Mahela Jayawardene gives a thumbs up

"Tactics and planning do help, but mainly you need to get players to handle situations instinctively and quickly. I always think that environment is the most important thing"

Lakruwan Wanniarachchi / © Getty Images

Interview

"I back players to the hilt, whether I'm captain or coach"

Mahela Jayawardene gives us a look at his man-management philosophy and practice

Interview by Andrew Fidel Fernando  |  

Mahela Jayawardene was one of Sri Lanka's most successful captains, and has more recently been coach of the Mumbai Indians, with whom he has won two IPL trophies in three attempts. We picked his brain on the subject of getting the best out of players.

You were a captain of your school teams since you were very young. What were the first lessons you learned about managing players?
Going back to my Under-13s and U-15s - it's just something that I picked up, about players who can bowl at different times, and in a tough match, who would be good. It wasn't very deep thinking - if I wanted someone to bowl wicket to wicket, I knew which guy would not stray and would bowl straight. Who would be a good bowler to a right-hander or left hander - that kind of thing. Those were the initial things I picked up.

Was there something you learned about managing players from your Sri Lanka captains?
I played about three years under Arjuna Ranatunga, and then under Sanath [Jayasuriya] it was about another three years. Hashan Tillakaratne and Marvan Atapattu came afterwards as well. I was thrown in as vice-captain under Sanath for a couple of years. I was part of the decision-making process as well at that time.

Sanath was much more of a natural leader, and he'd react to situations on the field and just go with that. Hashan was more planned and precise, and Marvan was pretty much the same. There's no such thing as the right way or the wrong way. I've made a lot of mistakes over my career.

"I think data is for the management to understand what's going on and see what the patterns are. Data doesn't necessarily help players in the middle"

Was there any instance back then where something that a captain said or did affected you?
There were a lot of things during that time to do with cricket politics and various factions. There were a few occasions where I got pushed back and didn't get a lot of freedom to do badly. That gave me the impetus, when I became captain, to create a culture that was different. I wanted the team to have more youngsters who were given more responsibility. I came into a culture where, when you were a youngster, you had to wait for your time. I wanted to change that quite quickly, which I managed to do. I didn't want the same things that happened to me - because of the administration and various other things - to have an effect on the next generation of guys coming through.

What you do on the field is quite natural. You react and you learn. That's something that you grow up with. For me, I wanted to help create a culture that Sri Lankan cricket can be proud of. Other captains had made changes also for the better - Arjuna and Sanath as well. My responsibility was to make it better from there.

Are younger players easier to manage than senior players?
It's pretty much the same. There's nothing easy or hard. It's just about understanding who these characters are, basically, and allowing them to play the role that they are capable of, rather than forcing something they are not comfortable with. Younger players have a bit more freedom because they are raw. And you want to make use of that. Sometimes they'll play fearless cricket in the middle, and that's a good weapon to have. And at the same time they might throw their wicket away because of inexperience and not understanding a situation.

Jayawardene has won two IPL trophies in three years.

Jayawardene has won two IPL trophies in three years. "It's always good for the captain to get ideas, but the more ideas he gets [from others], it influences his thought process" © PTI

The senior players are the ones who have to take more responsibility and more calculated risks. It's about giving them those roles and making sure that blend is right. Every player comes from a different background - their cultures, their attitudes, the way they think. You as a captain have to understand all these elements and how to use all these individuals to benefit the team.

Have you got any examples of how you managed a player coming through under you?
Yeah, Lasith Malinga came into the team and we just gave him the space to grow. We also put him in tough situations. Even though he didn't talk much, he was a very street-smart bowler, so we knew he had that capacity. He had a unique action, so there was an advantage, but you still have to execute. He developed a slower ball, a good bouncer, and then he managed to use all those attributes effectively. The more you threw him into the deep end, he found good solutions.

We wouldn't have thrown other bowlers into those kinds of situations, knowing they probably don't have the skills to be able to learn that quickly. The way we handled Nuwan Kulasekara was different. Ajantha Mendis, when he came into the scene we protected him, and then threw him into situations where you knew he would be good. We could do that when you had guys like Muttiah Muralitharan or Chaminda Vaas in the group [as mentors].

"I didn't want the same things that happened to me - because of the administration and various other things - to have an effect on the next generation of guys coming through"

Young batsmen are the same. Sometimes they will perform, and other times they will not play to the occasion. That's when you have to sit down with them and tell them: "You can take on the pressure a bit more." We call it "gears". Sometimes batsmen play in their fourth or fifth gear all the time, without dialling it back when the bowlers are on top. You need to have patience with them. It's about giving them the confidence to take into the next situation.

How do you balance breaking down hierarchies within a team structure with the idea that different players need to be treated in different ways?
I was very honest with individuals, and said: this is what I want. And most of the guys bought into it. It wasn't me forcing it. I just wanted much more contribution coming from the younger group as well - to give them more freedom, space and responsibility. When I captained, I had a lot of senior cricketers playing under me as well, and they had responsibilities. They all did really well. It wasn't an issue. A lot of the seniors took the youngsters under their wing and fast-tracked them.

Is this something you've tried to replicate at Mumbai Indians as well?
Yes, we try to make everybody involved in the processes. The thing with Mumbai is that a lot of guys have a lot of experience. There are very few young guys - about three or four - but those guys also have played a lot of first-class cricket and are mature players. So you try and encourage everyone to contribute. It's always good for the captain to get ideas, and at the end of the day it's he who has to make the call, but the more ideas he gets [from others], it influences his thought process.

The other thing is to make sure that the players respect the decisions made in the middle. It's not an easy place for a captain - he's the one who's getting scrutinised for it. You have to create that environment.

With Dhananjaya de Silva.

With Dhananjaya de Silva. "Each player, the way you talk to them and explain things is different. The key is to understand who these players are and how they think" Lakruwan Wanniarachchi / © AFP/Getty Images

How do you deal with big egos?
It's good to have that. It's nothing harmful. It's about identifying and making sure that they thrive. Everyone has got to this level because they are good, right? So you try and get them to prove that. That's all you need to do.

Has there been a time when a person's ego was in conflict with the team objectives?
Not really. It's about treating everyone professionally, and about treating everyone with respect. It is a team culture that you create. Once you create that culture, it's hard for an individual to go beyond that. The rest of the players will bring that person down to the group level. If you haven't created that team environment, then you can have a problem because there are no boundaries and people drift. Once you create a culture and get them to buy into that culture, it's quite easy. We also give them the freedom to express themselves within that.

Say there's a talented player in the team who has been underperforming for a little while. How would you approach that situation?
I don't believe in being in form and not in form. Sometimes you're still hitting the ball in the middle of the bat and it's just not going into the gap. Every player will go through that. It's about understanding what that player needs. To get him to overcome that, he might need some confidence, or it could be a technical change, or it might be nothing. Sometimes you play two bad shots and then you get two good balls, and so, suddenly you've failed in four innings. You analyse that and say, yes, you played two bad shots - that's something that you can control. But then you got two good balls as well.

And each player, the way you talk to them and explain things is different. The key is to understand who these players are and how they think. You need to help them find solutions, rather than force it on them.

"When I'm involved in cricket, that part is for my own satisfaction and the adrenaline I get from it. It's a challenge, but I don't consider it a job"

Have you ever felt in any of your leadership roles that you didn't have as much control over the dressing room as you needed?
It hasn't happened. I'm very honest with whatever I do. A lot of the players who have played with me or the ones I've managed now over the last few years know that. We can have brutally honest conversations. Nothing is personal with me. That is how I approach things. Everyone is a professional and everyone is an adult. You just need to cultivate that mutual respect. If the transparency is there and there are no agendas, the players understand that. I also back the players to the hilt, whether as a captain or a coach. I'm always on the players' side.

How different is the job of a captain from that of the coach from a player-management perspective?
As a coach you don't have control over what happens in the middle, and that's about it. It's pretty much the same.

You now run businesses, do a lot of humanitarian work, and are a father as well. Have any of those experiences changed the way you deal with people in your job?
For me, it's not a job, and that's the most important thing. When I'm doing other stuff - there's a balance to all that. When I'm involved in cricket, that part is for my own satisfaction and the adrenaline I get from it. It's a challenge, but I don't consider it a job. I feel it becomes much easier that way. I'm not making decisions for the wrong reasons then. I'm not dependent on that.

"It's just about understanding who [the players] are, and allowing them to play roles they are capable of, rather than forcing something they are not comfortable with" © Peter Della Penna

With businesses, I learn something every day because that's new to me. It keeps me grounded as well. I've played for 20 years, and been involved for such a long time and learned a lot, but there's something new that challenges you every day and you have to be prepared for that. There are always solutions. You need to be able to find them. In business it's the same - you're looking for opportunities and you take risks. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. As long as you know the process was right and what the thinking was, you can fall back to that. You can understand whether you went wrong or whether it was the right decision and it just didn't work on the day.

Sri Lanka were a very good tournament team under you, and with Mumbai you've won the title twice in three years. Is there something particular you have to do to get players ready within a tournament?
Mindset is the key - trying to get them game-ready without complicating it. I firmly believe that cricket is very simple - runs and wickets. You need to equip the guys to get that job done. Tactics and planning do help, but mainly you get players to handle situations instinctively and quickly. I always think that environment is the most important thing. Once you create that, players will go out and perform - that's their nature, right?

In tournament formats you have to make sure that everyone is getting into that zone and staying there for a period. In long tournaments you can have ups and downs, but at the business end of the tournament, you have to make sure everyone's fresh and raring to go, because that's when you need to have that final sprint. In a 5km run or a 10km, you do the laps and be consistent, but you need that final burst, and that's what you need to find. To do that, you need to have players who are calm and collected to discover that in themselves.

When you were playing, data wasn't as big a part of the game as it is now. To what extent do you equip players in your T20 franchises with data?
I think data is for the management to understand what's going on and see what the patterns are. Data doesn't necessarily help players in the middle. You can talk to them on certain aspects of their game, but only if you yourself understand what's going on. There's a lot of data and analysis going on, and part of the challenge is to understand which of that is usable.

Some players enjoy knowing a little bit more, and you help the guys that like that. Others like to do things their own way. Some are quite naturally gifted players and like to handle things instinctively in the middle. I was someone like that when I was playing.

Andrew Fidel Fernando is ESPNcricinfo's Sri Lanka correspondent. @afidelf

 

RELATED ARTICLES

Comments