Friday, 01 December 2023
As a leader, you need to understand the characters in the team'

As a leader, you need to understand the characters in the team'

Mahela Jayawardene talks about being a captain from a young age, and Arjuna Ranatunga's influence on Sri Lankan cricket

Is leadership something you're born to do, or can you actually learn to do it?

I think you need to learn to do it, and on a cricket field, a leader is as good as the team. I was quite blessed to have talented cricketers like Chaminda Vaas, Muttiah Muralitharan, Kumar Sangakkara, Ajantha Mendis, who were impact players. Therefore my task became much easier. But as a leader, the important thing is that you observe what's around you, who you have, the characters, understand who they are. I think those are the things a good leader should learn to adapt.

Did you feel captaincy was something you would do when you were growing up and starting to get into the game seriously?
When you want to play the game and be as competitive as I was, I think automatically those things came my way, whether I like it or not. I've captained from Under-13 onward - all my school teams. When you are performing well and you are probably bit better than the rest of your colleagues, it's a natural thing that a coach will give you the captaincy. I think I grew into it, in the sense that I took responsibility and I realised that I have to try and see how best I could be a leader as well as perform out there.

Have there been influences over the course of your career that have shaped your style of leadership?
As an eight-year-old my first coach was Mr Lionel Mendis, who was a very strict disciplinarian - army background, but a very good cricketer. A lot of focus was put into how we dressed, how we walk, how we hold a bat. He was just quite old-school. I think that upbringing probably helped me when I started playing for my school.

I think I made mistakes as a young leader, as a young cricketer - not turning up for practice on time and a few other little things. But when our coaches pull you aside and give you a couple of warnings, you realise that this is a game with discipline and that you have to fall in line. I think those kind of things probably contributed towards my leadership later on.

This calmness you have and the way you go about your life - is that a product of your upbringing?
My parents were very simple people. I had a very simple lifestyle growing up. I've travelled by bus to my practices and I had to come back after training by bus. Then I had to make sure I keep up with my studies. The deal my parents had with me was that they will allow me to play as much cricket as I want, as long as I don't miss my studies and have bad grades at school. That kind of upbringing allowed me to be normal even when I played international cricket.

Did you feel like you were a natural captain as a 13- or 14-year-old?
I wanted to win matches even if I played a game of football with my friends. I just naturally wanted to win. It wasn't a bad thing, because it got the best out of me. I think when you are captain you always look at ways to win a match. So that competitiveness brought ideas and things I could do against certain players and get others involved.

You've spoken in the past about the torment of losing your brother at a very young age. I think you were 19 at the time. Did that change your perspective towards life?
I think that was a big episode in our life. We grew up together, we played in the same teams. He was my best friend. He died of cancer and the treatment for two and a half to three years was a huge struggle for my parents, for myself, for my brother and a lot of close relatives and friends. To go through that at a young age gives you a hard and fast look at life and gives you perspective of how lucky you are and how you could help others. It was a very good lesson for me. Nothing else matters after what we went through. For me to lose my brother and for my parents to lose a son - the press writing bad things about me, or whether I had gone through a bad period in form [was nothing].

You mentioned in an article that you had to score his runs as well when you batted.
Yeah, he was a very good cricketer. My grandfather used to watch us play together in the junior ranks. Whenever my brother gets a 50 or a 60, my grandfather would always say he was a better player than me. He was just teasing me, but that was embedded in me. When I started playing for my country I always used to carry a photograph of him, and every time you score runs and you've done well, you want to tell him that you did well.

"I realised I could get the best out of the guys where I'd be their friend and allow them to make decisions and back those decisions" © AFP

At around 17, you were emerging as a colossus. You were a terror in school cricket, got lots and lots of runs. Were there people you looked up to as a batsman as well as a leader?
Growing up, I watched a lot of cricket. My father always encouraged us to watch cricket and I grew up watching videos of Bradman, Viv Richards, and as a young Sri Lankan, Aravinda [de Silva] was the player we all loved watching because he had something different about the way he batted. But at a young age I realised that I cannot be any of those players. I can take a lot of good things from them into my game, but I realised I had to be the best I could be.

How much did Arjuna Ranatunga influence your captaincy?
Arjuna was a very strong character, and I think Sri Lankan cricket needed someone like that to be honest at that time because we were underachieving. We had the talent but we did not have someone to show the direction and get everyone together and say, you are a good team, you don't have to bow down to others. He did it in a very dictatorial manner, which Sri Lanka cricket needed. He changed the dynamics of Sri Lankan cricket.

Building up to that 1996 World Cup, I was lucky enough to play in the same club as him. I joined SSC when I was 19 or 20, in 1996. He was my first captain at SSC. Two days before a game he called me and said, you're playing, but the only place you could bat is as opener. Because we had Asanka Gurusinha at No. 3, Marvan Atapattu and then Arjuna. I said, I am happy to open the batting. We were playing Bloomfield - Sanath [Jayasuriya], Roshan [Mahanama] and all those guys. It's a huge rivalry.

We put them in to bat. They were bowled out for 165 on a very lively wicket at SSC. I went in as opening batsman and we put on 120 runs on that same day. There were three overs to bat. I still remember, I cut Ruwan Kalpage, an offspinner, got a fine edge and was caught behind. I was 65 out. I'm thinking, wow, they scored 165 and I'm walking back into the pavilion all smiles. Arjuna was in a towel and a T-shirt. He comes out of the dressing-room door and gave me a proper rollicking that I shouldn't be happy that I gave my wicket away in the last three overs. That's how he ran the ship, and it was a very good experience for me as a young cricketer. I don't endorse everything he did as captain, but I think he had a lot of good qualities.

Were there things that Arjuna did as a tactician and as a leader that you imbibed in your job as captain?
No. The direction that he took in showing the rest of the guys that Sri Lanka was good enough and that we should play the natural Sri Lankan brand of cricket was something we carried forward. As a tactician, to be fair, Arjuna had some other good heads in his team, guys like Aravinda, Hashan Tillakaratne, Mahanama. Those guys were very shrewd, experienced players who had a lot of good ideas, and he took all that on board as well. So I think that helped him. Those are the things that I learned as a youngster.

All these guys were part of that wonderful run in 1996. There you are, at 18, watching your tiny island nation become world champions. What did that ignite in you as a young player, but also in seeing what a leader can achieve with a group of committed men?
I remember playing my last big match on the day of the final. We finished and went home and watched the second half of our innings. The way they went about the entire tournament and even after the World Cup, for about a good six months, they dominated one-day cricket. That was something wonderful for us to watch as youngsters.

Now that you look back on your time as an international captain, what are your big learnings? What does it take to be a successful international captain?
For me, man-management is No. 1, because the team will trust you more than a coach or anyone else. You need to understand the characters in that team and allow them to showcase what they have got. You don't treat each individual differently because there should be a set of rules to guide all these people. But they should have that little bit of freedom to express themselves and to understand who they are. The only way you know all that is if you interact with them and if you be their friend and not as a captain at the top, giving orders.

I have a different way of doing that. That's why I said I'm a bit different to Arjuna. He was more authoritarian, one who wanted things done in a certain way, and we needed that at that time. But I realised I could get the best out of the guys a different way, where I'd be their friend and allow them to make decisions and back those decisions.

Did your close friendship with Kumar Sangakkara create its own difficulties in the team environment?
Not really. That's why we probably still are friends, because we don't say yes to everything or what the other person does. When Kumar was captain, I would always question certain decisions he made, and when I was captain he would do the same. You need those kinds of friends and people in your team. I allowed the younger members of the team to ask questions because they might have a brilliant idea, and if you shut them down, you will never know that. My theory on teamwork is that everyone talks and everyone has to contribute and I will pick things from them. If nothing comes up then I'll take a decision, but whatever the decision I take out there it's my decision, I take responsibility for that. It doesn't matter if it came from a different person, but it's my decision once I've made that call.

When you became captain there were several senior players in that squad and sometimes you have to make tough decisions regarding those senior players. Did you, in the first few instances, find that hard to do?
I was a bit worried but I realised I have to be honest to myself, the team and to my country. As a captain you have make those calls and I went ahead and did that. I know some people don't like me for that, but I feel that if they were in my shoes, and they've been captains as well before, they would have done the same thing. I've never shied away from making those decisions and I don't regret any of that.

- Gaurav Kalra

(Gaurav Kalra is a senior editor at ESPNcricinfo. @gauravkalra75)