved in with Mr Dafter. The Ranatunga family always took good care of outstation players and many have been thankful for their generosity.
Do you remember the moment when you got your first call-up into the Sri Lankan team?
I was in the house with Mr Dafter. The selectors were picking the squad for the 1989-90 series in Australia. I knew they were meeting at eight in the morning, and I was restless. Finally, at one in the afternoon, Mr KM Nelson, then the secretary of the board, called to say I had been picked. I could not believe it. Since it was going to be a long tour, the general thought was two wicketkeepers would be picked, but they had decided to go with one specialist, with Hashan [Tillkaratne] as the makeshift keeper in case there was need, opening up a slot for me.
You were a lower-order batsman when you came into the team. But then you started opening in the mid-90s. How did that come about?
The decision was taken by the team management: our coach Dav Whatmore, Arjuna, Aravinda de Silva, and Duleep Mendis, the team's manager.
The idea was to play the first 15 overs as the last 15. Till then I was batting at No. 6 or 7, where I couldn't do much, especially as I went in to bat around the 40-45 overs mark. I felt I was being wasted. So Arjuna said that I should open as Roshan [Mahanama] was injured during the first three ODIs of the 1994 home series against Pakistan. It was a successful move. I got three fifties in a row in those three matches.
A year later I started opening with Kalu [Romesh Kaluwitharana] in Australia. He, too, had by then got promoted and both of us gelled instantly.
How big a role did Kaluwitharana play in your success as an opener?
He played a big role. When he got going, he made things easier for me at the other end. He could hit the ball very hard, played all the shots. He was really talented and made batting look easy. He was as confident as me. I remember he failed for 20 innings once, but Arjuna gave him the chance, knowing he was a match-winner.
That Australia series in 1995-96 proved to be a turning point for you.
Yes. I got runs as an opener and also started to open in Tests. I also scored my first Test hundred [in Adelaide]. I was really happy to get a century against such a good bowling attack, which included Shane Warne. It was scored under pressure against one of the best Test teams in the world. When you do that you get a nice feeling in your system.
That tour also changed Sri Lankan cricket, didn't it?
It was a turning point. There was that whole chucking controversy about Murali, which we fought through the tour; but at the same time we did well. By the time we had finished that tour we were a real strong unit - and this was on the eve of the 1996 World Cup. We supported each other, we wanted everybody to do well. And then we won the World Cup. After that we started getting more opportunities to play international cricket. I remember we played something like 11 Test matches that year  and I scored more than 1000 runs. It was a unique moment in our cricketing history.
All that Arjuna said was: We'll have to do well, we'll have to work hard, whatever happens. He backed Murali wholeheartedly, to the brink. He even risked suspension at one point. When we saw that, it gave us confidence. And we never looked back.
Did you need to change your technique to play as an opener?
I don't have the best technique as an opener, but I have worked really hard for 11-12 years. In those years the regular openers, like Marvan [Atapattu], were technically correct. But I understood clearly that I was an attacking batsman, so my role was different even as an opener.
It must have been helpful to have the support of Arjuna and Whatmore?
Sri Lanka became a professional unit only after Whatmore came. Alex Kontouris, the physio, was another man who brought in a big and immediate change, because he put in place a system for training and physical fitness.
Dav would pay individual attention, talk to the player and give him confidence. Naturally we fell into the professional way of thinking steadily. He always encouraged us to play our own game. "If you see the first ball for four, just hit it. Don't worry about anything, we'll back you."
Arjuna would tell me not to worry even if I got out on the first ball, or be afraid of getting dropped. That is the most important thing for a captain to do, to encourage a player. If he doesn't give the player the confidence, he will be in two minds.
To cite an example: I am going through a lean patch right now. If Arjuna was the captain he would have given me confidence. He understood I am an attacking player and so there is always a chance of failing. If the player doesn't find support, he will find it difficult to perform. It is important for the management to give the player that confidence.
Give us an example of a time when you were failing and Arjuna backed you.
On the 1998 tour of England I was miserable and was consistently failing. But even before the only Test, at The Oval, Arjuna still had faith in me. I scored a double-hundred, which was a match-winning performance. He knew I could perform on the big occasion.
You are 40 now. What keeps you going?
I don't want to prove anything. The only thing that I want to prove is: if I can win a match for Sri Lanka, that is what I enjoy the most. Every time I play a match I want to give my 110%. I might get dropped tomorrow, I might not play the next tournament, but I will work hard, train hard, and I'll show them with the bat and ball. There is no point talking, no point criticising anyone.
Tomorrow, in part two of the interview, Jayasuriya talks about the 1996 World Cup, Murali, captains, coaches, rivals and more
Read part two of the interview here
Nagraj Gollapudi is an assistant editor at Cricinfo