'You don't have to be ugly to be aggressive'

Mahela Jayawardene is the king of cool when it comes to captaincy. Since he took control of the Sri Lankan Test team in 2006, two years after he became the one-day captain, he has built on Arjuna Ranatunga's legacy to take Sri Lanka to the next level. There was a period, after Ranatunga left and before Jayawardene became captain, where Sri Lanka seemed to have hit a plateau, and looked in desperate need of fresh ideas. From Jayawardene they got those and more. He has since gone on to distinguish himself as one of the more shrewd captains going around today. The virtues of captaincy, he tells Cricinfo, are clear thinking, calmness, controlling what can be controlled, and most importantly, thinking as a player first.

There is an incredible calm about you when you are on the field, either batting or captaining. One rarely sees you lose your cool. Where does that serenity come from?
For starters, this is just a game. There is a bit more to life than just cricket. I'm a very fierce competitor, but that's restricted to on the field. You have to be very focused on whatever you do. When it comes to playing and talking about the game and taking decisions, it is important to stay focused. It's not just about calmness. When you are focused on the decisions you have to make out on the field, you naturally become calmer.

I just focus on things I can control. I don't generally start thinking laterally about what I cannot control. That is beyond me. I just enjoy what I do in the moment, whether it's leading the side or just being a member of it.

Your outlook towards life and how you approach this game - does this come from the way you were raised?
Probably. I was brought up in a simple manner - a middle-class family. I value everything I got as a youngster. The education and teaching I got, I value all that. It is your upbringing and the people around you who have given so much time to your development. My coaches, my parents, my family are all important.

My brother's death from cancer was an eye-opener. He died when I was 19. He was a year younger than me. I was playing for my school then. It was the last couple of years at that level.

That gave me a different perspective. As a family we went through a lot of difficult periods then, and we realised it wasn't just us, it was thousands and more who go through the same situation. We took him to England for operations and treatment and spent months in hospitals. It made me see that cricket is just a game. The passion you have for the game is still there, but when you're a fierce competitor on the field, it should end there. It really is just another game.

Perhaps this is a simplistic and repetitious question to ask, but does Buddhism have a part to play here?
I'm a practising Buddhist, but like with any other religion it is important to simplify your faith. It is difficult for me to say this, because I don't go to the extreme of Buddhism, but neither am I a layman. You have to take the middle path. Times have changed, and religion and culture have, too. We need to change accordingly.

For me what has worked is that I put in the hard yards doing what I do. I do not intend to harm anybody. In return, hopefully I will get the same treatment. If you live life like that, it becomes very simple. I believe every religion has that simple philosophy for life. If you take that to a different level, to the extreme, that's where we get it all wrong.

Was there anyone you looked up to as a leader?
Not really. I watch a lot of cricket and I do read quite a bit, but you can get a lot of things from different people in world cricket and your own backyard. Take Arjuna Ranatunga, for instance. He was a very fearless leader who went by his own way of thinking. He thought that was the way he needed to go, and he believed in it. It was within himself. He developed a team that he thought was the best to move Sri Lankan cricket forward, and he won a World Cup. Not many people can do that. You have to admire that. It doesn't mean that it's going to work for you or the team at a particular time. You need to have options and see what works for you.

One can't see you doing what Arjuna did in Australia - leading a team off the field or pointing a finger at the umpire.
That's what I said. Arjuna was unique. He had a lot of courage and belief and a different ideology, and it worked for him. I don't know whether it will work for me. I'm a different person, and I like to do things differently. But I probably have the same belief in the team and my abilities. I admire Arjuna because he turned a huge page for Sri Lankan cricket. Before that, I think a lot of our cricketers felt that we had to bow our heads to authority and superior players. Arjuna was the one who said, 'No, we will play the same game at the same level because we have the same kind of talent.' He made us stand up for ourselves, and fight for our beliefs and rights. It worked miracles for Sri Lankan cricket, and shifted the attitude upwards.

So a Sri Lankan captain doesn't need to be an angry young man anymore?
You have to put your foot down. I've had my share of arguments with umpires, match referees, fellow and opposition players. There are certain times you tend to do that. But it has to be done on the field.

What are your broad leadership principles? What are the qualities a cricket captain should have?
You need to be a very good listener. You have to be very transparent about what you're doing, and you have to be very straightforward. Your team-mates should not hear something through a third party. If you have something to say to a player, you should have to have the courage to go up to him, irrespective of whether he has played 100 Tests or one, and tell him he's done something right or wrong. A player needs to hear it straight from the captain.

You shouldn't get overwhelmed by the responsibility. You've been given that responsibility to make decisions, and the selectors have a lot of belief in you to make the right choices. If you have any doubt about it, it's not going to work for you. You have to go with your instinct, be it right or wrong, because those decisions need to be made then and there. Don't shy away from it.

How tough was it to keep Marvan Atapattu out of the World Cup team last year? He was a senior player in the squad, but didn't get a match.
When Marvan came back from injury, he opened the batting, but we knew that with the Powerplays we needed a different approach to the World Cup. We tried him at No. 4 and 5 and it worked for a while, but again we found a different option in Chamara Silva. He was in very good form and created that extra bit of flair we needed in the middle.

Marvan was an opener when we went to the Caribbean. He was versatile. We could use him at any position because of his experience. But after the initial few matches we felt he wasn't in very good rhythm, whereas Upul Tharanga, the other opener, was batting much better. Tharanga got a hundred against New Zealand in a warm-up game and looked very good. When you are going into a tournament like that, you're there to win it. To do that you have to play your best possible combination. We spoke to Marvan, and explained the situation to him and said, "Come the first ODI, you won't be in our starting XI." The rest is history because we kept winning and made the final. We had a winning combination going the whole way, and there was no necessity to change it.

It was a tough call to take. You have to make tough calls and be transparent. You can't have any hidden agendas. It has to be plain and simple. What is right for the team? As long as your conscience says you've made a decision with the right intentions, you just go ahead. Especially when you're in situations like that, making decisions becomes easier.

What qualities do you value in your team-mates, apart from talent and skill?
Determination and the hunger to win are the qualities I most look for in my players. For me, ten runs from a batsman for the team are much more valuable than a selfish fifty or hundred. I have had a lot of discussions with selectors. In one-day cricket sometimes players go out there and don't get many opportunities, especially at Nos 5, 6 and 7, but they do all the dirty work for the team. They get those 30s and 40s and take risks and dive and save runs and create wickets and take half-chances. You need that kind of quality in your team, and need to encourage others to be that way. You need superstars too, but the other players, who play around them, have to work harder - those are qualities I admire a lot in a team environment.

You are seen going up to players and literally holding their chins up, when things aren't going well.
It is easy for guys to put their heads down. That's natural. But it is my responsibility to go up to them, and say, "There is nothing lost, just keep fighting." That's what you need from your players - not to give up. They will settle, but until then you have to encourage them.

If you look at Sri Lanka now, there is almost a sense of calm, most evident in your personality. You rarely see Sri Lankan players involved in ugly scenes. The flip side is that there could be a perception that you are not aggressive enough, that you don't have the bite. Is that ever a problem?
That is where I think people get it wrong. You have to be aggressive, but you can do that without getting ugly. My players are very aggressive on the field. Ask any of our opponents, and they will say that we never give up. We show that in our body language. As soon as you lose control, you won't do the required job.

Kumar Sangakkara is perhaps the only Sri Lankan player who sledges.
He doesn't sledge. He says things in a manner that gets to the opposition. Simple as that. If you ask Kumar, he will tell you the same thing. He just gets the point across in a different manner, which we encourage most of the guys to do.

But the Australians obviously do it in a different way.
It depends on what suits you. We feel that as soon as our guys go out of control, that's bad. We don't want that. Take Lasith Malinga or Dilhara Fernando, they are very aggressive. We encourage that in the individual, not as a team. There are some players who won't be able to handle that kind of pressure, and thus not do the job they are required to do. Murali is very aggressive as a competitor but still smiles. That's how he pumps himself up to do well. People are different, and you have to understand that and have a balance.

In that sense, do the Australians challenge you the most? Do they provoke the most?
I don't think 'provoke' is the right word. Australia offer you a different challenge: to be better cricketers. I think the Australian mentality is that they are individuals with a lot of confidence in themselves. They feel they have the best domestic structure, and are brought up with a tough frame of mind. They believe they can win a match from any situation. When you play a team like that, all your players should adopt the same mentality. It has nothing to do with talent. It's all about the mindset. You need to develop that.

There was a point when Sangakkara was also a candidate for captaincy. Was there ever a rivalry?
Not at all. I never expected to captain Sri Lanka. When you are given a responsibility, you try to do your best. Kumar is definitely a suitable person to lead Sri Lanka. His knowledge of the game and his approach is brilliant. He has been a brilliant deputy too. We talk a lot about planning and strategising, so there is not much difference in our thinking, which is very important. If I suddenly lose the hunger to lead then ideally Kumar should take over.

You are both the same age.
This is a job that I won't do for a long time. There have to be different challenges. The longer your career progresses, the more you need to focus on your own game and your family. This is a very tough job because it requires a lot of time.

So you see yourself playing as a non-captain?
The captaincy is not a position for you to be in the team. I think of myself as a player first. I need to contribute to the team first, only then can I captain. It's as simple as that. Captaincy should not be a tool to keep you in the team. If you find someone whose thinking is going to work, brilliant.

It is obvious that you and Sangakkara share a very positive relationship. You play golf together, and your wives are friends. That must provide Sri Lanka a lot of strength.
It is nice to have that kind of understanding on and off the field. Talk to Kumar and it's very easy to see what he is doing. It should also be easy for the rest of the team to build around that. His thinking is not that far from what I want to do with the team. You don't want a deputy who will always say yes. It won't work. You need to have different opinions and be asked to think differently. Yes-men won't help, especially if you are headed in the wrong direction.

Were the two of you friends before you played for your country?
I think Kumar and I played against each other when we were 15 or 16, for our schools. Then he lived in Kandy and I was in Colombo, so we didn't have that connection. As soon as he moved to Colombo and started playing club cricket, he was next door to me at the SSC. That's where we got to know each other. I made my debut in 1997 and Kumar in 2000, so ever since then we've been good friends. We practically grew up together the last ten years. We complement each other's game too. He bats No. 3 and I bat at 4, so we tend to spend time in the middle. We talk about each other's game and cricket. We have a very good understanding of what's happening around us.

Also noticeable since you took over, and even a little before that, is how well the coaches have blended in. That isn't something we have seen in India or Pakistan, who are always in turmoil. Tom Moody came and blended in very nicely, and now Trevor Bayliss has. Is it something to do with the environment in the dressing room?
I cannot make comments about other teams, but in our case it's all about the team. Once you set team goals, the coaches can come in and see the structure. They only need to understand the culture of the team. They will bring different ways to improve; that's their goal. Some will work and some won't, so we need to discuss that. We have a compromise and start building towards one goal. Once a coach understands the base, it is easy for anyone to come into a set-up like that and work with it.

Do you feel you are better off captaining Sri Lanka as opposed to, say, India or Pakistan? Mainly because of external factors - the pressure, the kind of passion the Indian fans and media have.
I did see that, especially in the IPL. If you can control what is in your hands, instead of thinking about what you cannot, that will work. The media and people - and I'm not saying this in a bad way - and all the external factors, the administration, whatever... you cannot control those. You can only control how you practise and what you go out and do. If you concentrate on that, the other aspects will fit into the picture nicely. If you think about external factors, it creates adverse pressure for you.

But you don't have those pressures in Sri Lanka...
No, that's not true. We have our media, who are very passionate about the game. Even the people are passionate. Maybe not as much as in India, but they do analyse us. We have external issues as well. It doesn't affect us because we try and stay away from it as much as possible.

This may be an external view, but I don't see cricket as a matter of life and death in Sri Lanka.
It is not.

Not for the players, for the fans.
Yes, it is just another game. As long as everyone understands that there are limits to human beings and that they are trying their best and that on some days that might not be good enough, you can enjoy the game.

Do you feel a sense of sympathy for Indian cricketers in that regard?
Not just the cricketers, I feel a lot of grief for their families. I don't think they enjoy that life. I'm sure they would like to spend more time together. Unfortunately they cannot.

When an Indian player does well he is taken to the top, and then after a few bad games he is brought back down. Only the strong-minded player will come through such ups and downs. In Sri Lanka, fortunately, we don't have that kind of stuff happening. You can be treated as a brilliant cricketer but you are criticised in a very constructive manner. That comes with the culture and territory.

You have a player like Ajantha Mendis, who is very young and new to the international scene. Suddenly he is playing for the Kolkata Knight Riders. He suddenly comes to money and quick fame. As a leader of the team do you see that as a challenge? How do you keep him on his feet?
Not really. Because in our team it doesn't matter what your background is, you are treated the same. Our culture plays a big part. Everyone has been raised to believe that money is good, but at the end of the day there are certain values you have to fall in line with. That's not going to be an issue. Whoever does not fit into those set of rules and goals will not be part of the team, irrespective of how good they are.

What about Muttiah Muralitharan? Has he changed over the years?
No. He has enough money and fame, but Murali is the same. We have had so many superstars. Sanath [Jayasuriya], Aravinda [de Silva], whoever - all brilliant players but they all fall in line with the team goals and requirements. Ajantha will do the same. I don't know where it will come from, but it will come naturally.

What is beyond cricket for you? What are your interests?
I just live a very normal life. Apart from cricket I have my friends and family. Beyond cricket I have no idea what my future is. I like to live in the moment, especially with my career.

I do various things in my free time. I read and I hang out, play golf. I have some business interests, which have nothing to do with cricket. It's very slow and steady. I would definitely like to give back to the game, to Sri Lanka. I would love to get involved in Sri Lankan cricket, though not in an administrative way. I would love to help kids get involved in cricket, in my own time. But I also want to spend time with my family. They eagerly wait for you to come home, and we shouldn't take that away from them.