'My decision may have been selfish but it was right'
Your coach, Trevor Bayliss, said: "They [Sanga and Mahela] probably had enough of putting up with distractions. These days a captain has to deal with issues that sometimes have got nothing to do with cricket."
In modern-day cricket you get it. In the subcontinent you get a bit more. As a team we have tried to keep ourselves away from everything but cricket. Sometimes you can't. Unfortunately it can affect relations between players and administrators. It happens rarely, but certain vested interests try.
The reality of Sri Lankan cricket is this: everyone loves cricket, from administrators to normal people. They are always going to try to do [what they think is] the right thing in their way. Everyone might not agree on what the right thing is. And when you have such diverse opinions, you butt heads. It sometimes tires you out, stresses you out.
But to me there is nothing more fun than playing the game. In Sri Lanka we have established our own brand of cricket, like India have, Pakistan have. We established it in 1996. We are very proud of that. What Arjuna Ranatunga and his side gave us in 1996 is what we are trying to protect. We have been trying to take it forward, build on it, work on it and constantly improve.
What are the issues of outside involvement - are they to do with selection?
The issues vary. It can go from logistics to anything. I still maintain they are trying to do good for cricket. Among themselves, they might differ. Their heart is in the right place. Administration is not an easy place to work.
What's the ideal system? What would you want?
I don't think there is an ideal system, but what I believe is that these things should never affect the team. You can have your administrative scuffles and whatnot, but players should not get involved with the administration, unless it's something that directly affects their performance. And administrators should not cross the line either. That way mutual respect will be there. It can go wrong. It has gone wrong at times.
How much did these distractions have to do with your resignation?
I am not resigning because I am unhappy. I am not resigning because I can't do this anymore. No, I can do this for longer, but I don't think it's the right thing for me or for the team. Another World Cup is coming up in four years. We think four years is a long time but suddenly you will realise two years are already gone and the system hasn't changed. A new guy is appointed with hardly any time to lead the team.
If I was younger, if I was 30, maybe it would be realistic to stay on for a while. It would have been realistic for Mahela [Jayawardene] to carry on. He easily could have captained in this World Cup but he too, for his own reasons decided it was best for him and the team to step down. It's the same thing with me. The guy who takes over will find that he has a great team. If he can stamp his own authority on it, leave his own mark, going forward he will have a fantastic team.
Wouldn't it perhaps have been better if you had stayed on for about a year more? At the moment Dilshan is ruled out as a candidate by your logic, because he is older than you. Bayliss has said that Angelo Mathews could probably use the additional experience. And three years is still a lot of time. Does it look like you have left the team in a lurch, or at least in some uncertainty?
The thing is, you have to leave when your mind is clear. If I captain for another year and do well, would I want to go then? Or will I say, "No, no, I am doing well, let me stay", and that might not be good for the team. In that sense, it's the right time to go.
The first year might be slightly confusing but you take the plunge. Out of that confusion something better will come. You try out a few things, find your feet and then you have three more years. Graeme Smith was put in at 21 or 22. He didn't have a good first year but then he developed into a good captain.
If I keep hanging on to the post, would I feel comfortable leaving it in a year, or will I say, "Let me do it one more year", thinking this guy is not ready, that one is not ready. Maybe I'm just protecting my place in the side. You never know. No matter how strong you are in mind thinking that you will take the right decision at the right time, I think it's best to take it slightly earlier. It frees you from going down the wrong line.
Some might say it was a bit of a selfish decision. How do you respond to that criticism?
It's fair enough. Because no matter how much I try to deny it, there is a lot of "me" in that decision. I have also done what is best for me. But having said that, a large part of the decision [has to do with] what I think is the way forward for the team. The way forward is not as difficult as people make it out to be. Players come, players go, and so do captains. Yet teams progress. That is natural. Yes, in this decision there is some selfishness but I also think it's the right decision to make. I would rather be in a position where I am not tempted to do another year, to take the decision I should. I am pretty clear in my conscience.
So no sleepless nights?
No, not at all. I took the decision three months before the World Cup.
Going back, how tough was it to drop Sanath Jayasuriya and Chaminda Vaas?
It was a very delicate situation because Sanath and Vaasy are legends. Was it the right time to move on? Should they have been in the squad? At the end of the day you need to be 100% sure you are making the right decision. Personal likes and dislikes have nothing to do with what's best for the team. We are a family, but you have arguments, problems - that's the way it should be, else nothing constructive is going to work.
It's very difficult, especially in Sri Lanka. You have to give those two credit for what they did. They are larger than life back home. When you phase out icons like them, people from outside, inside, from the administration, all have their own views and they communicate them. Then winning on the field becomes even more important. It inspired the team. That kind of attitude we had to have in our side - and that has been actually happening right through our Sri Lankan cricket, from Ranatunga onwards…
There was talk at one point that Vaas wanted to play but you didn't want him. How did you react to that?
Nothing like that. Vassy himself understands the way I work. I get along well with him, even now. People don't see our interactions. When he wanted to play his last Test match, he came and spoke to me. When he was playing in England, I texted him saying we were watching him and how proud we were. The public don't see all that.
The first thing we established when we got down to selection for World Cup was that it was not about the past, not about the future, but it's about the moment, now. Every single name came up for discussion. Sanath and Vaasy missed selection by a whisker. Their strengths, their abilities, how their presence in the side can lift the team, their experience in playing at this stage - all these things were discussed. We found ourselves on the same page. Everyone realised this is the team. Then we realised, oh, Vassy and Sanath are left out.
It was unbiased: We based it on performances and the team combinations we were going to play. It's about performance. It's not about age. If someone is performing and contributing to the value of the dressing room, nothing else matters. It was a never a case of, oh he is old.
A minister calls and says Sanath has to play. How do you react to that?
Sometimes things get blown out of proportion. I don't think anyone called and said, "You've got to play him." Sanath would never want that to happen.
I don't think ministers would call like that. There might be a question, a comment - why is this player not there? The final 15 is always approved by the sports minister and he has the right to ask the selectors why so and so is missing. That way he gets an understanding of how the selection procedure works.
The only thing we haven't done consistently is to have a press conference immediately after selection, like two minutes after we write down the side, meet the media and explain our decisions. Then it becomes really nice. It stops the confusion and is better than having a statement being put out a day later and calling the press conference. It's of no use. Those are things we tried to get down with the selectors.
It's a system that we were not used to until Aravinda came along. Aravinda will, if he is wrong, concede the point to a journalist or whoever. He got a lot of respect when he spoke because of the fact of who he was. And the other selectors, too, were people who didn't need to be selectors. They came because they were respected, loved the game and played it at the highest level.
When did you get a sense of ownership over the captaincy, start to enjoy it?
It was probably the Australia tour. I was very lucky later to have the selectors I did - Aravinda, [Ranjit] Fernando, Azwer Ali, Amal Silva. Them coming in was fantastic. I had earlier enjoyed working wth Ashantha de Mel, but these four together as a panel, was the best thing happened to me. It was never a simple yes - it was always "Why?" Let's talk about it, put the arguments forward, analyse it. You say what you want to say, we say what we want to say; whoever is more logical and convincing, they win.
In Australia no one gave us a chance. I remember, we did a charity fashion show a week before and there were articles in the paper, saying, they look full of confidence on this ramp but they don't understand what Australia is about. They are going to get beaten. When we turned it around, as a team, we felt great. It did a lot for our confidence.
Ranatunga was a freedom fighter in some ways, making the players believe in themselves, pushing them to become men. Mahela was tactically brilliant and a calm individual, who made those men self-aware. And then you came along, trying to make them ruthless…
It was very simple. To me preparation is the key. There is no way even one out of 15 in the squad can take a short cut. There is no way. You can't do it on the field and you can't do it off the field. It was a case of pushing everyone. Making sure the coaching staff and the team understood why things were being done. I wanted the guys to ask questions. I wanted them to use every minute of practice.
There was the rise of Dilshan and Lasith [Malinga], which was fantastic, and it was about putting that in perspective so that the team understood the new dynamics, and also that those players understood their increased responsibility to the side. That they had to commit more to the team and that's how they rise in the team and get support. You have all these grounded players, like Mahela… In Sri Lanka you don't encounter people with huge egos. Even Murali, such a great champion and legend, is humble and simple and made my job a lot easier.
Mahela had started the culture change. He always emphasised that if we have an advantage, let's push it to the maximum. Finish things off. Ruthlessness came in more and more because guys were doing well. Dilshan, who was in the middle order, became an amazing opener; so he got out there and started thinking, "I am going to dominate the opposition and give the team the advantage." Lasith was trying to get a wicket with every ball he bowled. Those kinds of players were helpful to the team's attitude. That kind of confidence made the team believe in themselves more and more.
Are you the type who talks a lot in the dressing room?
It's not about talking. Our culture is different; it's about understanding which guy needed more time, backing and pushing him. And who are the guys who are allowed to do what they want - within reason of course. Those are the calls any captain has to make.
What have been the most satisfying moments of your captaincy?
The entirety of my captaincy.
The World Twenty20, we got to the finals. It was sad to lose. We did a lot of things we haven't done before, like beating Pakistan in Sri Lanka, beating Australia in Australia, getting to another World Cup final and doing well. Doing well in tournaments away from home.
We can say the Twenty20 and World Cup final were great, but beating Australia in Australia was magnificent for us. To just lose one game in the tour was a special achievement. I felt honoured to be leading that side.
Were there moments you felt you screwed up as a captain?
You feel that that every time you lose. Sometimes even when you win you feel that: maybe you could have done this or that better.
On the field you make the best calls you can. You have a discussion here and there and you make the call. If it pays off, it's great, if it doesn't, there you go, it wasn't the best call. You've got to accept it. You will always have ifs and buts, but as long as you take the decision and you have doubts afterwards, it's okay. If you have all the doubts beforehand, it's not going to work.
It's a quality that Mahela had and it was fantastic to watch him do that. Marvan Attpattu had it as well. Take the decision and then analyse it later. Sometimes you don't have the luxury of analysis beforehand. Sometimes even if you have it, it doesn't pay off. You are not alone; there is someone in the opposition. If they surmount the challenge, they win.
Ian Chappell once said, "I think if you've had six hours in the field as a captain and you are not mentally whacked at the end of that, then you have not done your job properly."
That's absolutely true. It's a draining job. Physically playing cricket is fun. You get tired, maybe cramps, but who cares? Mentally, over game after game, it's a big ask. I am very impressed by captains who do long-term jobs.
Who are your candidates for the captaincy?
Both Dilshan and Angie [Mathews] are suitable. If they think Angie is too young then Dilshan will do a good job because he has these little touches for success. Anything he does on the field, he has this little knack. I don't know whether he will be the long-term candidate with his age, but if he keeps himself fit he can easily play the next World Cup. Or they can take the plunge with Angelo.
That is where the selectors have to really make a call. If they make a call and if things don't go well in the first or second year, they will have to be strong [and tell themselves] that they made a good decision. They will have to put everything into making sure the captain has everything he needs to do a good job. If it doesn't go well even after that, maybe you can re-evaluate. If the team itself doesn't expect miracles but expects a steady, intelligent guy who does things in his own way and does good for the team, then this could work. To expect too much right away will be a real danger.
We have done very well as a team in the last few years. Next year is going to be important as the Test championship is there. You are fighting for pride. Twenty20, Champions Trophy and the next World Cup are the four-year goals. You have to look long-term.
Both are ready? Even Angelo?
Yeah, even Angelo is ready. The only way you will know is by doing the job. You have to play both formats. Angie's position in the Test side may not be as cemented as everyone would like it to be but I think he is the guy for that position. Definitely with his all-round ability he is the man for that position in the Test team.
If you want to go for Dilshan, give him the confidence for a long term. Don't give the captaincy to Dilshan and say, "You are just going to be captain for a year and half." It's not going to be good for him, for he is going to think, "My days are numbered anyway." And so it won't be good for the team.
Beyond captaincy, in the future, how does the batting look?
If we can get guys like Dinesh Chandimal to perform, it will be a great asset. I think he is going to be a very special player. We need to give him more exposure and time. For now, he has to gradually build up to be a consistent performer.
Angie can kick on to become even better than he is now. Then you have me and Mahela to support that. There was quite a strong thought that Chandimal should be in the World Cup. The only problem was, we didn't have a place in the line-up to fit him in. If he had to bat, he had to bat in the top three or four.
Not at six or seven, where Kapugedera and Silva played?
No, that would be doing Chandimal a disservice. If he comes in there and doesn't do well - it's not a easy place to bat - it might scar him. People might say he is not as good as we thought he would be. It's better to give him a position is best in and see how he does there.
That lower-middle order spot in ODIs has been a worry, hasn't it? Kapugedera and [Thilina] Kandamby didn't grab it despite many chances, and Silva is probably on his way out...
In the next few years maybe it would be better for us seniors to bat down in pressure situations and push the youngsters up. So that the players in front know that the seniors are down there. You have the more experienced guys coming down to give even confidence to the young men at the top.
With Malinga not playing Tests and Murali having retired, is the bowling a worry?
It's time now for us to consider the other fast bowlers we have: Shaminda Eranga, Nuwan Pradeep, a couple of left-armers, another offspinner, Sachithra Senanayake, who can play ODI cricket at any time - brilliant fielder and smart bowler. [Suraj] Randiv, [Rangana] Herath and [Ajantha] Mendis will be stalwarts for Tests.
Guys like Dilhara Fernando still have a lot to offer us. Dilhara has dealt with a huge amount of pressure in the last few years. He is a bowler, to me, along with Lasith and Kulasekara, who is not afraid to bowl in any situation. He is the guy who comes up to the captain and asks for the ball. Guys with that much pride and passion, you need them in the side. You need to improve them because they still can be improved.
Thisara Perera can be a good bowler in conditions that swing and seam. Farveez Maharoof, if he keeps performing the way he has done in the last six months and keeps taking more responsibilities - he is now opening for his club - it will be great. If you can have allrounders at six and seven, it will be fantastic for one-day cricket.
Even for Tests. We have Angelo, of course. We have Suranga Lakmal, Nuwan [Pradeep]… these guys bowl 145 easily. A couple of left-armers - some old ones like Chamara Welegedara, and some new ones. Fast bowling is not going to be a problem. We have the resources. We have to streamline them so that they know how to win matches.
Did you speak to Mahela before taking the decision to quit?
As always, he was very sound. He echoed exactly my sentiments. He said it was the right decision because as a player it's hard for anyone to challenge you from the outside, apart from [on the basis of] your performances. But as captain, your decisions made on the field, to do with selection process, on anything… questions will keep coming, especially if someone is not happy that you are the captain. That can be detrimental to the team. If the captain in his own mind is not clear, the team will suffer. That was exactly what Mahela said, and it was nice to have him say that.
So that's the reason he quit the captaincy?
Ha! That's for Mahela to answer. I still think he shouldn't have resigned, but he felt it would be better to play as a player. In my mind, there was no replacement for him as a captain going into this World Cup. He was leading us brilliantly and he was the guy who should have been leading us after that as well.
Was there anyone in your inner circle who opposed your decision?
My wife said, "I know why you are making it but I don't know whether it's the right decision." She said something similar to what you said earlier, that maybe I was doing it for selfish reasons. I had to sit down and think hard. Once I finally took the decision, she came and said it was the right one. That felt good. Even my friends who initially opposed it realised that it was right. My father took a couple of minutes and said, "You are taking the right decision." I always talk to him.
So yes, selfish I definitely agree with, it but it isn't the entire foundation of the decision. Hopefully in later years the major part of the decision will be viewed as unselfish.
How do you rate yourself as captain?
Only records will say that and how the players responded to me. Only two things stand. No. 1 is your win-loss record and No. 2, probably more important, but something people hardly get to see: how the players responded to the captaincy. Those are two defining moments of captaincy. Someone might not like you but if you get them to respond well, that is the key.
I have had a great support and it's now time for me to give back as much as I can for as long as they want me. Mahela has done it, Marvan, Vaasy, Sanath, all have done it. It's my turn to join them and stay solid in the dressing room and be of help.
I've enjoyed my stint. Two years was good. I never expected to get [the job] as I had great faith in Mahela as a captain. I never wanted to do it for a long time. It was nice to make that decision at the end of the World Cup because I missed being a player, and I would like to go back to that. I think it will be fun.
Sriram Veera is a staff writer at ESPNcricinfo