Jayawardene puts faith in young charges
Sri Lanka has the rare honour of going into a Test match with the world's best batsman and best bowler in their ranks, as they prepare to take on England in the second Test at the SSC on Sunday.
Kumar Sangakkara made history during the first Test at Kandy, when he became the first batsman to make scores in excess of 150 in four consecutive Tests. His innings of 92 and 152 were the single biggest differences between the two teams, although it was Muttiah Muralitharan who claimed most of the plaudits, as he broke Shane Warne's world record in the midst of another nine-wicket haul.
Both men now sit proudly at the top of the ICC world rankings, and with players of that quality to call upon, Sri Lanka's captain, Mahela Jayawardene, was able to look forward with confidence to the second Test, where his side have the opportunity to wrap up the series with a match to spare.
"It's to do with the brand of cricket that we play," Jayawardene said. "We are not afraid to express ourselves out there whether it is in a Test or ODI. We just go out there and enjoy ourselves and play the brand of cricket we are quite used to playing. That has helped us to be the best that we can be.
"We have lots of records in world cricket and hopefully we want to push ourselves a bit more every day. That's the attitude we are trying to develop in our younger generation. Not just be complacent with the talent you have but still work hard so that they can be better players five or six years down the line."
It's not just a recent phenomenon from Sri Lanka, as Jayawardene was keen to point out. For this team, everything stems from the success of the 1996 World Cup squad, who transformed the ambitions of the island's cricketers. "They showed that if we believe in ourselves we can definitely be one of the best teams in the world and be very consistent at that.
"The effort we put in has to go to that group of players who, with limited facilities, proved beyond anybody's dreams what Sri Lanka can achieve. We do owe them a lot of gratitude for that. Our self belief, our motivation is because of them. We know we can be the best in the world if we work really hard."
Sri Lanka eventually won the first Test by 88 runs, but the scoreline doesn't indicate just how closely fought the game was. Until Muralitharan popped up with the new ball, England were within 20 minutes of salvaging a draw, and Jayawardene was well aware that - but for one or two missed opportunities - the result could have been even closer than that.
"England are a very good side," said Jayawardene. "The first Test is a match they probably should have done much better [in], given the situation they were in after the first couple of days. In that regard we are very happy with the result. They'll come back really hard at us and we just need to make sure we concentrate and look out for those moments and make sure we put them under pressure early in the Test and keep them down as much as possible."
There is one significant change in the Sri Lankan ranks. Sanath Jayasuriya retired from Test cricket after the Kandy victory, which has allowed Upul Tharanga to return to open the batting with Michael Vandort. That's about the only change Sri Lanka are likely to make from their winning side.
Tharanga had a great 2006 season but lost his form and was eventually dropped from the team. He has since fought his way back with a century and an eighty against England in the warm-up games and with Jayasuriya's retirement was the most likely candidate for the opener's berth. With Marvan Atapattu, Jayasuriya's long standing opening partner, also quitting international cricket, Jayawardene said that Sri Lanka cricket was currently going through a difficult phase.
"We just need to make sure we keep the focus going and help the youngsters to get through this period and guide them through," said Jayawardene, "because these are the guys who are going to take Sri Lanka cricket in the next decade or so.
"It's going to be a good challenge for us. It is easier for them to play in home conditions. For them to take that kind of responsibility on their own turf it will be a much easier job for them. They can move forward after that. We played guys like Chamara [Silva], Mubarak, Vandort and Upul when the opportunities came. These are not pretty new guys; they've had some experience.
"It's tough [with] both Marvan and Sanath leaving at the same time but we knew it was going to happen. Both of them were in the same age group and we felt they probably make that call at the same time which happened. We were prepared for it and these are the young guys who can take that responsibility and we wish them the very best."