There's something essentially old-world and decent about Mahela Jayawardena that makes him an anachronism in the bright lights and snappy jingles of the Pepsi Indian Premier League. From being a prodigy - he was picked to play for a strong Sri Lankan team after just one good season of first-class cricket - to naturally slipping into the captaincy, then ceding it to his good friend Kumar Sangakkara, and then finally returning to do a stop-gap job when it was needed, Jayawardene has seen it all in cricket. Yet, there's still room for a bit more before he gives the game up. Excerpts from a chat with Wisden India:
You have a lot of captaincy experience with Sri Lanka. How different are the challenges leading the Delhi Daredevils in the Indian Premier League?
There are a lot of different challenges being thrown around. Purely the fact that you have so many quality players around you and only eleven can play is the first challenge. Then there's the cap on four overseas players and finding the right combination. There's also the fact that, unlike in a bilateral series, you're not playing a number of matches against the same team. Different opposition come up with different combinations and pose different questions that you have to try and answer. There's also the varied conditions from one set-up to another. As a captain, you have to come up with different plans and answers every two days. It's not easy, but it is fascinating.
Do you have more control over the entire process when you're leading your country rather than an IPL team?
Captaining your country is a different challenge altogether. You know the players so much better and you get a bit more time to get a combination together and develop a team. There the focus is always more on the longer term. In that sense, the manner of planning is different. In the IPL, it is the opposite. You have to be on your toes all the time, see who is in the best form at the time, who is best suited to a certain opposition or set of conditions and then take a call. Then there are injuries and you have to make decisions quickly, on the run, literally. Sometimes things don't work for you, but you don't have the luxury of sitting back and pondering these things. You just have to keep moving and keep things running.
When you made your debut for Sri Lanka as a youngster, you entered a dressing-room full of stalwarts and stars. Did you keep your own experience in mind when you walked into the Daredevils set-up as an established player?
Those experiences did help me a lot. When I was in Sri Lanka, it was the 1996 World Cup-winning team pretty much. It was stacked with superstars. It took me sometime to get over my awe and make a few friends. I wasn't quite comfortable asking questions about the game or speaking about anything cricket-related with players who I had admired and watched on television. For me, it was a learning process every day. I now relate that to the Delhi experience. You get a lot of youngsters, both Indian and international, coming in to the dressing-room. It's important for players like myself to help these guys out. They have to realise that after all we are human as well. We're not any different, we've just played the game a bit longer and therefore may have a better understanding of the game. It is the responsibility and duty of the senior players to get this across to the youngsters, whether in a national set-up or in the IPL. You have to help youngsters develop the game. That's one way for those of us who have got so much from the game to contribute.
You're almost 36, and still going strong. Is this the right time to look back at your career or is it a bit early for that?
I feel that I have a bit of cricket left in me, but that said, it's always good to look back and introspect. I wouldn't change things. I have made mistakes in my career, but I've tried to learn from these and grow as a cricketer and as a human being. There's no doubt I got better by making mistakes and learning from them. If you want to stay at the game for a length of time, have a balanced perspective, it's always good to look back and see how you got through your tough times. It definitely helps to reflect on the scenarios that made you the player you are, see if you can improve now. The older you get, you still want to compete at the level you have set for yourself. Once you've set a standard, you have to keep up with it. The day you realise you can't maintain those standards, it's time to move on.
The best part of your career, coinciding with Kumar Sangakkara's, has been been about consolidating Sri Lanka's position in world cricket. How important is this?
For us, it is about a culture of cricket and the value we place on the game. A lot of people have worked very hard to earn a good name for Sri Lankan cricket. We are where we are because of what the players before us achieved. This is something we have always emphasised in the team room and in meetings. That's an atmosphere we try to create and get across to the younger guys as well. The work that the Anura Tennekooons, Michael Tisseras, Arjuna Rantaunga, Roy Dias, Aravinda de Silva ... the list is long, they've brought us immense pride. It is up to anyone representing Sri Lanka to uphold this and try and improve on it. We realise that we are a tiny island. Luckily for us, though we have a small population, it's a cricket-mad population. Because of this, we still have good talent coming through. We need to harness that and keep improving. As long as we instill the pride of playing for Sri Lanka, and set up the right environment and culture, that's the way forward. This is the reason we've done well in big tournaments against stronger teams when we travel out of Sri Lanka - we have that pride.
There seems to be no shortage of unorthodox young talent being blooded. Are you happy with the quality of youngsters coming through?
We've always had a culture of encouraging young and unorthodox cricketers and allowing them to play the game their way. Sanath Jayasuriya and Muttiah Muralitharan are cases in point. Lasith (Malinga) after them. Because of those role models, young kids feel that you don't have to be technically orthodox to make a difference. We just need to harness that talent and guide them in the right direction. The conveyor belt is running fine, school cricket is producing some impressive youngsters. We just have to identify the individuals who could be good long-term prospects, who can do the job for the country, and invest in the right people.
When it comes to young cricketers, is it becoming more of a challenge to identify the right players for the right formats of the game?
It is becoming a challenge. In Sri Lanka, we have always tried to get kids to play Test cricket. That has been a priority. Obviously if someone isn't good enough, he may focus on ODIs or T20. But even at the school games, we try and get the guys to build a base and play the longer forms. If you set yourself up right in the longest form of the game, you can go anywhere.
Who are some of the youngsters to have caught your eye?
The investments that we have made with Lahiru Thirimanne and Dinesh Chandimal, along with Angelo Mathews, are guys we think will play for a longer period as long as they keep improving and developing. Kusal Janith Perera has the potential in the future to change his game and become a good Test cricketer for us. Kithuruwan Vithanage, Dimuth Karunaratne ... these are the guys who will form the nucleus of the team. It depends on how focussed they are, how they develop, how they play at the highest level. The first year or two will be a honeymoon and then they will be really challenged. That's when the tougher guys, the more focussed ones will carry through. I'm happy with the talent we've got.
Having a recent past-player in Sanath Jayasuriya as chairman of selectors, does this help?
When cricketers get involved with the game after they finish, it's always a good thing. When it's a recent cricketer, there's the advantage that you speak the same language. People will have different opinions and ideas, you have to respect that. Every team will go through a phase when senior players get left out and teams are rebuilding. Communication and dialogue are crucial in these situations. Everyone has contributed to the development of the game, and if this respect is given, and there is clear communication, things will run smoothly.
As you've grown older, have you had to work more at your game?
The more mature you get, the more you understand what your game is about. As a youngster you can come and play your natural game, make mistakes and learn from them. But to be consistent and sustain for a longer period of time, you have to make changes. For this, you have to identify what your game is all about. You have to create a solid barrier round your strengths. I have changed my game over the years, starting with having to take responsibility around the national team. This was good for me. Later on, with T20 coming up and the changes in ODIs, I had to be more proactive in developing new skills. It's been fun. So long as you treat the entire process as a challenge, you can enjoy it. Otherwise you could get bored as well. If you constantly challenge yourself to be a better cricketer, it gives you that edge. Even today I'm trying to do things differently, see if I can do certain things better.
Closer to the end of your career than the beginning, how much of your time (and Sangakkara's) is spent grooming the youngsters coming through the ranks?
We both know that this is our responsibility to Sri Lankan cricket. We've spoken about it as well. The next year and a half, if we keep playing, it's our job to guide guys through the system. Seniors did that for us, and now we have to create an atmosphere in which youngsters strive to improve.
So, if all goes well, the 50-over World Cup in Australia and New Zealand is something you want to be a part of?
That's a marker, a milestone. But there are no guarantees. It all depends on my hunger to perform, my form. Honestly, I can't be certain I'll still be around, but it's a challenge that I have to look at every six months. I have to take stock of my game and see if I'm contributing enough. If I'm hitting the numbers that I have in my head, doing well for the team, then definitely I'd like to play the next World Cup.