Nasser Hussain catches up with Sri Lanka legend Mahela Jayawardene

‘We can turn the tables on England. This series is 50-50’: Nasser Hussain catches up with Sri Lanka legend Mahela Jayawardene ahead of first Test in Galle

  • England are in Sri Lanka for a two-Test series, the first starting on January 14
  • The visitors come in under-cooked while the hosts just lost to South Africa 
  • Nasser Hussain caught up with Mahela Jayawardene ahead of the series 

Sri Lanka are raring to go ahead of facing an under-prepared England for a two-Test series, and the hosts see an opportunity for an upset. 

England head into the series without Jofra Archer and Ben Stokes and with less than two days of match practice, while Sri Lanka are keen to bounce-back after a series defeat to South Africa. 

Sportsmail’s NASSER HUSSAIN caught up with Sri Lanka legend and Mumbai Indians coach Mahela Jayawardene ahead of the series. 

Joe Root and England are in Sri Lanka for a two-Test series, starting in Galle on January 14

Sri Lanka icon Mahela Jayawardene thinks his nation have a strong shot of beating England

Nasser Hussain: First things first: congratulations on winning the IPL in your coaching role with Mumbai Indians.

That’s three times in four years. You’ve really taken to this coaching gig, haven’t you?

Mahela Jayawardene: (Laughs) I can’t take credit for that. It’s been in the pipeline, the way they have structured their franchise over the years. I have just gone in and added what I felt was needed.

Even before me, Ricky Ponting brought in players, and his recruits have helped.

NH: I know Sri Lanka have asked you in the past, and you felt they hadn’t taken on board some of your proposals, but in the long term would you like to coach the national side?

Jayawardene isn’t keen on taking up a permanent role in the Sri Lankan setup despite his status

MJ: For me the biggest hurdle is to be involved full-time, whether it’s franchise cricket or a national team. I don’t see myself being a coach who’s going to be involved with one team for 12 months a year. That’s not enjoyable for me.

It’s got nothing to do with Sri Lanka Cricket as such, and I’ve always said I’m happy to contribute and help the team — as long as what I see is wrong has been corrected. It hasn’t happened over the years.

I don’t want to walk in and be a figure in a process where I know the system hasn’t allowed cricketers or the team to evolve.

NH: The talent in Sri Lanka has always been remarkable. What is it like at the moment?

MJ: The raw ingredients are there. It’s just that a lot of the guys struggle with the pathway after school. The domestic structure has so many teams, so the quality gets diluted pretty quickly, and people make wrong decisions.

Not all the coaches are good enough, so we lose a lot of talent in that process. It’s not a professional setup at that level, and a lot of the guys give up and do other things, like league cricket in Australia or England.

Sri Lanka lost to a dominant South Africa this month, while England come in under-cooked

NH: Is Test cricket still financially viable in Sri Lanka?

MJ: We still have an appetite for Test cricket. Because of the history of Sri Lanka’s Test team, they all want to play cricket at that level. But if you don’t improve and evolve, five or 10 years down the line we will have guys who only want to play white-ball cricket.

The recent T20 Lankan Premier League was good. We’ve needed something like that for the last 10 years, to make the game at that level financially viable.

NH: The Test team have just come back from South Africa with a lot of injuries. Where are they at the moment?

MJ: I was pretty pleased with the way they started in South Africa, putting nearly 400 on the board at Centurion. But the bowlers broke down, and that was a real issue. Guys who played at the LPL still had niggles, and they went into the second Test quite depleted.

For the English tour, we’ve got Angelo Mathews coming back after the injury, and Dinesh Chandimal should be fit as well — two experienced guys in the middle order to support Dimuth Karunaratne at the top. It’s about that discipline in the longer format: how do you cope with pressure for four to five days?

Sri Lanka made a strong start in South Africa before things fell apart, showing tiredness 

NH: Any promising players England fans might not have heard of?

MJ: It’s unfortunate that Dhananjaya de Silva has a long-term injury, but Kusal Mendis is a talent, and has scored seven hundreds in his short Test career. He knows how to go big.

And Sri Lankan have found two all-rounders: Wanindu Hasaranga, the leg-spinner, who bats at seven, and seamer Dasun Shanaka, who bowled really well in South Africa.

NH: Is Mickey Arthur the right man to coach them at the moment?

MJ: Yeah, he’s one of those guys who’s quite methodical and regimental, but he’s a good coach — a players’ coach. We need to give Mickey some time with the team, because he’s proven himself with a lot of international teams.

NH: And he tends to speak his mind. He did an interview the other day when he said ‘I don’t think the pitch at Galle will turn: I know it will turn.’ Are you expecting a bunsen burner at Galle?

MJ: You know Galle: it’s going to slow down, and start turning. So those first two days are crucial, and after that it’s going to be a grind. It will be quite interesting to see how the second Test match is going to pan out, because you’re playing at the same venue.

They’ll definitely make sure Sri Lanka have that advantage of playing at Galle, but the England boys have played there many times.

NH: Where do you see England at the moment, and in particular their playing of spin. Is that still a nemesis for them?

MJ: I think it can be. It depends on the tempo they want to play. The modern England team plays at a different tempo, but you still need someone to grind out an innings — Cooky (Alastair Cook) has done that in the past. Someone has to do that now, whether it’s Rooty (Joe Root) or someone else.

The other guys are much more high-tempo players, so how you balance that is crucial. And which way do you go with the bowlers? You don’t have the pace of Jofra (Archer), so who’s going to take up that role on a slow wicket? Sometimes you need extra firepower to get something going.

NH: As you say, there’s no Jofra, no Ben Stokes, and Moeen Ali is ill. Is this an opportunity for Sri Lanka, on a turner, to get payback for England’s 3-0 win there in 2018?

There is no Jofra Archer or Ben Stokes for England in Sri Lanka while Moeen Ali is ill

MJ: Yeah, it is. Even though Sri Lanka didn’t do well in South Africa, they’ll see this as a very good opportunity.

The first two days will set the tone. But England have two good experienced bowlers in Broady (Stuart Broad) and Jimmy (Anderson), who understand what needs to be done in these conditions. They will fall back on them. It’ll be interesting to se if they pick both in the same Test.

NH: How much did the 3-0 defeat hurt Sri Lanka, and how much is it feeding into their mindset now?

MJ: It did hurt Sri Lanka a lot, although it feels like a lifetime ago now. They had opportunities in that series, but never grabbed them, and England had that experience to control sessions. They were dominant.

But these two Test matches are at Galle, whereas last time it was in three different places, and Sri Lanka have a much better record at Galle. It will suit the current group of players. I don’t think Sri Lanka will be thinking too much about last time around.

Sri Lanka could have a strong shot at getting payback for their 3-0 defeat to England in 2018

NH: Do you worry about the mental and physical wellbeing of players when they’re spending so much time in bubbles?

MJ: Yeah, that’s something you have to look at. We used to have three weeks’ R&R with our families between tours, but now they’re straight into another bubble.

That’s when player management is important. When you see guys who aren’t mentally fresh, you might have to let them go home for two or three weeks. Going bubble to bubble is always going to have an impact. If this runs through 2021, that’s going to be a long stretch for a lot of cricketers.

NH: When I went to Sri Lanka, England were never favourites. Do you see this England as favourites?

MJ: With Stokes missing, England don’t have that same experience in the top order, so I make it 50-50. I don’t think they’re going as favourites. I think Sri Lanka have something in them.

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