Sri Lanka v England, 1st Test, Kandy November 30, 2007

Single-minded Jayawardene remains focussed

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Mahela Jayawardene answers media questions on the eve of the opening Test: 'The important thing is the end result after three Tests' © Getty Images
Sri Lanka's captain, Mahela Jayawardene, insists that his side will not be distracted by talk of records and impending retirements, as the first Test against England prepares to get underway in Kandy on Saturday morning.

All week long, speculation has been brewing in the Sri Lankan press about the imminent departures of two stalwarts of the side, Sanath Jayasuriya and Chaminda Vaas, who has been selected to play in his 100th Test. Add into the mix the expectation surrounding Muttiah Muralitharan, who needs five more wickets to reclaim his world Test bowling record from Shane Warne, and it's clear there are plenty issues to distract the team from the task at hand.

Jayawardene, however, is fully confident that the experience of his players will shine through, and that Muralitharan's exemplary record against England (93 wickets in 13 Tests) will prove to be the difference between the sides.

"All of us are experienced enough to realise this is a Test series and not just one match," said Jayawardene. "In a way [the speculation] is unsettling, but the selectors have only announced this squad for the first Test match, so I am just going with what they have given me. We just need to play some really good cricket and the records will come and go. The important thing is the end result after three Tests."

The Sri Lankans will wait until the morning of the match before finalising their starting XI. Ten of the team are already set in stone, but the bright sunny weather and the unusually dry nature of the Kandy wicket has tempted the selectors to omit the third seamer, Dilhara Fernando, in favour of the legspinner, Malinga Bandara. "If these conditions stay for four or five days, then the wicket's going to get slower and slower and take more spin," said Jayawardene, news that will not please England's strategists - they had been banking on the usual favourable seam-bowling conditions to aid their quest for a winning start to the series.

A typically subcontinental surface won't play completely into the hands of the Sri Lankans, however, seeing as their batsmen have just returned from a tough tour of Australia, where their two Test defeats were contested on the pace-friendly wickets of Brisbane and Hobart. "We need to adjust quickly, but we've grown up on these strips," Jayawardene said. "We've learned a lot from the Australia trip. A lot of teams come back from there with a lot of positives, individually as well as collectively, so hopefully what we've learned in Australia we can put in place in this series, and move forward."

He might as well have been speaking with Murali in mind. Four wickets at 100 apiece was not the sort of return that a world-champion spinner might have envisaged in the series, but Jayawardene had no doubt that - surrounded by his home comforts and faced with some of his favourite opponents - Murali would soon be back to his best. "Hopefully he won't just get five wickets, but more than that," said Jayawardene. "It's his home town, and a lot of the crowd here will be cheering him on to the record. They'd love to see their Kandy son get a world record in his home town, and for us it would be a great moment as well."

You can't just go out lethargically and play a Test match. You need to be aggressive and show character and fight for everything. We'll do that in the right spirit
Far from losing his effectiveness with every series that goes by, Jayawardene believes that Murali is tightening his hold on the English batsmen - a statement borne out by his match-winning 11-wicket haul at Trent Bridge on the last occasion the two teams met. "The more times he plays county cricket he gets better and better against English batsmen. It should be the other way round but he understands how he needs to go about the English players.

"He has a very good record in Sri Lanka as well as England, and I'm sure he can continue that," said Jayawardene. "The Australians play him the best, whether home or away, but other than that, he's been on top of the other teams. But every series is a new one and you have to look at it fresh. You can't go back to old records, you need to start at ball one and do the right things."

All the signs point to a closely fought series. England's success in the one-dayers in September will count for little come Saturday morning, except maybe to serve as a reminder of what can be achieved by a young and vigorous side. Remarkably, five of Sri Lanka's starting XI featured in the fiery 2000-01 Kandy Test, the first between the sides on this ground. No Englishman but Michael Vaughan even took part on that tour. Continuity is an asset, but not if it means that a side grows old and stale together.

Jayawardene, however, promised that the combative spark would remain between the sides. "We have a very good competitive spirit going with the English," he said. "We had a great series in England, which was well fought and played in the right spirit. You need to be competitive. You can't just go out lethargically and play a Test match. You need to be aggressive and show character and fight for everything. We'll do that in the right spirit."

Sri Lanka 1 Sanath Jayasuriya, 2 Michael Vandort, 3 Kumar Sangakkara, 4 Mahela Jayawardene (capt), 5 Chamara Silva, 6 Jehan Mubarak, 7 Prasanna Jayawardene (wk), 8 Chaminda Vaas, 9 Dilhara Fernando or Malinga Bandara, 10 Lasith Malinga, 11 Muttiah Muralitharan.

Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo