Thriving under pressure comes from confidence and belief in yourself

Interview with Aravinda de Silva

R. Kaushik

Aravinda de Silva had already established himself as an all-weather batter, wowing audiences in different parts of the world with his silken touch and aggressive stroke-making, but his stocks truly soared after his lead roles in the semifinal and final of the 1996 World Cup.

Walking in at one for two in the semifinal after Sri Lanka lost openers Sanath Jayasuriya and Romesh Kaluwitharana in the first over of the match from Javagal Srinath, de Silva smashed 66 off 47 deliveries in a counterpunch that left India stunned. Embracing an entirely different role in the final against Australia when Sri Lanka needed 242 to create history, the right-hander remained unbeaten on a measured 107 off 124 deliveries, masterminding a seven-wicket triumph.

Aravinda de Silva.

Aravinda de Silva.
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Player-of-the-Match in both encounters, Aravinda signed off with 6,361 Test runs and 9,284 in One-Day Internationals, apart from picking up 135 wickets in the two formats combined. As he sits down for a freewheeling chat, a chain with a cricket bat dangling around his neck — ‘a birthday gift from my wife,’ he smiles — the 57-year-old turns the clock back, recalling the best moments of his cricketing life and ruminating on Sri Lanka’s current predicament. Excerpts:

Several years back during a chat, Arjuna (Ranatunga) said one of his primary objectives before the 1996 World Cup campaign was to ‘keep Aravinda happy’. Clearly, that worked, didn’t it?

(Laughs) No, it’s not a case of being happy. It’s to know what my responsibility was and to make sure I focus on my responsibility and deliver. So as long as the management and the captain knew that that was what I was doing, they left me alone, which was good. It allowed me to think and do what I thought was best. Obviously, everyone who had confidence in me allowed me to do it, starting from Davey (coach Dav Whatmore), (manager) Duleep (Mendis), all of them who were at the top. Along with Arjuna, that’s what they did. We did a lot of planning, strategy. The happiness comes when there’s success. Arjuna felt I was really happy being in that zone. Only I would have known the amount of pressure I was going through, but I never wanted to show it to anyone and put more pressure on any of the youngsters. That’s my nature, I want to tackle pressure. If the entire pressure was upon me, I’d like to be in the present, enjoy that moment, rather than sulking under pressure. I felt that is when the best of me comes out. I’ve always enjoyed pressure in every sense.

How does that happen? Lots of players don’t thrive under pressure. Is that something you can cultivate, enjoying performing under pressure?

It comes from confidence and belief in your ability and yourself. Everything in life is like that. When you get to my age, you realise that it is about feeling confident about what you do, to be positive, not worry about failure. That is the difference. I never worried about failure and criticism. There was so much criticism when I used to play a bad shot and get out. But I always thought that was my way of playing. Whoever criticised me, I never took any notice. I thought to myself, if I get dropped, I get dropped. Sometimes that feeling of saying to yourself, there’s nothing to lose — by going out there and doing what you want to do and failing is what gave me the character I’ve built over a period of time. My idol was Viv (Richards) and he had the same sort of attitude. I never deviated from that, it helped me a lot. I never compared myself to anyone in the team, I was always watching Viv. I wanted to emulate him one day, I wish I had been able to get at least close to him. But I can never think of even getting close to such a great player. Having those kinds of ambitions and having those kinds of goals helps you achieve things. Now, after all these years, you have seen the game change so much. When you look at how England played the Ashes series and how the Indian batting line-up is and most of the batting line-ups are now, that is something remarkable. The wickets have changed so much over the years, they are much flatter. But even on wickets which tend to do a lot, aggression would have meant there would have been more results and much more excitement because people would have scored much quicker. My attitude was to go out and be aggressive. It’s always better to try and make a hundred in a session rather than batting the whole day and making a hundred. If I can score a century in a session, it would give us the opportunity to win a game. My approach was always to be aggressive and look at things positively. Along the way, you fail, make mistakes, more mistakes, take more risks. But it helped me in my life too because I take a lot of risk in business. Maybe towards the later part of my career, I slowed down a bit and understood where my strengths were. Even in business, it’s the same — once you come to a certain age, you think okay, now better settle down and not take as many risks. That’s part of the learning curve.

You spoke of Viv Richards being your idol. Not so much why, but how him?

In those days when television had just come, we had World Series Cricket and I remember Roshan (Mahanama) and myself, we used to play cricket, he lived close to my house. Then we’d go to his house and start watching World Series Cricket; both of us wanted to watch Viv. After the World Series, the Australia-West Indies series started and we used to watch the Chappell brothers, the West Indian pace attack. It’s every child’s dream to have an idol and Viv was obviously my idol. But for various areas, I had other people who I admired. Sunil (Gavaskar) as a person who was in a side which was an underdog, he always performed exceptionally well against some very good bowling attacks and against so many oppositions. Then on leadership, how Imran (Khan) led, he was a remarkable leader. Those were the kinds of guys I admired.

They say sometimes it’s better not to meet your heroes. What was your experience like, meeting your idol?

When he was in Colombo, Viv came over, I invited him home. When you start talking to them and start playing against them, you realise they’re also human just like you, but it takes a while. But when you’re a little kid, you really get excited and that excitement makes a huge difference. That’s why when kids still walk up to me and ask for something, I try to oblige their requests because it’s the duty of the top cricketers to make sure the next generation grows and helps build another generation. It’s like that in tennis. These three great players, (Novak) Djokovic, (Rafael) Nadal and (Roger) Federer, have created a great sport for the next generation. If you take the younger generation, (Carlos) Alcaraz, he comes out and says Nadal is my hero. Similarly, when Federer started, (Pete) Sampras was his idol. It happens to you, you tend to follow the greats.

You spoke of the 1996 team being a happy one. Was it happy because it was successful, or did you court success because you were happy?

Obviously, a happy team becomes successful. And every time there is success, the team is happy. But the first thing is to make the team happy and that is the hard part. You need the surroundings, right? You need a lot of focus on individual issues, man-management. There should be some people in your circle of management who understand people, who can coordinate with the administration, because that’s where a lot of it takes place. Sometimes what happens is that the popularity of certain members of the team can create various issues, because the publicity, the focus, on one or two people may not sit well with others. That’s why the leader and his management team should work it out that every time there’s success, it should be shared within the entire team. That’s very important, that’s when happiness comes. Invariably, when there is success, there are only a few people who want to take credit. But in reality, there were a lot of people who were instrumental in contributing the little things which mattered a lot. That is where the management team needs to focus on making them feel important. When there are incentives to be distributed, these people also have to be a part of that process. What happens in management is that a lot of people think that you need to keep the seniors happy. I don’t think that is the way to go. That’s why I felt that Davey and Duleep did a great job with the team. Davey worked very hard with the youngsters, and that gap between the seniors and the juniors was breached. Otherwise, there’s one lot which is very, very confident because of the support it gets, whereas the youngsters feel that if they don’t fall in line, they might have to face the consequences. You can’t get the best out of them in that situation because they’re always trying to do what pleases the seniors. That should not be the case because the juniors are the ones who will sometimes come out and play carefree cricket and you should give them the support to do so. Giving that confidence was very important; Sanath and Kalu were young and (we) gave them absolutely zero responsibility. We said, ‘Don’t worry even if you get out to the first two deliveries, you go out and express yourself.’ The rest of us were there to take the responsibility as seniors and that really worked.

Sanath and Kalu did get out very early in the semis. What was going through your mind when you came out at two wickets down for one run at the Eden Gardens?

Oh, I didn’t have much time to think. I washed my face and was putting on my first pad when we lost the first wicket. I was putting my shoes on and even before I started wearing my second pad, someone came and said we had lost another wicket, so I had to quickly get ready and go to the middle. The previous night, I was not feeling well, I was completely out for two or three days before the match and on game-day, I just did a half-hour of warm-ups. I was very happy when we batted first. Everyone preferred to chase but I thought it would be better if we batted first. I also wanted to bat first in the final but then the rest decided to field and that really helped because we did win.

As we drove towards Eden Gardens for the semifinal, we saw almost 100,000 people outside the stadium. When we got to the ground, it was already packed. There were definitely over 100,000 people inside and about 100,000 outside. That got my adrenaline pumping; it was such occasions which gave me the kind of courage I needed. Also, because I was not feeling too well, it really lifted me when I walked out and I heard the whole crowd screaming. That got my adrenaline pumping. Two wickets down and hardly a run on the board. I walked in, and thought to myself, ‘Okay, it’s a good opportunity’. They had two slips, an attacking field. It was a good time to take them on. That was it, because I didn’t have much time to plan and think. But in the spur of the moment, when I saw the kind of aggression they had, I knew I had to be aggressive and take them on. Like I said, maybe I could have played a rash shot and got out. But I wanted to be aggressive. That pays off in difficult situations, being aggressive always helps. That’s probably why in a crisis situation, most of these (aggressive) players come good.

From a full house rooting against you in Kolkata to the entire Gaddafi Stadium in Lahore cheering for you in the final…

Yeah, that’s the thing. But more than thinking about the 100,000 cheering for the opponent, you’ve got to work out how you can get the pressure off yourself. When the entire stadium is against you, there’s hardly any pressure. Then when you go to Lahore, you look at the Australians and think, okay, these guys are the best team. No one is expecting us to win, this is an opportunity for us to do something. They (the spectators) were all supporting us because we were the underdogs. At the time, Australia were the best team, and I knew that for us to win the World Cup, be called the World Champions, we had to beat Australia. That is something I always wanted to achieve, to beat Australia In Australia in a Test match, a Test series.

Back to the final, I didn’t want to take any risks. If you look at my batting, initially, I just didn’t take any chances. Because we kept them down to 241, there was no need to do so. I told myself, bat positively without taking any undue risk. Risk is mostly premeditation, so just play the ball on its merits. If you get a good ball and you get out, that’s fine. But you just play a normal Test match innings. I felt if I batted through the innings, we would get home. I didn’t have to panic. The attitude and the mindset when I went into bat against India and the mindset here (in the final) were totally different, the approach was also the opposite. Here, I was much more cautious, whereas against India, I was more aggressive. I was not worried if I had to take a few chances against India because we had to put up a decent score and I was batting with Asanka (Gurusinha) as well, so I had to push the run rate along. Against India, we needed a decent score in conditions that suited them, they were such good players of spin. So the approach was different. This one was mainly to say, okay, just stay there, just keep going.

Yeah, for sure. I did enjoy bowling. Obviously, it was not my main line of responsibility but whenever I could contribute, I always wanted to. When I was bowling, I had a competition with (Muttiah) Murali(tharan), I wanted to have better figures than Murali so that I could tell him, look, my figures are better than yours! But he made a huge difference to our attack. There were times in an innings when we felt we would need him badly, so we didn’t want to waste his overs. I’d come on at certain crucial times, just for a breakthrough or maybe to break a batter’s rhythm, whatever. Murali played a huge part coming in and bowling at the most difficult times. He was a key part of our bowling line-up, he and Vaasy (Chaminda Vaas). Those two really made a difference along with Kumar (Dharmasena). They were the three main bowlers who we looked to use at the right time to put the brakes on because we depended a lot on those 30 overs. But then all the other bowlers also came in and contributed. Sanath turned out to be a much more effective bowler, which really made a huge difference to the balance of the team. That gave us a huge advantage.

I know it’s hypothetical, but would Aravinda de Silva have enjoyed playing T20 cricket?

I definitely would have enjoyed it because mainly because it’s such a short version! More than that, I enjoy watching it and learning more about the game and how it has changed. That’s why in the first Sri Lanka Premier League, I took over a team, I was mentoring a team and we won the tournament. I understood what sort of combinations work better, what you must look for when you select the XI. In T20 cricket, you need to learn and understand very quickly what sort of changes you need in a combination, it’s quite interesting. Adaptability is important. If I played in T20s, I would be playing a different game, I’d bat in a different position if I played the format. I still like to learn, it’s a learning curve all the way.

Sri Lanka won the 1996 World Cup, reached the semis in 2003 and lost in the finals in 2007 and 2011. How much does it pain you to see the team having to qualify for the premier tournament, as happened this year?

It’s really heartbreaking. I feel sorry for the players, because there is quite a lot of talent available, and it needs to be nurtured and guided properly. If those things happened, we wouldn’t be in this situation. Most importantly, it’s got a lot to do with players being given the necessary confidence to go out and play as a team and to build that combination. I just can’t understand or fathom how a guy like Kusal Janith Perera can be dropped. He’s a similar player to Sanath. It’s very difficult to compare someone to Sanath; I used to watch from the non-striker’s end and he was amazing, he could destroy any bowling attack. I think this guy (Perera) has got the same capability, he can win a match on his own. We shouldn’t muck about with these kinds of players, we should just allow them to play. A bad run of eight or ten innings doesn’t really matter. You have to give them the confidence as a selector and the management, you must know that this kind of talent doesn’t come along all the time. You have to read his mental state and see how he’s been a part of the team — contributing, supporting, working hard. He deserves a run because someone who possesses that kind of talent needs to be given the opportunity, Otherwise, it’s a crime; it’s easy to say this boy is difficult to handle. That is the job of a manager, the captain, the management and all the coaches, to bring that boy into the real world and try and make sure that he falls in line with whatever everyone else needs to do. But you can’t always say that that boy is very difficult to handle. All great players will be like that, because they have their own mindset. They will not listen to a lot of people. There’s a system in place, which you need to fall in line with. But apart from that, allow them to be themselves. I think that’s what Arjuna meant when he said his job was to keep me happy. I was the same, I was not an easy person to control. But that also gives people like me the opportunity to think on their own and do a lot more for the team than anyone else, because they’ve been given the freedom to be a leader. Those kinds of players, we need to use them in that manner, we need to understand the individual. That’s why I said man-management is key to success; you must understand every individual’s requirement. It’s not that you’re favouring someone, but you need to give certain people a little bit of a breather because they’re at a different level, their thinking is different. You can’t go and tell Virat Kohli to do what someone does, he knows what he needs to do. If he says he doesn’t want to bat today, then let him be. I was a bit like that, I never liked to bat at the nets. I would go and hit five or six balls and then leave the nets whereas all these other guys would bat for hours and hours. Because it’s all up here (pointing to his head) for me, I know exactly what I need to go and do. It’s a matter of conditioning.

Of course, you need to get fit and do all these other things. Fitness is very important, you can’t compromise on that. That is where this current side is struggling a little bit because every time you have success, some important players break down, so the entire combination goes haywire.

The same thing happened to us in the 2011 final when an important player like Angelo (Mathews) got injured. It’s very difficult to balance the side when you lose an all-rounder who had been contributing and doing so well. You need to cover a batting area as well as a bowling area and to do so, you need to make a lot of changes. You need to make sure that these guys are really, really fit.

Your thoughts on this World Cup…

(I expect) Some interesting cricket as usual and I hope Sri Lanka will go all the way. But there are some tough sides in the subcontinent. Obviously, India and Pakistan will be very, very competitive.

England are playing some amazing cricket, being very aggressive. A lot depends on how many good spinners they will have in their attack. They have a very, very good batting line-up and a lot of them have improved playing against spin mainly because of the IPL. That’s the thing — a lot of the South Africans and the Australians have played so much IPL that playing in India is not a mystery to them anymore.

All in all, it should be a good World Cup. India are probably the favourites along with England, given the kind of cricket they’re playing. Of course, you can never write off New Zealand; New Zealand and Pakistan are the other two dark horses, I’ll say.

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