'I do struggle to convert fifties into hundreds'
You often mentioned at the start of your career that you want to be a genuine allrounder. Now that you are a few years in, do you feel that you are? Do you see yourself as a batsman who bowls or a bowler who bats?
Right now, I see myself as more of a batting allrounder. I'd like to improve my bowling a little bit more. But in the recent past, I think I've been bowling pretty well. But that's certainly an area I need to work on. Overall, I feel like I'm doing all right in both departments. Having said that, I still have a long way to go and there is still a lot to learn.
You mentioned you want to improve your bowling, but there is some thought that you should be bowling less, taking into consideration the injury concerns you've had in recent times.
Bowlers do tend to get injured more often but that's part of the game. And just because I've been injured a few times I'm not willing to give up my bowling. I want to keep bowling for as long as possible. It's all about balancing and trying to manage your workload. I've been playing in all three formats and it's very demanding as an allrounder to cope with that pressure and workload. Mahela [Jayawardene], the management and the selectors are very understanding. When you play a long season you tend to get these niggles and wear and tear. They understand that. I usually talk to Mahela regarding the workload but it goes both ways. It's hard for a captain to reserve your bowlers, but he understands how to use me.
As an allrounder are there any players who you admire or have tried model yourself on?
Garry Sobers is someone I've always looked at as the pinnacle. He is the best allrounder and someone I would like to emulate. Obviously, no one can match up to Sobers but he is someone I look at as the ideal. Apart from him, Jacques Kallis and Andrew Flintoff are two players I looked up to when I was growing up.
You've also worked with Chaminda Vaas in the past. What did you learn from him?
When I was in school he used to come around and help out with the players, and I worked with him then. I also played a couple of seasons of club cricket with him and got to learn a few things from him there. Vaasy always wants to see the younger cricketers do well so he loves to help out when he can. Whenever I've had any questions or want to learn something he's been around to help out.
Who would you say has had the most impact on your career from a technical and mental point of view since you broke into the national side?
From the mental side of things, my father and my brother have been a great source of strength. They always back me in whatever I do. They watch all my games and are not afraid to tell me when I've done something wrong or point out areas which I can improve on.
From a cricketing point of view, I talk to Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene. They've been around for more than a decade now and know what it's all about. Early in my career, at the Under-19 level, our coach Chandika Hathurusinghe was a great influence on me. And presently, our batting coach Marvan Atappattu and the rest of the coaching staff have been very supportive.
Why do you think it took so long for you to get your first Test hundred?
I actually got a 99 in my second series and was unfortunately run out against India. It took me a while to get over that and to reach that landmark. Maybe it shouldn't have taken that long but Test cricket tests your abilities. I think I've learned my game now and know what I need to do to get a hundred. It's a huge learning curve when playing Test cricket for your country. You can't just turn up and do well.
That innings came under some scrutiny in the media as a "selfish" innings because you batted slowly instead of going for runs to set up the game for the team. What is your reaction to that?
It was a slower innings than how I usually play, but then again it was a Test match and I was batting with the tail. And in the couple of innings before in the series, when the tail was in, they were shot out pretty quickly. I wanted to make sure they didn't get out quickly and that they played only a limited amount of balls. People are always going to have different opinions and you can't always play to please everyone. You need to understand that it is a game and the team has its own goals. Whatever anyone has to say, you have to try and ignore and move on.
Are you concerned about struggling to put up consistent scores in Tests?
I think I've scored a half-century in most of the games I've played over the last year. But one thing I do struggle with is with converting those fifties into hundreds. That has to do with the position I bat at, the fact that most of the time I bat with the tail, and the difficult situations I face in those positions. I need to learn how to convert those starts into bigger scores. And that applies to the one-day format as well. Usually, when I go in to bat there are only a few overs left and most of the time I bat in different positions. It's not an excuse, but the situations are always different and very demanding. It's not always easy.
There is some thought about you moving up the order, especially in Tests. Is that something you want and do you think you are ready for that challenge?
Definitely. I am happy to move up the order because I think I will be able to offer more for the team. I know I can bat according to the situation, but right now the team needs me at No. 6 to finish off an innings and the team always comes first.
With an average of 69, it's fair to say you have struggled with the ball in Tests. What's going wrong?
As far as Test matches are concerned I'm not considered a strike bowler. I've always been a line-and-length bowler, even in one-dayers. My job is to try to keep things tight. If I get a couple of wickets then that is always going to be a bonus. But like I said before, in Test matches you have to learn a lot and it's still the early stages of my career. But I definitely need to improve on my bowling in that format. Also, I haven't bowled a lot in Test matches because of some of the injuries I've had. I think I've only bowled in maybe ten or 15 games out of the 26 I've played. I'm working on a few things with our bowling coach Champaka Ramanayeke, but yes, there is a lot of room for improvement.
You are now seen as playing the finisher's role in ODIs. Is that something you set out to be when you started in the team or just sort of stumbled into it?
It started when I was the captain of the U-19 side, batting around No. 4 or 5. I always try to give myself a chance to bat till the end because I know I can catch up later on. I know how to approach the game from that position and go about finishing off an innings.
You've played some amazing innings for Sri Lanka in that role in the past but there are some critics who think you don't take the side home enough times or that you've not been able to help set up games batting first.
I think that is a little unfair, because as far as my role is concerned it's always about assessing different opposition and situations when I go out to bat. And having to do that it in a very short amount of time is not always easy. I reckon that Nos. 5, 6 and 7 have the hardest job in the team, because finishing off a game or setting up a game from that position is difficult. But now we have guys like Jeewan Mendis and Thisara Perera stepping up, so it's great to be able to play with them to share some of that responsibility.
Do you feel added pressure when you come out to bat because of the expectations?
Not really, because whatever the fans expect or the team expects, I try to give myself the best chance. At the end of the day, this is a sport and you can get out. But most of the time I back myself and I know I can do well if I stay till the end. I don't try to think a lot when I am out there batting. I just try to be myself, be positive and take things to the end.
At the MCG in 2010, at 107 for 8, chasing 240, had you given up?
We never thought we'd win from that stage on. But we took the Powerplay and wanted to see how it would go and have a bit of fun. When we got to around 190-200, that's when we actually thought we could do it. [Lasith] Malinga at the other end was hitting the ball awesomely. But, until we got to around 190, I never thought we could win. But we didn't give up hope.
In situations like that and Perth in 2012, how do you approach your batting and handle that pressure?
At the start I usually like to get the feel of the wicket and the situation. I don't mind playing out a few dot balls because I back myself to catch up later on. And I try to target specific bowlers as well because you can't go after all of them. You need to be calculated in who you target and when you attack. You also need to try to get the best out of your batting partner. I do get a bit nervous at the start but you always try to keep calm because you know what you can do. It's all about self-belief, I guess.
Tell us about your experiences captaining some of the youth sides of Sri Lanka.
I've been captain of the U-15, U-17 and U-19 sides, and it was a great experience for me. It was in those age levels I learned the importance of batting till the end of an innings, particularly being captain of the side. It was a fun and exciting time. It was, of course, a lot of responsibility. I learned how to manage players and how to get the best out of your team-mates.
You are often touted as the next Sri Lankan captain. If Mahela Jayawardene steps down after a year as he said he would, do you think you are ready to take on the job?
I've captained the Sri Lankan side recently in a one-day match and also in a T20 match and I'm also leading the Nagenahira side in the SLPL so I do have a bit of experience in leading major sides. But the team had a rough patch at the end of last year for about six months, and Mahela was to take over for a while to just steady the ship. Which, of course, worked well, because he knows what he is doing and knows how to get things done. He is a great captain. I think if he can continue, not just for a year, even five years, then he should be the guy to do that. Being his deputy is another great experience for me. It's a case of waiting and seeing how things go, but I'm really not expecting anything to change in the immediate future.
What would Mathews the captain bring to the table?
I have my own way of doing things but the team is also very professional so I don't think it will be a very difficult job. It's all about trying to get the best out of the players. They handle themselves very professionally, so hopefully that will make my task a lot easier whenever the time comes.
You started your career under Sangakkara, then Dilshan and now under Mahela. What have you learnt from each of them?
They are different in their approach to the game and their thinking but they were all good captains. Each of them knew how to get things done from the players and motivate them. I learned a lot about how they strategise, how they handle the players and their decision-making processes. All three have done great service to the country, so I took it as an opportunity to look up to them and learn as much as possible.
What impact has Twenty20 cricket had on you as a player?
I guess the main thing has been the pace it has added to cricket - not just in Twenty20 cricket, but also in the ODI and Test formats. You now see a lot of very high scores in ODIs as well. I think that is because batsmen are more open to taking chances throughout an innings. Maybe before T20, batsmen might have been thinking twice before going for a big shot but now they aren't afraid to do that. So cricket is improving and it's becoming faster. Teams and players are thinking in advance and tend to anticipate things more. Cricket has gotten more exciting because of it.
Sri Lanka are coming off a very long season. You've been a part of the IPL, you are now a part of the SLPL. How do you find the motivation?
It all comes down to the passion I have for the game, which is immense. Of course, it is demanding and we've had a very hectic schedule for the past one and half years and will for the next year or two as well. And that's when the team management and management of your workload come into play. Especially, when you play as an allrounder you need to be a lot fitter than the others. I spend a lot of time in the gym so I don't have a problem with all the cricket that is being played, but getting adequate rest is also important. It's about finding the right balance.
What it's like to lead a group of individuals who come from all sorts of backgrounds, as captain of the Nagenahira Nagas?
It's not easy because we all come from different cultures and backgrounds, but the boys have been nice and are looking to have a bit of fun. The team has played with a lot of freedom and the results speak for themselves. We've won all the matches we've played so far. All the guys are playing to their potential. We don't have many big names in the side as the other teams but the team has gelled together well. The unity is pretty good and we are all enjoying each other's company.
How do you view the SLPL benefiting Sri Lanka?
I think the SLPL is a great opportunity for the future of Sri Lankan cricket, especially for the local players who are now getting a lot of experience and exposure. They get to share a dressing room with the cream of the intentional players as well the country's national players. Facing up to international bowlers, bowling to international batsmen, it's an experience they otherwise wouldn't have gotten. We've never had a domestic structure at a provincial level so it's great to see this tournament being put together to make a provincial cricket structure come true.
It's been a difficult time since the World Cup off the field - issues with pay, board politics. Was that a big distraction for you as a player?
It can be, but we are all professional players and we know that cricket is our where our earnings come from. Everything has been sorted now. The cricket board went through some difficulties but the players were very supportive of that. There were never any thoughts of striking or anything like that. As players we love our country and we love the sport so we are always ready to make the sacrifice when needed to keep things moving forward.
What was it like to miss the World Cup final through injury?
I can safely say that was the worst day of my life. When I got injured in the semi-final I immediately knew that it was pretty bad. I tried to do the best I could to get back in to fitness with the help of Dr Young, but to be honest, with only a couple of days to go there was no chance of a tear like that healing in time. It was very disappointing. It was one of my dreams to play in a World Cup final and win it for my country, but unfortunately that just didn't work out. Sitting on the sidelines you feel helpless because you want to do something to help your team. We got a pretty good score on that day and we got a couple of wickets early as well, but the wicket was very good to bat on. The guys played brilliantly and did their best. I can't say that if I had played that I could have made a difference because the rest of the team did incredibly well. It was just a matter of India being better on the day.