'I can express myself better opening'
Mahela Jayawardene's outstanding form at the top of the order, in the World Twenty20 and on a few occasions in ODIs, gives Sri Lanka the option to play him as an opener in the 2011 World Cup. He has got his runs at a fast pace and given his side strong chances to win.
The indifferent form of the rest of the line-up has forced Jayawardene to take charge of Sri Lanka's run-scoring in the West Indies. He hit 81 off 51 balls in Sri Lanka's 135 against New Zealand which they lost narrowly by two wickets. Then, against Zimbabwe, he laid the foundation for a total of 173 with his first hundred in Twenty20s. Sri Lanka won that rain-affected contest to qualify for the Super Eights, where they took on West Indies last week. Once again Jayawardene caressed his way to a substantial score, hitting an undefeated 98 to edge Sri Lanka towards a semi-final berth.
The shift to the top of the order began during the Sri Lankan Inter-Provincial Twenty20 tournament, where he opened the batting for Wayamba in their third consecutive title-holding season, Jayawardene revealed.
"The provincial tournament in Colombo is where I got the confidence, and I got into a groove and took control of things," he said. "That's when I realised that in Twenty20s it would be a good cushion, as well as the few times I opened in one-day cricket. I felt really comfortable in getting those big scores and winning matches.
"In the IPL we didn't have any middle-order batsmen in our [Kings XI Punjab's] set-up. A couple of the guys were injured and three of the overseas players we had were all openers. The last two seasons of the IPL I've batted in the middle order and done the job for them. But when the opportunity came I said 'Let me have a go at it.' I had the confidence and I was backing myself to go out and do it. I was left out of the Kolkata Knight Riders game because they were playing a different combination. Then Marshy [Shaun Marsh] got injured in the warm-up. I said 'Let me open', since Ravi Bopara was going to bat at No. 5 anyway. It worked for me.
"When somebody has to step in, in these kinds of opportunities, I always put my hand up because I like that kind of challenge. Rather than wait for things to happen, you try and create your own destiny. You go with a very free mind and take that challenge and enjoy it."
Jayawardene didn't open the batting back when he was playing for Nalanda College, where he learnt the rudiments of the game.
"I batted at No. 3 at school, but you have to fit into the team wherever possible. When I came into the national team I was quite happy to bat anywhere as long as I was playing for Sri Lanka. Then I got cemented in one position.
"I was probably one of the lucky ones where you get a slot and you get to keep it, whereas other players in their careers have been shifted around most of the places. I've been shifted around for a little while but I got a permanent place and that is always a good thing. I settled to it probably but I didn't fulfill what I wanted to do until now."
The two times he scored a century as an opener in ODI cricket were when Sanath Jayasuriya was indisposed in Dambulla against Pakistan, and when Tillakaratne Dilshan suffered an injury in Bangladesh.
"Opening the batting, I can control and express myself a little better. You can't harp on what you've done - you just need to keep challenging yourself and be as consistent as possible. The ultimate challenge for any cricketer is to be consistent. If I can do that, it will be great."
Jayawardene said he would sit with Kumar Sangakkara and the team management after the tournament to discuss opening options in next year's World Cup.
"There are guys who have done well as openers in the ODIs and it's not fair to take them out if they cannot bat in the middle order," Jayawardene said. "While thinking about that you've also got to make sure that the middle order is settled and we have the right guys batting in the right positions. We need to think of all that rather than be selfish and think of wanting to open.
"I am hitting the ball well and it's a different role. I probably have got into a zone where I know how to go about it, but nothing is guaranteed. As long as I am batting well and doing well, I just want to continue and keep challenging myself to try and get better and better in that position. It's a good challenge for me at this time of my career.
"Batting in the middle order, and being the senior player, I had to take on a lot of responsibility, and you needed to control things. But batting up the order, there is not much pressure at one end in the sense that we haven't lost any wickets, so you just go out there and start fresh. The freedom is there, but at the same time you still have the responsibility of taking that burden and making sure you control things.
"This is what I have always wanted to do in my expectations. It is probably who I am, in the sense that this is the way I batted when I was playing for school - very free, playing quite a few shots and at the same time I make mistakes. But you back yourself because you know you could win a game. It's very difficult to do that when you are batting at four.
"Situations are such you need to adjust, which was a great challenge as well, which I enjoyed. Now it's a different challenge and I'm doing it in a bit of a different way as long as the team is benefitting.
"There is a big difference batting in the middle order and opening. That doesn't mean that I can just go and throw my wicket away. I know I have to bat and once I get a start, apply myself and get to the next stage and finish matches off. Just walking in, you need a mindset of being positive, and try and take control of things, which is different but it has suited my game.
"Batting at four, maybe I was in two minds about whether to go after the bowling and be aggressive or whether to be cautious and control things. But sometimes when you go in with a bit of a negative mind-frame, saying 'I shouldn't get out. I have to make sure I bat to that situation', then you tend to make mistakes and get out."
Jayawardene said he was fortunate to have got the right breaks. "I am very blessed. I've always appreciated the opportunities I have got to play for my team since when I was 20. That was also because a couple of guys got injured and I was given an opportunity and I grabbed hold of that. Those kinds of opportunities don't come to everybody all the time. I am very lucky to be part of that kind of a group initially, for I learnt a lot from their experience. Every time things happen for a reason and I am sure opening the batting happened for another reason as well."