'We watched cricket, we talked cricket'
Mahela was a very popular schoolboy cricket name. What had you heard before you came into the Sri Lanka side?
His reputation was pretty solid, even at an Under-15 level. You read about him in the papers - him, Thilan Samaraweera and Avishka Gunawardene - they were the players that were outstanding in those days. The race to a 1000 runs between these guys was the talking point. He was a guy who was earmarked at a very young age as a captain. By the time I broke into the team he was already vice captain, so that shows you how well he performed since his debut, where he scored 60-odd against India, to the time I came through in 2000.
What was he like when you first met him?
The first impression you get is that he's a serious guy. He's quiet but not exactly laidback - a bit intense. But once the ice is broken you probably see the fun side of Maiya. A lot of people who know him say the first thing is when you're sitting opposite him having a meal, his eye starts to twitch. You think, "What's that?" Then you wonder, "Should I ask him? Should I not?" That's the first impression you get, and I think because we were the same age, we hit it off. The rest of the guys were much older than we were. Although Maiya was a vice-captain, it was a case where we had a lot in common and we used to not just talk on the field, but off the field as well.
There are stories of Muttiah Muralitharan and Mahela partying together in the early days. Were you part of that group?
That was way before my time. That was the Alex Kontouris-Muralitharan-Jayawardene nexus. I've heard those stories. That was a time when Murali was less settled - long before he met Madhy (his wife). You hear these stories and I think that's the biggest thing players, including Mahela, will miss about the dressing room - all these stories and experiences, the fun we've had and what we've shared as a group. It's not the cricket that you'll miss but the camaraderie and what comes with that.
What things did you have in common with Mahela?
The way we thought, we enjoyed going out and having a meal at a good restaurant and exploring the countries we were in. We enjoyed talking cricket, movies, whatever. Maybe we didn't watch the same type of movies or enjoy the same type of music or things like that. But at the end of the day we had that curiosity in common and I think that was what brought us together.
How central was Mahela to the hijinks in the dressing room?
He enjoys it. He doesn't always take the driving seat in them. Murali was the guy who drove everything that was fun in the dressing room, from his crazy interviews of all the players, from every other word in Sinhalese being an expletive. It was high fun because we all got to contribute, and Maiya was a big part of that. We used to have the "ugliest player contest" and it was always a fight-off between Murali and Ruchira Perera. Someone would cast the tie-breaking vote.
Do you remember a Mahela innings where you thought, "This is a special player"?
I think the 240 that he scored here at SSC against India, and his 160-odd [against New Zealand] in Galle, on a wicket that turned on day one. Against one of the first balls he got hit the handle of the bat and the ball went straight up in the air. That same wicket, where New Zealand couldn't even get a run, Mahela came and just scored a walk in the park 160. When you look at those innings you see what kind of a player he is. He always tried to dominate, tried to attack. He didn't really care what terrors the pitch held or the terrors of the opposition bowling. It was all about him trying to impress upon the opposition: "I am here to score runs and score quickly."
When you see him score runs on pitches like that, do you think the bad press he gets about being a flat-track bully is undeserved?
I think he has scored runs all over the world and at important times. No player is ever going to have a complete record. If you take the subcontinent, there are players who haven't scored a hundred here, yet they are considered great players. The subcontinent offers its own set of challenges which some batsmen can cope with and some batsmen can't. I think there is always some sort of bias towards players who perform in countries like Australia, New Zealand or England rather than in the subcontinent. But those same players who do score come here and fail, it's not the same thing. I don't think those comparisons are ever going to be fair. I don't think you can take anything away from the fact that Mahela has been one of the most elegant, most prolific batsmen not just of his generation but in the game in its entirety.
Did you talk about cricket a lot in the early days of your friendship?
We watched cricket a lot and we talked cricket a lot. That's something we have been trying to tell the younger players coming through. It's really important, especially to watch games and players who have played before, because they had something special and I reckon that legacy is what we still carry. Talking with Maiya about cricket, it's not just a lot of fun but it's also very educational. You bounce off ideas, you talk strategy, you talk about players like Brian Lara, Viv Richards. Players like Inzamam-ul-Haq whom Murali used to hate to bowl to. We tried to think of ways of counter-attacking or negotiating some of the strategies that we face. This is all part of daily conversation. It is not a special effort to sit down and, "Oh let's have a pow-wow and talk strategies". It is just part of our everyday conversation and I think being a cricketer that does happen a lot.
We think of Mahela as a positive, aggressive captain. Was that evident in the cricket opinions you shared with each other, even early on?
Yes, I think it was always the case. It was the same approach he always took onto the field: of dominance, of attack being best form of defense, and trying to take wickets and create opportunities. And that was the way he conducted games as captain. It was fantastic because we had the players who were able to do that. We had Murali, Sanath Jayasuriya, Chaminda Vaas then Lasith Malinga. Then Ajantha Mendis in 2008-2009 when he had his magical period. Of course once that finished, everyone had to change and a different way of playing games. Angelo has a very different challenge.
Did you have disagreements about how good certain players were?
We probably would have had our disagreements about modern players. A player we thought was probably in the top five of all time was Aravinda de Silva, and that was without doubt agreed upon by the both of us because he was an immensely, talented and able player. We are very privileged to have shared a dressing room with him.
In 2003 Mahela went through a bit of a lean patch. What was he like during that?
The thing about Mahela is it doesn't really affect him. He takes it in his stride. Whether he scored runs or not, he just tried to play the game and whether he was the main competitor or not, it didn't faze him. If he went through a lean patch, he accepted it and moved on. I think that's the best thing, he doesn't really change his game. If you even look at him now, he doesn't change his game. Just because people might think that he's out of form, he never feels like he's out of form. He gets out sometimes, he has a lean trot here and there, but his attitude remains one of absolute focus and I think that is something a lot of players can learn.
He lost the vice-captaincy after the 2003 World Cup. Was he disappointed at having lost that?
It was in India. We were having lunch, Murali, Mahela and I. He was disappointed. He felt let down, not just losing it but the way it happened, the process. But I think we just had a chat about it and I gave him my two cents, and Murali gave his aggressive two cents, and that was it. After that it was back to normal. It hurt him for maybe a very, very brief period but the player he is, the person he is, he got over it immediately and started refocusing on what he really had to do as a batsman.
He was made captain in 2006 for the England tour. What are your recollections of that?
We had a bad first innings at Lord's, but Sri Lankans are known for their fight and when backed into a corner we fight our way out more often than not. That was another example of the fight we showed. Maiya scored a hundred in that match. A lot of other guys scored fifties and we batted two-and-a-half days to save the Test. Having done the hard work, we lost the second Test. Then we went to Nottingham and Sanath came back into the side to bat in the middle order and play as a left-arm spinner. We got a wicket that turned more than Galle at Trent Bridge, we won that match and we ended those five days on an extreme high.
That took us through the one-day series to a 5-0 whitewash of England, and that was fantastic. The way Maiya promoted himself to No. 3 in the batting order and scored two hundreds, with Upul [Tharanga] and Sanath also scoring two hundreds, and we were away. The way he led from the front in that entire series was just a beginning of things to come. He understood situations, he read the game well. He was always on the front foot no matter what the situation was, trying to create opportunities.
Sri Lanka were 14 for 2 against South Africa at the SSC in 2006 when you and Mahela came together. How did that partnership come about?
It was just a case of 'bat and score runs', because South Africa had been bowled out cheaply. We attacked from ball one and we just kept the momentum going right throughout our innings. At no point did we look back and try to see bowlers off or have periods when we were under pressure. We just went and played every shot that we could. Every ball that we hit - except at the start - seemed to find the boundary and keep putting pressure on the South Africans. At one point I think they didn't think they'd ever get us out, and that really freed us up to score even quicker. We did have a quick scoring rate. They had field settings that were very defensive, but we were still trying to attack and score runs.
Were you under pressure at any stage?
We were just enjoying it. The partnership grew and it got a bit serious after we went to dinner and talked about, what's going to happen tomorrow. We thought, 'oh a few more runs to break the record', and that's probably when we were under real pressure - trying to break Sanath and Roshan Mahanama's record.
What about his batting has helped you bat so well in a partnership with him?
He reverses pressure so very well. It allows us to switch between the roles of being the aggressor and the passive rotator. That's the real advantage of batting with Maiya - the strike rotates and the boundaries come. There were quite a few instances in one-day and Test cricket where he comes in and the scoreboard just starts moving.
What do you remember of his 123 at the P Sara Oval in the next match, chasing 352 in the fourth innings?
Our idea was to chase that down, because even when I went in with Sanath, we were attacking. Whatever we did was outdone by the innings by Mahela, on a wicket that turned, and a situation that at times it looked like we were going to lose. Everyone chipped in and Mahela led that counterattack, and it is one of the best innings I've seen him play.
The World Cup final hundred is another Mahela innings that stands out. What was the feeling you got while watching him, in such a high-pressure match?
The way he batted when I was at the crease - I could see he was going to score runs that day. I didn't know how many, but he had that look. He wasn't feeling for the ball. It was off the middle. I think he had one edge for four through the vacant slips. That was the only false shot that he had, and he was just fluent from ball one. You could see a big score was coming. We were in quite a bit of trouble when Thilan Samaraweera got out lbw. The way he batted with the tail was outstanding. The loss was gutting for him. You score a hundred in a World Cup final - after you've watched Ricky Ponting and Adam Gilchrist score hundreds in World Cup finals and win. That was a blow.
You have businesses together. What is he like as a business partner?
We're quite similar in that we both understand that we don't understand business as well as we should. That's something that we should learn pretty fast. At the same time, we try and work with people we trust and we value. If we do go into a venture together and it fails, it's got to be something that we walk away from without losing the friendship that we have. We've had a chat about that, and we think alike in most ways when it comes to that.
What about Mahela have you made fun of, over the years?
It's probably that intensity he has. We've made fun of that. We tell him to lighten up a bit at certain times. He's always switched on. He watches almost every sport. We used to say that if you want to hear what's on the news, you talk to Sanath. Mahela was a bit like that at times. We'll miss that part of his personality that made him not just the butt end of jokes, but also a fantastic human being.
Andrew Fidel Fernando is ESPNcricinfo's Sri Lanka correspondent. @andrewffernando