In August 2014, Sri Lankan cricket suffered a big blow when Mahela Jayawardene hung up his Test boots. A few months later, following the team’s exit from the 2015 World Cup, he brought the curtain down on his One-Day International career as well alongside Kumar Sangakkara, leaving the island nation with huge breaches to fill.
The void was obvious but the pinch hasn’t been as intense because Sri Lanka haven’t played an since. Sangakkara is still around in Test cricket, if only briefly. He will, however, join Jayawardene on the Test sidelines too next month, having announced that the second game of a three-Test series at home against India will be his swansong.
Sri Lanka were without Sangakkara and Jayawardene, their top two run-getters, for the final Test against Pakistan in Pallekele. The young side attacked from the get-go and held sway, but when it mattered most, the final four sessions of the Test, they let it slip, prompting many to wonder if the result would have been different had the two been around.
In this lengthy chat with Wisden India, Jayawardene speaks about his dear friend, the future of Sri Lankan cricket, the Caribbean Premier League and more. Excerpts:
Now that Kumar Sangakkara has also announced his retirement, how do you think Sri Lankan cricket will cope with your twin absences?
We have had quite a few discussions (regarding Sangakkara’s retirement). We have spoken about this for the past one year, from around the time I retired, but Sri Lankan Cricket convinced him to play a bit longer so he changed his stand. He is fantastic. If you ask Kumar, he would say I am the best but if you look at his numbers, it’s quite clear who was. Kumar’s numbers are phenomenal and he has stamped his legacy. He is someone every youngster should learn from. He has handled himself very well on and off the field. He is someone who has given a lot to Sri Lankan cricket and I am very proud to have played with him. It’s going to be a tremendous loss for Sri Lankan cricket, but like all teams, Sri Lanka will also go through a transition period. I hope the young side can learn from some of the things that we have taught them and take Sri Lankan cricket in the right direction. That’s our only hope.
Do you think once Sangakkara leaves, the legacy that you and he built over the years will begin to wane?
You’ll have to wait and see. We tried to change the culture in the team over the last ten years and we have managed well. It also depends on the next generation and if they want to stay the path or follow a new direction. But I think once he leaves, our signature in the side will cease to exist and I don’t think many will take our approach forward. Younger guys have a very different view and different ways of going about things and they should be allowed to pursue their own path. It will be interesting to see how things pan out. We had a great run for over 15 years and no one can stay forever but we are proud that we have given everything we had for the country.
Experience is something the Sri Lankan side lacks right now, and it was evident in their loss to Pakistan. Will that become more and more of a problem during this transition?
I don’t know. I didn’t watch too much of the match but I know that Pakistan have much more experience. Obviously, Younis Khan’s knock in the fourth innings showed that. I know the boys will learn from this experience and you will see a much better performance the next time. I’m sure they will have a chat about it and see what positives they can take away from it. I thought everyone fought very well, especially the bowlers did a great job for Sri Lanka. We just need to fine tune a bit… so I just think Sri Lankan cricket needs to be supported during this period.
Switching over to the CPL now. Is your form a bit of concern? You have made just 13 runs from three innings…
Not really. See, I walk into situations where I have to tee off from the start. I don’t obviously open the innings, so it has been different for me to adapt to this new role. Thankfully, Chris (Gayle) has been in great form and he has finished off games for us (Jamaica Tallawahs). It’s just the start of the tournament and we have had a couple of tough games. We were outplayed in the last game but we were apart from that we have had a good time. I am looking forward to the home run, we have four games and hopefully I can get some runs. Home games are going to be crucial for us. It’s a great tournament and very competitive. Talent is brilliant and everyone is enjoying it. I am looking forward to the next couple of weeks.
What is your take on the CPL? What sort of an impact do tournaments like these have on youngsters as well as seniors?
It’s great. It’s something for us to challenge ourselves in a different way. I think Indian cricket has come a long way in international cricket because of the IPL where young players share dressing rooms with seniors from all over the world. All countries are benefiting from that exchange. West Indies is trying to do the same thing and they are doing a great job with that. It’s very competitive and there’s a lot of quality. Young talent in West Indies is going to learn a lot from this. It’s good for us (seniors) too. It’s nice to get away from international cricket. It’s competitive but it’s very entertaining as well so we are very relaxed and it’s brilliant. It’s fun to be here and I am really enjoying my cricket here.
Do you see a similarity in the way the game is approached in the West Indies and in Sri Lanka, not just by the players but also the fans?
No. Of course, there are a lot of similarities in the way the Sri Lankans and the West Indians approach their cricket. They have an attacking brand of cricket that they have adopted from the 80s and the 90s. There is a lot of raw talent and I think we share a commonality in that. But the difference is they have a huge power game. We cannot compare that to the Sri Lankan way (laughs), but the flair and lot of the other aspects of their game can be compared to them. The important thing is that the environment is very similar to the environment in Sri Lanka. Cricket is an occasion in both the places and players love it when the crowds get behind them.
Talking about attacking cricket, has T20 cricket put lesser value on wickets in Test cricket?
No. If you can score 350-400 in a day even if it means losing a few wickets, you put yourself in a position from where you can win a Test match. I think if you can get results, then that means betterment of Test cricket. You see batsmen going hard at the top order nowadays and it’s very exciting. They find that attack is the best option rather than being negative and getting bogged down. I think it’s about having the right balance. Test cricket will benefit not only because of T20 but also because of the mindset of these players. Nowadays, batsmen are much more confident playing their shots. They can use what they learn in T20s in Tests but they should find a balance and be able to execute it regularly.
Your Ashes prediction?
It’s going to be tough to predict, but I think Australia have a better overall package. England is going in as the underdog even though they are playing at home because they are an inexperienced Ashes outfit. Australia have all bases covered. Having said that, this is a funny game… If England have a great start, then they might just be able to pull something off. Should Australia do what they have done in Test cricket for a while now, I think they are going to win this. Also, I think the Ashes has been a great advertisement for Test cricket for the past decade or so. It is the focal point in Test cricket. This time it has built up as well, so I am looking forward to it.