Playing as a batsman a bigger challenge - Jayawardene
Mahela Jayawardene has said Sri Lanka's home series against Pakistan from Saturday will be a bigger challenge for him after giving up the team's captaincy early this year because he now wants to push himself "to the limit" as a batsman. Jayawardene has discussed his new role with Kumar Sangakkara, his successor, and will focus on holding Sri Lanka's batting together and improve its disappointing home record against Pakistan.
The former Sri Lanka captain admitted that leading a subcontinent team, with all the passion involved, was not an easy job and hoped to emulate the manner in which Sachin Tendulkar and Rahul Dravid have managed the transition after giving up the captain's role to contribute better as batsmen for India.
"I always knew that everything [captaincy] was going to be over some day," Jayawardene told Cricinfo. "For me, cricket is all about enjoyment and trying to do my best. I am sure I still have that hunger to do well and be a better cricketer than I am right now. In that perspective, it is a much bigger challenge for me, to push myself to the limit."
Jayawardene's last Test as captain was also against Pakistan in March but that series was cut short by the terrorist attack on the Sri Lankan team in Lahore. This time, he said, he was confident of easing into his new role for the home series, which starts on July 4. "When I captained the side, I made sure I had two different roles, as a captain and as a batsman. Now the captaincy has gone to somebody else but the batting role is going to be the same. My focus, my concentration, everything will be on that. So that's not going to change because I am not the captain any more."
Jayawardene, who captained Sri Lanka from 2006, said Sangakkara, a close friend, understands and agrees with his views on how he should be contributing to the team. "Sanga just asked me to be the batsman that I am and probably be better than what I am right now. That's what I want to be as well, and Sanga understands that. I enjoyed working with him when he was my deputy and now it is my duty to try and help him out in any way that I can to make his job easier.
"We have already had lots of discussions about combinations, compositions and different things like tactics. I just give him different inputs and then it's easier for him to play around with those. As for my role in the team, it is important for me to be the middle order batsman who will hold things together, and I just want to continue to do that."
Jayawardene has notched up four centuries, including a double against Pakistan in Karachi in February, in nine Tests over the last 12 months, scoring 773 runs at 70.27. His one-day batting dipped, however, during the same period and he scored just four fifties in 24 matches at 21.72, including three consecutive ducks against Zimbabwe and another against Bangladesh.
On reflection, he said, he empathises with Tendulkar and Dravid who had also decided that captaincy was getting in the way of their batting. "It's not an easy job, especially when you are captaining a sub-continent team. There are a lot of responsibilities, a lot of hope and joy because everyone is cricket-crazy. That's something you get into when you get to be the captain. So you try and do your best and then leave it and go back and concentrate on your own performance and try and help the team in a different way. I have seen the way Sachin and Rahul have gone about things and it has been amazing. Hopefully, like them, I can do the job."
Jayawardene also revealed that he had a "light discussion" with Dravid on the issue when they met during the IPL in South Africa. "Rahul called me 'skip' and I said I am no longer that. We had a quiet joke about it during the IPL, [talking] about the captaincy and how much of a difference it makes when you leave it and come back into the team as a batsman. It's all about prioritising your responsibilities; then the job becomes much easier."
It also helped, he said, that Sangakkara had emerged as a "capable" leader. "I knew I was leaving it to somebody capable of handling that pressure and of becoming a great captain for our country. I had no doubt in my mind about that."
The next step, Jayawardene said, was to work with Sangakkara and rectify their home record against the current visitors. Pakistan possess an overwhelming record in Sri Lanka, having lost just one Test to the hosts in 12 meetings since 1986. In fact, Pakistan have claimed three series wins out of five in Sri Lanka, including a 1-0 win in their previous meeting in 2006. This time, they are scheduled to play three Tests, five ODIs and a Twenty20 international.
"We have always been very competitive, Pakistan and Sri Lanka," Jayawardene said. "But our record against Pakistan is not that great. That's something we need to improve on and that is added motivation for us. We need to make sure that we get it right because not many teams have beaten us at home but Pakistan have done that quite a bit. So that's something we want to rectify."
Muthiah Muralitharan and Ajantha Mendis will play a key role in the series, Jayawardene felt, and they will be helped by Lasith Maliga and a clutch of new fast bowlers. But he admitted that his own role will be under the scanner, too. "For me, from the first day that I played for my country, there has been pressure to do well. That's always going to be there."
Ajay Shankar is a deputy editor at Cricinfo