"You can’t forever keep saying that we are a new side, we are going through a period of transition. That’s not done," said Jayasuriya. © AFP

“You can’t keep saying that we are a new side, we are going through a period of transition. That’s not done,” says Jayasuriya. © AFP

It’s a question Sanath Jayasuriya has had to field numerous times in his stints as chairman of the national selection panel: Where is Sri Lankan cricket headed? The answers have often come in various different words, but the one underlying theme has been that of patience, of giving the young batsmen in particular, time to settle into the roles in the aftermath of the retirement of some of the legends of the game.

This has been an especially trying year for the Sri Lankans, who could only draw the Test and limited-overs series at home against Bangladesh, before crashing out in the first round of the Champions Trophy. Their season got immeasurably worse when they were stunned 2-3 earlier this month by Zimbabwe in a One-Day International series they were expected to sweep by a country mile. In the immediacy of that result, Angelo Mathews gave up the national captaincy.

On the transition period: “We have given the player the opportunity, we have given him the chance. Now he has to deliver. You can’t forever keep saying that we are a new side, we are going through a period of transition. That’s not done. When you are given a chance, you must decide how hard you must work to prove yourself. How much hard work put in. How much hard work Kumar (Sangakkara) put in, Mahela (Jayawardene) put in, all the past cricketers. This is a professional game, he has to work hard and maintain strict discipline and commitment. Only then will he start delivering.”

“That was his personal decision and as selectors, we had to respect his decision when he came and told us that he was giving up the captaincy,” Jayasuriya tells Wisden India of the Mathews call that wasn’t such a huge surprise to those in the know. “He has been captain for five years, a great captain, he did good work with the Sri Lankan team. Now that he has given up this responsibility of captaincy, I am sure he will start enjoying his cricket. It’s tough always, the captain’s place is not the easiest place to be in in any team. It is a bit of a lonely place. So it’s tough but now he has stepped down and I am sure he will enjoy his time with the players as just another player. We want to get the maximum out of him.”

Jayasuriya’s panel, also comprising Romesh Kaluwitharana, Eric Upashantha, Ranjith Madurasinghe and Asanka Gurusinha and recently having been given a six-month extension till the end of the year, chose to appoint separate captains for red and white-ball cricket. Dinesh Chandimal was named the Test skipper while Upul Tharanga was put in charge of the ODI and Twenty20 International teams. Chandimal oversaw a stunning four-wicket win over Zimbabwe in the one-off Test after Sri Lanka chased down 388, their highest successful chase in Test cricket. Tharanga’s first test as full-fledged limited-overs captain will come next month, in a five-match ODI series against India followed by a lone T20I.

“For Test cricket, we were always thinking of a good, young, energetic captain and our plans were always with Angie and Chandi for the longer version,” explains Jayasuriya. “And Angie was there in the team the whole time, Chandi was there the whole time. As far as ODIs are concerned, Chandi has not been consistent. He is getting runs, but I want him to feel that he is an important player in the one-day team as well, which I am sure he will in time to come. He is going through a little bit of a lean time with the one-dayers, but not with Test cricket. So for Test cricket, we thought the future is Chandi as captain.

Jayasuriya uses the example of Kusal Mendis to elaborate on his desire to give time to the players to blossom. © Getty Images

Jayasuriya uses the example of Kusal Mendis to elaborate on his desire to give time to the players to blossom. © Getty Images

“Tharanga has always been a good one-day player,” adds Jayasuriya, who himself had formed a fruitful opening stand in his playing days with his fellow left-hand batsman. “He has been doing a great job as captain whenever Angie has struggled with injuries. He did a very good job with the ODI team, so we thought of giving him the responsibility as captain of the limited-overs teams. This way, we have split the responsibilities, Tharanga will play Test cricket under Chandi and that will make it easier for him to concentrate as an opening batsman. That’s how we split the responsibilities so that it will give us the best chance to take Sri Lankan cricket forward.”

Ask him where Sri Lankan cricket is at present, and you can almost sense Jayasuriya flinch mentally. “I think our cricket… Everyone was talking about it, that we have gone down a little bit, and yes, we lost the one-dayers to Zimbabwe. The Test and ODI series were drawn against Bangladesh. You can’t deny that. Obviously, if you see how many cricketers have retired, and the quality of the cricketers who have retired, they are not easy to replace at all. That’s the way it is, however.

On filling Herath’s shoes: “We are working on it but you can’t replace a great man like Rangana straightaway. It is tough. Every time we are in a crisis, he has taken charge, he has led from the front, he has taken the team over the line. I have to be thankful to him all the time!”

“But now, we are slowly developing as a unit. We have the talent, and they need the time to express that talent and realise the potential. So it’s important to give them a little bit of time and be a little patient with them, and then they will start delivering, I hope. We have the talent, of that there is no doubt.”

Jayasuriya uses the example of Kusal Mendis to elaborate on his desire to give time to the players to blossom. “That is why I need to give them a bit more time,” he insists. “So young, such talented cricketers — when he comes into the side, he starts off by playing well but on some of the tours, he will not get runs. But still we need to give them confidence. Kusal is a great prospect for Sri Lanka, I hope he will continue his good form, but we need to give him the chance.”

At the same time, the man with Sri Lanka’s first Test triple-century makes it clear that patience isn’t a free card, that the player must show signs of development if he is to be persisted with. “You can’t have a specific and strict time-frame, but a lot of it is up to the player,” says Jayasuriya, choosing his words carefully and with a lot of consideration. “We have given the player the opportunity, we have given him the chance. Now he has to deliver. You can’t forever keep saying that we are a new side, we are going through a period of transition. That’s not done. When you are given a chance, you must decide how hard you must work to prove yourself. How much hard work we (players of his generation) put in. How much hard work Kumar (Sangakkara) put in, Mahela (Jayawardene) put in, all the past cricketers. That amount of hard work, he must put in individually as well as collectively. This is a professional game, he has to work hard and maintain strict discipline and commitment. Only then will he start delivering.”

"Obviously, if you see how many cricketers have retired, and the quality of the cricketers who have retired, they are not easy to replace at all," insisted Jayasuriya. © AFP

“Obviously, if you see how many cricketers have retired, and the quality of the cricketers who have retired, they are not easy to replace at all,” insisted Jayasuriya. © AFP

Jayasuriya admits that given that Sri Lanka are in the process of rebuilding, more and more players will inevitably be tried out to see who has what it takes to succeed at the highest level. He is a little taken aback when you ask him if it has become easier to earn the Sri Lankan cap these days. “Become easier?” he asks in reply. “Not very easy, no, but when you are in a transition period, there are a few cricketers who will get opportunities, those that we think are talented. But not everybody. Otherwise, it can become difficult. It’s very hard to get the Sri Lanka cap, it’s not very easy. But at this moment, if we think there are players who we can go for, they have a chance.

“Obviously, apart from just impressive numbers when it comes to batting or bowling, there are other factors in play too,” explains Jayasuriya of what his panel looks for in youngsters while assessing that he has potential worth grooming. “You need to have improved fitness, you need to be a top-quality fielder. Fielding is very important. And if you are a batsman or bowler, you need to deliver. In all these departments, one has to do well. In this day and age, just because you are a bowler, if you can’t field well or you can’t throw the ball, you are not going to exist in this team. You need to perform as a player, as an all-round cricketer — as a bowler or batsman, but also as a fielder and as a team player, with the right attitude, commitment, hunger and desire. You need to improve all those departments.”

The one man who ticks all these boxes, but is in pretty much the final stages of what has been an extraordinary second half of his career, is Rangana Herath. Now 39 and a much fitter version of the Herath of two years back, the left-arm spinner took 11 wickets in the Zimbabwe victory, and will lead Sri Lanka in Galle after Chandimal was ruled out of the first Test due to pneumonia.

“There are a few left-arm spinners we have at the back of our minds,” Jayasuriya offers without going into specifics, making it clear that the hunt is on to identify who next after Herath. “We are working on it but you can’t replace a great man like Rangana straightaway. It is tough. Every time we are in a crisis, he has taken charge, he has led from the front, he has taken the team over the line. I have to be thankful to him all the time!”