'I can't please everyone'
Nervous about this game?
You always get a few nerves before any Test and I have always had the same routine. There is a little tension but it goes as soon as you bowl your first over. Of course, there is a little extra pressure on me, it being my last game, but playing under pressure is not new for me and I am just keen to go out there and enjoy myself. It would be nice to take 800 wickets, but if I don't, it does not matter. The key thing is that we do our best to win the Test match.
How have the last four or five days been?
There has been a lot happening, with lots of extra media, and Kushil, my manager, has been busy organising for a few friends who are coming down to watch the match. But I have tried hard to keep the preparation as normal as possible. I have trained hard and I am feeling good.
Was it a difficult decision to retire?
No, it was an easy decision. I have been thinking about it for a while and I had planned to step down after the West Indies tour in November. This series was unscheduled and it just seemed like the right time to go. I will miss Test cricket, but I have plenty of good memories.
What made you take the decision? What was the clinching factor?
The final decision was made after the Asia Cup. I felt there was no point carrying on, as we now have some quality young spinners coming through. I am not getting any younger and playing Test cricket these days with all the back-to-back games is really tough. I want to keep playing cricket a little longer, but that might not happen if I kept playing Test cricket.
Have you thought about how the first day after this match will go?
No. I don't look too far ahead. I am just focused on this match and I want a good match and a good ending. Whatever happens next will happen.
Going back to the start of your career: was it difficult to come from Kandy to the big city and establish yourself as a cricketer?
I established myself while I was in school and by the end of my final year at St Anthony's I had already caught the eye of the selectors. I got a chance to play in England, and then automatically the club chose me. So I think it was not difficult to get started. The only difficult thing was adjusting to a different life in Colombo, away from my family.
Before you, offspin was a finger-spin art, but you were a wrist spinner. Who were your role models? How did you learn to bowl offspin with the wrist?
I didn't really have any role models. I used to bowl medium pace as a kid, when we played softball cricket, as that was the easiest way to restrict runs. We used to play in the biscuit-factory car park, with all my cousins, from the age of about four. We also used to play around the house and there we had very complicated rules. It was an advantage to bowl spin. I worked out a very successful method and that started strengthening my wrist. Later on, after I started formal cricket, we had a match in Kurunegala where we had no spinner in the side. I used to bowl fast offcutters in practice and so I bowled these. I took five wickets and thereafter I gave up medium pace as I thought being a spinner was the best way to stay in the team.
People learn or get inspired by watching somebody…
I did not really get inspired by watching anyone else, possibly because when we were growing up there was not much cricket on television. At school we would listen to BBC World Service on my cousin's radio and we used to watch the occasional video, but only in the late 1980s and 1990s were matches shown regularly on television.
Before you, offspin was an art of containment. You changed it all. What do you think you did differently?
If you are a bowler, you have to take wickets, no? That's the main thing: you have to bowl to take wickets. Containment is one way of building up pressure and that was a very important thing for me. By stopping the runs, I would put pressure on the batsmen and force them to take risks they were uncomfortable taking.
Did it help you that you had a quiet start to your career? As compared to, let's say, Ajantha Mendis.
Yes, I think so. A quiet start is better than a big start because then expectations are higher. So I think I had a good start, and good end as well. Ajantha started really well and that raised expectations for him. But he is a good bowler and he is working really hard on his game. It is a good test for him and I hope he'll get better and better, as you have to improve to stay competitive in international cricket. You can't just stand still.
What brought you the most joy as a bowler?
Being with people who enjoy their game, and winning matches for Sri Lanka and the other teams I played for. I am very competitive and winning is very important for me, more important than me taking wickets.
But as a bowler, what gave you the most satisfaction? Beating a batsman in the flight, or big turn, or getting the ball to dip, or the variations?
To be honest, I don't care how it comes as long as the wicket comes.
Your favourite wickets?
I have taken about 792, and you are asking about my favourite wickets? Very hard to say. But obviously taking the world record twice was very special, passing Courtney Walsh's 519 wickets in May 2004 and later overtaking Shane Warne's 708-wicket record in late 2007 with the wicket of Paul Collingwood.
That also I have taken about 67 times five wickets, and 20 times 10 wickets. But my favourite… I really liked it when I took 16 wickets against England at The Oval. That was a very special moment in my career.
How different is it to bowl with all three balls: Kookaburra, SG and Duke?
They are different and the hardest to bowl with is the SG ball. But you have to adjust.
How did the doosra come about? Who did you work with? How long did you work on it?
The doosra took about three to four years to develop properly. There was a talented Sri Lanka spinner called Piyal Wijetunge who I played with as a kid, and he used to bowl the delivery. Later I watched Saqlain Mushtaq bowl it. I knew I needed a delivery that went the other way, so I developed it myself. It was very hard to master and I started as early as 1996. Only by 1999 was I able to start bowling in a match.
How many times did you change your run-up?
I don't take a run-up. I just bowl. Just see the mark and bowl. Sometimes shorter, sometimes longer, it happens. I never take a run-up. That's always been that way. However, I used to run in at a greater angle. Gradually, we changed that with help from Bruce Yardley and Dav Whatmore. Running in straighter gave me greater variation and reduced the rotation on my body. I was able to use the crease and was able to learn the art of drifting the ball.
When you look back now what do you think about the people who doubted your action?
I don't care. Why should I care about them? Life is about living, making friends and enjoying. I don't hold grudges.
Was it very frustrating to make people understand?
Yes, frustrating and disappointing at times, especially later on. The thing I realised later is that it is difficult to make sure that everybody understands. Despite all the science, some people understand, some people don't. So it was better that I didn't care and focus on the things I could control, especially my own performance on the field. If I spent my time worrying about these things, I'd never be able to bowl.
How did you make sure it didn't affect your performance?
Boss, when I go out, I don't think about these things. My job is to get batsmen out, I think about that only. Some things you can control, some things you can't. If you worry about all the things you can't control then you won't perform. It's simple.
When was the first time you were told there might be something wrong with your action?
In 1995, in Australia, Boxing Day.
That was the first time somebody, anybody, raised a doubt. What was the feeling when that happened in a Test match, in front of a huge crowd?
It was obviously disappointing and upsetting. But thankfully the whole team and the cricket board backed me. I was young and they made it easier for me. Without their support it would have been hard.
Who were the most difficult batsmen to bowl to?
Very difficult to say. On any day whoever plays well is very difficult to bowl to. If you take world cricket, in my era, the greatest two batsmen are Sachin Tendulkar and Brian Lara. But most of the batsmen have played me well, so on the day it is difficult to bowl to them.
Who are the other spinners you respect?
I respect every player who plays in the international arena, because they all came there through hard work. But among spinners, in the nineties, Shane Warne, Anil [Kumble], Mushtaq, Daniel Vettori, myself, Saqlain, Harbhajan… we were lucky to have all these kind of bowlers in one era.
What are your cherished memories in cricket? What will you miss the most?
The most special moments were winning the World Cup in 1996 and our record run of Test wins in 2000 and 2001. But the thing I will miss most is being in the dressing room and being with the players who have become such close friends.
Coming back to the action: does it ever occur to you that while your can bowl with this action, others might not be allowed to? Because there are kids who are watching on TV and copying your action
I don't know whether they can bowl or not. But action, I don't know, very difficult to say, I can't please everyone. You can't please everyone. Some people will be for you and some against you. Always there has been some debate. I have mine, but I don't want to please everyone.
What was the lowest point of your career?
The Boxing Day Test in 1995.
Highest point, best memory?
Winning the World Cup is the best achievement.
Were you ever conscious of being a Tamil?
No. I don't think like that. I am a person.
Apart from being in the dressing room, what is it about cricket, competition, that you will miss?
I played cricket because I loved playing it. It is fun and I like competitive sport. So I will obviously miss the fun of playing Test cricket now.
Do you think Twenty20 has made it difficult for spinners because batsmen have lost fear?
No. I think spinners have done really well in Twenty20 cricket. If batsmen lose their fear then us spinners have more opportunities to get them out.
For example, someone like Sehwag has played well against you for the last two years.
Yes, he has played well. Sometimes he scores and some days he gets out. The thing is that with the way he plays, he will have good and bad days.
Why do you think Sri Lanka produces so many different bowlers who don't conform to routine actions? Out of the ordinary. There is you, Mendis, Malinga...
I don't really know, but I guess we have to thank our coaches for not being afraid to try something different. I was fortunate that my coaches recognised my talent and did not try to change anything major.
So what after this match? Apart from playing Twenty20.
If needed, I will play the World Cup. I have spoken with the selectors, Sanga and the management team, and told them I am available. They will need to decide on that as we have some good youngsters too. If they think they need me, I will play, and hopefully we can win our second World Cup. I plan to carry on playing Twenty20 cricket for another two to three years in the IPL, England and maybe elsewhere. Playing Test cricket is tough physically, but I am still bowling really well and still enjoying my cricket, so I will continue.
Other than cricket?
Enjoy the family.
During the action controversy, did you ever feel like quitting?
No. I never thought that, although I briefly considered taking up legspin. The only time I really questioned my future was after my first tour to England in 1991. I did not take a wicket and when I came back home I decided to take up studies again in case I could not play cricket professionally.
Sidharth Monga is a staff writer at Cricinfo