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'We have to compete, but we can't do that by copying India'

Sri Lanka's captain talks about learning on the job, shepherding his players and making the most of their limitations

Dimuth Karunaratne shares a light moment ahead of his ODI captaincy debut, Edinburgh, May 20, 2019

"My first job is as a batsman. If I do that, then the captaincy side of things becomes a little easier"  •  Peter Della Penna

Dimuth Karunaratne has had an interesting year. He was merely Sri Lanka's Test-match opener in January, but in the months since, he has been elevated to Test captaincy - leading that team to a historic win in South Africa - before being named ODI captain for the World Cup. This despite his not having played ODIs since 2015.
You have not played ODIs for four years, and suddenly you're captaining the team. What has your experience of that situation been like?
It's a big challenge, and I knew that when I took the job on. I know that I have to perform as an individual to keep my place in the side, and having not been around for four years, I've got something to prove. There's pressure, but if you want to perform, there's got to be that pressure pushing you. The way I look at it is that my first job is as a batsman. If I do that, then the captaincy side of things becomes a little easier.
Thankfully I was able to bat well against Scotland, and I was okay in the [World Cup] warm-ups as well. I've also been playing domestic List-A cricket, and generally I'm among the top four batsmen in the [Sri Lankan] competition. So it's not that I can't play one-dayers, but there is a gap between internationals and domestic cricket. The more I play, though, the more I get used to it.
Test experience helps as well. Actually what the team expects from me is to anchor the innings, in the way that I might do in a Test. That's something I can do. There are things I have to improve, so I'm trying to do that.
Were you ever afraid the team wouldn't respect you as a captain, having been out of the ODI side for such a long time?
The only real fear was about my own performance. I was never worried about acceptance from the team, because I think they like me (laughs). Whether I'm in the Test team or the one-day team, I get on well with everyone. I knew that no one would reject me because of that. I've never done anything wrong towards the team for that kind of resentment to be there.
And I'm not the same Dimuth as I was in 2015. I have a lot of experience. I have knowledge about cricket. I think I've improved a lot, so from the captaincy side, I had the belief that I could do it.
When it came to my own performance, though, there were those doubts. We're playing the very top teams, and this is a format that is driven by entertainment. It's a fast game. Would I be able to adapt to that, I wondered. But the support staff and team-mates have been really supportive.
I haven't changed my game. If I bat in the middle, the batsman on the other side is always telling me to just play my normal game. They ask me to take the singles and hand over the strike to them. If I ever look panicked, the batsman at the other end gives me some advice, and I do that for them as well.
So far my batting's had a good reception. People have told me I'm doing the job the team needs. I have to respect my own limits, but within that, I can work out how to build a one-day innings and produce a match-winning performance.
"What the team expects from me is to anchor the innings, in the way that I might do in a Test. That's something I can do."
What do you think are your strengths as a leader?
One thing is that I'm close with everyone, and I treat everyone the same. I don't care if they're a senior player or a junior player. There's no one I would ever favour. If someone came brand new into the team today, I'd treat them the same as I would Malinga. I've told everyone to bring me their problems, and I'll treat it as my own problem and find a solution. I try to be a friend to everyone, and build that bond. Whether I'm right or wrong, I think people respect what I say. If someone thinks I'm wrong, they'll say: "Have you thought about this?" I like that, because it's healthy to have those debates. And at least they are listening.
In the South Africa Test series, I had a really inexperienced side, so I had control over the team. But the ODI side has a lot of seniors, so I wondered if I could do it, at first. But when we started playing, I felt I got more support than I even did in South Africa. The seniors were always talking to me saying, let's do this or let's do that. I really valued that. I was sort of expecting not to have them on my side to that extent. I'd only played 17 ODIs, you know? They have played hundreds. They know a lot more than me, but they gave me the respect a captain needs. They listen to me, and I listen to them. That communication is always open.
The other thing I try to do is to keep the team together. You can't do every single thing as a group of 15, but if we go out to eat, I'll say: "We're going here at this time - who's coming?" So the crowd joins, and that bond in the team develops as we chat and we joke around. Day by day that bond gets stronger. If we win a match, that accelerates it even more. When we were playing New Zealand in the first match, maybe the team wasn't as united as it could have been. But every match since then it's got better.
Team unity seems to be a big thing for you as captain.
Well, we lost a lot of matches in a stretch. When that happens people are afraid of expressing themselves and their ideas. They're worried that if they tell the captain something and it turns out not to work, then they'll be blamed. But because I treat people the same, I think I get that information from everyone. My job then is to filter that and use what is good. If I have any doubts, I'll quickly call the seniors - not just one of them, but all three - and get their thoughts. By all three I mean Thisara, Mali and Angie. So then I choose the best way forward.
Already in this World Cup, there's been really valuable suggestions. Someone will tell me, "Look, it's about to rain. Get the fast bowler on and let's get a wicket." I don't have a lot of experience when it comes to Duckworth-Lewis stuff. That's something I've never encountered before. So I really need that help, and the three seniors make it easy for me.
I guess your weakness as a captain would be on the tactical front in ODIs?
I have captained in one-dayers quite a lot, in domestic and A-team cricket, but there are different challenges in international cricket. One of the good things about often going to the senior players for that advice is that they know I value what they have to say. There's no point being the captain if you don't have the support of the other ten players. When I play a few more games, I'll get experience for myself. I think I'm a quick learner. But right now, I need to lean on the seniors.
Malinga was the captain before you, and he did have hopes of leading the team in this World Cup. How has your relationship with him been, after you were appointed captain?
He's someone we absolutely need in the team. I don't think I need to talk about everything he has done for Sri Lanka. As soon as I got the captaincy, I called Lasith aiya. I told him he was someone that had to be in my team. I had heard rumours that he wouldn't play in this World Cup if he wasn't captain. But I personally called him and asked him to play. He's done so much for Sri Lanka, and a World Cup comes only every four years. I definitely need his support.
There have never been any issues between me and Mali aiya. In fact, we'd barely played together - I think we'd only had about two matches where we were both playing. So I asked him: "Play for me. Play for Sri Lanka. We've got nine matches, and we need you." I think because I went to him personally, he respected that. I think he did have a decision to make that day, but he told me he'd let me know by evening. Then he took the decision to play. Since he's arrived, he's given me a lot of insight. The way he captains and the way I captain are very different.
Could you elaborate on those differences?
He's played so much cricket, in internationals and things like the IPL, that his knowledge is off the charts. But in our side, a lot of the players we have are inexperienced. I have played a lot of cricket with this set of players, and I sort of know their mentality. I know what they expect from a captain. With Mali aiya, the things he says can sometimes be tough for some of the less experienced players to grasp. I think maybe that's the difference. Because I've been playing with these players in domestic cricket and the A team, I can maybe take what Mali aiya is saying and filter that message. The way I'd suggest something to Suranga Lakmal is different from the way I'd say it to Nuwan Pradeep.
Mali aiya is very direct, because he's done everything there is to be done. He's got a perfect yorker and a great bouncer and a great wide yorker. Not all our fast bowlers have that talent yet. Maybe they'll bowl two good yorkers, then miss one and leak runs. Then there is panic. So it then becomes about what is possible for that particular player. Maybe with someone like Nuwan Pradeep, his bouncer is more effective than his yorker, given the pace he bowls at. We have to give him that freedom. He has to find a way within his own limitations.
"The only real fear was about my own performance. I was never worried about acceptance from the team, because I think they like me"
You said after the Test wins in South Africa that it was the freedom the team had that made the difference. Is freedom a big thing for you?
For sure. No matter how much you practice, it won't matter if you're not mentally strong. If you're constantly thinking about cricket, it's very tough. You're mentally exhausted before you even play. So what I told the management was to give players permission to go where they want and do what they want, as much as possible. They go out because they enjoy being out, and that means their minds are not on cricket, at least for a little bit. If you only think about the game, it can be a headache.
Coach Chandika Hathurusingha is someone who likes to be very prepared. But you value freedom. What's that relationship like?
Hathu aiya is someone who analyses the game a lot, and he gives a lot of information to players. That works for some players, but it doesn't work for others. If I feel sometimes that maybe the information is too much, I might [talk to] that player casually about it. Then I can feed that back to Hathu aiya and we can work as a team. At other times, if I feel the team needs information, I'll run that by Hathu aiya and we decide what to do. At other times we've decided not to have team meetings, because I've felt the team is already prepared, and we didn't want to cause any confusion. We talk with each other and strike a balance.
There are some things, though, that you absolutely need to analyse and talk about. The way our middle order collapsed against Afghanistan, for example - that wasn't acceptable. So we talk about those situations. I do like to talk about the mistakes that we made, and appreciate the things we did well. The great thing about Hathu aiya is that he's always done the homework and he has the analysis at hand. The moment we feel like we need it, we can tap into that.
You talk about information being too much for people, but you are a player who loves to know everything.
I think that comes from having played a lot of cricket with this group of people. When we play domestic cricket, we don't have that information flying at us, and there's no stress. Everybody just plays the game. And I know which players really don't like that information. I've shared rooms at domestic level with Kusal Perera, and if someone comes and asks him to go view some footage, he's really reluctant. He feels it messes up his game, and he tells me that. He's someone that just freely plays the ball as it comes.
I'm the opposite. I need that information. I take pretty much every opportunity to view footage and to listen to analysis. I want to know how the opposition bowls in the first ten, what they are likely to do after that, and what my best chances are of countering them. It's just about knowing how to get the best out of each individual.
You've suddenly got the captaincy. What happens after the World Cup? Are you keen to continue in the role and build a team?
The captaincy was never something I asked for. What I really wanted was to play. I have personal targets: I want to play 100 Tests, for example. Captaincy is just one waypoint in my career. Not everyone gets to do it, so I'm really grateful for the opportunity. But it's not something I am greedy about. If I can perform and contribute to a win, that's enough for me.
If someone ever calls me a match-winner, that's what I get excited about. In this team, you've got match-winners like Kusal Perera, Angelo and Malinga - that's where I want to be. To do that, I don't necessarily need the captaincy. If someone else captains the next series, I'm there for them 100%. But while I have it, I will give the captaincy everything I have.
What does Sri Lanka need to do to get to the knockout stages of this World Cup?
We are a team with limited talent. If you compare us with a lot of other sides, we have major limitations. For example, the India side has someone who hits a hundred virtually in every match. In our team, we've only had one or two centurions all year. Their openers can hit the big shots any time they want. They can defend any time they want. If they want to be 70 or 80 after ten overs, they can do that, and if the conditions are tough, they can be 30 or 40 for no loss after ten as well. They've faced every bowler there is to face, either in internationals or the IPL, and they've got all that knowledge and experience. They've got fast bowlers that go at over 140kph. We don't have that luxury - we're 130, 135kph. Their bowlers can bat, but ours can't so much. So we have to work within those limitations. We have to compete, but we can't copy India. We have our own rhythm. The way we make 300 is not the same as the way they do it. If we play smart, we can beat anyone.
You've got a middle order that's out of form. How do you lift them out of that?
If you look at a player like Kusal Mendis, it's only in the last two games that he hasn't scored. He did well in South Africa, and he did well against Scotland. Someone like Angelo, meanwhile, is a different thing. He's someone who might make a duck today but could come out and hit a hundred tomorrow. He's got the determination and character to do that. I don't think I need to say anything to Angelo. He knows where his mistakes are.
It's players like Mendis and Dhananjaya de Silva that we need to guide a little bit more. If they get beaten up on social media, that does affect them mentally. In Sri Lanka, you've got a lot of people with a lot of opinions. Players who are struggling can sometimes dip even lower because of that. When someone is struggling like that, the best thing you can do is just to make them comfortable around the team. If we're ordering [some food] as a group, maybe let them choose first. There's no need to talk too much about cricket. They are already thinking about the cricket side of things. If Mendis wants to go play a game of table tennis, let's go do that. Maybe that's how he relaxes. And he's someone who can change a match for us. He's someone I'm sure will finish the tournament on a high.

Andrew Fidel Fernando is ESPNcricinfo's Sri Lanka correspondent. @afidelf