Sanath Jayasuriya is 43 and retired from international cricket, but far from finished with playing the game competitively. A couple of months back, he played in the Bangladesh Premier League. Now he is ready for another innings, at the inaugural Sri Lanka Premier League beginning on August 11.
Jayasuriya, also a Member of Parliament from Matara, was to have played under Kumar Sangakkara for Kandurata Warriors, but with Sangakkara almost certain to miss the tournament due to a broken finger, might even end up captaining the side. In this chat with Wisden India, he looks forward to the SLPL, holds forth on what he thinks it will do for Sri Lanka cricket, and talks about the balance he is able to strike between his cricketing commitments and his political responsibilities. Excerpts:
How excited are you about being a part of the SLPL?
Very much so. It's the first edition of the tournament, and I really can't wait for it to start. The SLPL will give a lot of local players a chance to play with international cricketers. That's a wonderful thing. Some of these cricketers would otherwise never have had the chance to play against the top international players. It's like the IPL - the IPL gives young India players the opportunity to play and share a dressing room with players from across the world. The SLPL will be no different, either.
Do you believe there is enough talent in Sri Lanka for an event like the SLPL to be a success?
Yes, definitely. We have a lot of talent in cricket. Even though we are a very small country, the system is such that we produce a lot of cricketers. The schools, club cricket and provincial cricket - they are all very strong. Now with the SLPL, we will produce even more cricketers.
Is it also a success of the system that natural talent and unorthodox actions are allowed to flourish?
What we basically don't do is tinker too much. With batsmen, we allow them to play their natural game. We impress upon them that when they get experience by playing more cricket, they must start to realise that they need to play according to situations. It's the same with the bowlers too. We don't change them much, their pattern, their style of delivery, though that's a fairly recent trend. In the olden days, coaches would have changed anything that didn't conform to the norm. In the 1980s and the early 90s, all local coaches would have changed the actions. They would have said you can't succeed with this action; our coaches mostly liked copybook coaching. That was much the case when I just got into the Sri Lankan side. But with time, that thinking changed. The change came about because of the way we started to play, a different type of cricket. Aravinda de Silva was a different kind of player to Hashan Tillakaratne. Hashan and Roshan Mahanama were pretty similar. Asanka Gurushina was a different another kind of player. We played attacking cricket, we never compromised on our natural game. We didn't worry about getting out, we just wanted to make sure we won games for Sri Lanka. The coaches who came to Sri Lanka at that time, starting from Dav Whatmore and Bruce Yardley, they developed whatever we had but they didn't try to change us. That's a good thing. From that time, the pattern has continued. The fast bowling coaches, the batting coaches, their mindset is right.
So, was that one of the reasons behind your success?
That's the key thing here. The captain and the coach, the management, they realised what my game was. They gave me a free licence - you play your game, you don't change anything. But when you do get in, get some runs, do something for the team. That was the expectation from the team management. It was up to me to realise that if I played well, got runs and met the expectations, then I would be a part of the Sri Lankan team for a longer period. But I can never overstate the confidence they gave me. They said there was nothing to worry even if I had four failures on the trot. 'If you get runs in two innings, we will win those two matches.' That's what they told me, and that worked wonders when I went out to bat.
As you moved up from a lower-order batsman to opening the innings, what were your own expectations?
My mindset was such that basically, the expectations were not very high. My reading was that I had been given a responsibility, I had got a chance to prove myself which for several years I hadn't. I realised I was asked to open because of my aggressive approach, and I didn't change that. But I made sure that if I got in, I scored big as often as possible. When you are told that your getting out is not the end of your world and that you keep continuing to play your natural game, your thinking is positive, the confidence is so high that you don't fear getting out. I knew there was a lot of good back-up as well as plenty of backing, so I just went out and enjoyed my cricket.
Yourself, Chris Gayle, Virender Sehwag - all high-risk batsmen. And yet, all Test triple centurions...
That's a good thing, isn't it? Batsmen who mostly have correct and perfect techniques, they are good, but the way we play is a different game of cricket altogether. That's why when we get 100, we play our natural game. When we get 200, we still play our natural game. Yes, with such an approach, the chances of getting out might appear high, but when you back yourself and playing your shots, you will be successful. I know my limits, I know where to hit, I know what to do. People have asked me if the fact that we got so many runs in boundaries and scored so quickly meant we were fresher. But that's not a factor at all. Even to hit a boundary, you still need to concentrate hard. It's all that how you see the ball and how quickly you see it, the hand and eye coordination, how quickly you react to the ball. I think we react faster than some of the other players who hit the ball so hard, but hit it straight at the fielders.
At 43, what prompts you to put your reputation on the line by still playing competitively?
I have been training and playing a bit of local cricket, I still play a little bit of Twenty20 cricket. Considering this is the first SLPL, it's a big thing for me to play in it. I always put in my 100% to do well and play well for my team. It's something I enjoy doing. When I was young, I used to dream of playing cricket all the time. Cricket's there in my blood. Anytime I go out to bat or bowl, I keep thinking I must do well. The age, it's all in your mind, in your head. I don't think about it. As long as you run fast, take catches, bat well and bowl well, that's all that matters. I will leave it to other people to talk about my age, I don't worry about it; as long as I do my work, I am happy. It's not very difficult to retain my enthusiasm for cricket. We come from a very poor background, I remember the very difficult situations we had in my home town in Matara. We wanted to go a higher level in life by playing cricket. I understood that to make a living out of cricket and maintain a particular standard, you need to keep doing well - keep focussing, keep training hard, keep succeeding. Even now, when I go to Matara, I think about how bad things were, how difficult my life was. I understand that whatever I am today is because of cricket, so I must never let the game down.
How do you balance cricket and politics?
I never neglect my political responsibilities. The people in my area have given me the mandate and the confidence to do some social work and develop my area. You don't have to stay on for months or years to do that. Every week, if you spare one or two days, you can do a lot of work. But sometimes, politics can be very difficult. The expectations of people are very high, and being just an MP, you have your limitations. I always explain to my people what my capacity is, what I can do for them. With me being a big-name cricketer, they expect more but it is difficult when you come into the system. I do what I can in terms of developing the area, helping my people get jobs, things like that. At the same time, I do my training, I attend practice sessions, I travel and I play cricket. I also go to Parliament when it's in session. It is busy, but I enjoy it.
Sri Lanka are struggling to cope with the retirement of Muttiah Muralitharan. How difficult will it be to fill the shoes of Mahela Jayawardene, Kumar Sangakkara and Tillakaratne Dilshan?
These three are fantastic players, so it will be very difficult to straightaway find replacements for such men. I remember, when Arjuna (Ranatunga) and Aravinda went out, everyone was asking how we were going to fill the void. It took about six months or one year, then slowly Sanga and the others came and we got going. Yes, we lost a few matches, but we needed to give the younger players the experience and the exposure, and the same will be the case in the future. At the same time, I don't agree with certain selection decisions. I feel a person like Thilina Kandamby should be in this ODI squad. I am not against any player, but someone like (Chamara) Kapugedera, he has been given many chances but he has not proved himself, and yet he keeps getting chances. From that point of view, I am very disappointed with the selectors. There are players who have been performing, and they are not being given a chance. The selectors have to be responsible, they should pick the right players.