'A bowler should be like a managing director of a company'

Chaminda Vaas remembers the 1996 World Cup, bending his back for wickets, and getting chewed out by Ranatunga

Interview by Andrew Fidel Fernando  |  

"Being physically fit helps you become mentally strong as well" © AFP

I used to get a lot of exercise as a child. We'd always be running here and there and going to beaches far away and riding bicycles up hills with three people clinging on. I was pretty fit from a young age.

Some batsmen love the ball coming on, but can't play the slower ones. Others can hit the balls that stop on the pitch, but struggle with the ones that skid on. Working out the opposition batsman and tailoring your strategy to him is a big part of the job.

Dennis Lillee taught me a lot at the MRF pace academy but he said that with my mixed action, he didn't think I could play for Sri Lanka. I took it as a challenge. I met Lillee again in 2000 or 2001. He then said: "I'm very proud of you. I never thought that you could play for Sri Lanka, but you've done so much."

We weren't stressed at all before that 1996 World Cup final. The night before, we were joking around. A few of us went to look at carpets. The gravity of the situation didn't really occur to us.

I used to have a bit of pace in my younger years - especially on that 1994-95 New Zealand tour. I remember when I went out to bat once, Danny Morrison came to me and said, "I'm going to kill you." He hit me a few times on the arm. When he came to bat, I hit him on the finger and he was out for a few months. I remember hitting Ken Rutherford on the head as well.

I didn't have a dream of playing for Sri Lanka for a long time. Eventually I got into the Sri Lanka Under-19 team, and that's when I thought to myself that I could play for the national side. That's when I got that longing.

"If you get a pitch in the desert, you have to be ready to bend your back and do as well as you can"

I was very proud of my 26 wickets against West Indies in 2001. In Sri Lanka we made a lot of pitches for Murali. People used to ask me how I got so many wickets on those tracks.

Physios nowadays treat bowlers like babies. In our time, if I told the physio my back was hurting, he would tell me to keep playing. Now when there's a pain, the physio tells the player to rest for a few days.

New Zealanders are lovely people. They are calm and it's a quiet place. I loved touring there.

I have huge respect for Arjuna Ranatunga. When I was young, he sometimes scolded so harshly, I'd tear up. But I absorbed that criticism and used it to improve. He was great at putting young players on the right track. He's a good friend now.

My faith in God had a big impact on my career. I felt like I had divine help whenever I faced setbacks.

When you play at a stretch, your technique can change. You start holding the ball differently or doing something wrong with your wrist, and suddenly you can't swing the ball. Whenever that happened I watched videos of myself and worked out how to correct the problem.

Getting into the national side is easy. Staying in the team is really tough. Or at least it used to be. Now sometimes you can stay in the team whether you perform or not.

In 1993, I played a three-day match against West Indies. I got Desmond Haynes' wicket. After the game, he came and gave me his boots and said: "Son, you have a long career ahead if you work hard."

"I have huge respect for Arjuna Ranatunga. He was great at putting young players on the right track" © Getty Images

You have to be ready to bowl anywhere. There's no point in complaining. If you get a pitch in the desert, you have to be ready to bend your back and do as well as you can.

I probably could have got all ten wickets in that ODI match against Zimbabwe. But Murali came in and, as he does, took the last two wickets in his first over. I didn't mind, but I think I could have taken those wickets in my next over.

The New Zealand bowlers were easy to work with. When I told them something, they logged that information like they were computers. Then they went out onto the field and put that knowledge to use.

My role in the 1996 World Cup was to take early wickets, then dry up the runs. I think I carried that out almost to the letter.

A bowler should be like a managing director of a company. He's the one that sets the tone, and should be the one that sets the field. Sometimes captains change the field when bowlers get hit for four, but that's not how it should be. You can't be chasing quick results. You have to have patience and stick with your plan.

I remember one Zimbabwe Test early on in my career, when we had got 380-odd, and Zimbabwe had got to 172 for 2 by the end of the second day. Arjuna aiya called myself and Pramodya Wickramasinghe into his room and really had a go at us. "You're bowling like school children," he told us. "I'm ashamed to see you playing for your country like this." The next day, we got them all out for 319. I took four wickets. We thought we had done well, but Arjuna aiya called us again and had another go at us.

"Getting into the national side is easy. Staying in the team is really tough. Or at least it used to be"

When I started playing, I had the inswinger to the right-handers. Then when I started bowling a little faster, I discovered my wrist position changed automatically, and I was pushing the ball away from the right-hander as well. Later I picked up reverse swing and the slower balls.

Being physically fit helps you become mentally strong as well. When you look at yourself in the mirror and you look good, that can have a big effect on your confidence.

In 1996, there were seven employees in the Sri Lankan cricket board. After we won the World Cup, I remember Roshan Mahanama saying: "This will be the start and the end for Sri Lankan cricket". That has come true. The game spread and became professional after the World Cup, but look at the board. There are more than 260 SLC employees now. I don't know which direction our cricket is heading in.

Whenever we played Pakistan, I talked with Wasim Akram. He was a bit of a hero of mine. He taught me plenty, but when I asked him about reverse swing, he used to say: "I'll tell you about that later." I ended up learning reverse swing by watching videos.

Indian pitches are merciless. They were quite different from our pitches. If you give even a little bit of room, you get cracked for four. That was the toughest place to tour. The batsmen will probably say South Africa or Australia were tougher.

"Whenever I came on to bowl, Murali used to say to me: 'Bowl six or seven overs at a stretch.' When we bowled in partnership, one of us got wickets" © AFP

I got goosebumps when I saw the crowd waiting to receive us at the airport when we returned with the World Cup. The whole place was packed. There was barely space for a finger. I was shocked. I knew then that we had done something special for the country. My only regret is that we didn't get the chance to properly thank the people for their support.

Darrell Hair once said I was the toughest bowler to umpire because all my deliveries were on the same line and length. He said he had to concentrate particularly hard to spot the ball that did something different.

Whenever I came on to bowl, Murali used to say to me: "Bowl six or seven overs at a stretch." When we bowled in partnership, one of us got wickets. He got wickets when I was keeping it tight, but it happened the other way around as well.

I got a lot of praise after my first few series, but for me, it was like water off a duck's back.

At the moment I'm enjoying watching Trent Boult, Tim Southee and Mitchell Starc bowl. There's a young left-arm quick called Vishwa Fernando in Sri Lanka who I think will be very good.

Some days I couldn't get out of bed on Test match days, I was so tired. I'd struggle to the ground. Then as soon as I put on my whites, I felt different. I was ready to play.

"Dennis Lillee said that with my mixed action, he didn't think I could play for Sri Lanka. I took it as a challenge"

The physio that we got in 1996 - Alex Kontouris - made a huge difference to the team. He was basically the physio, trainer and masseur all in one. He sometimes even gave up going out for meals so he could stay back and work on players. He ordered room service and kept working. If there was a bowler who could only bowl 12 overs in a Test match day, Alex got them bowling 15.

We used to talk about unity a lot in that team in the 1990s, during the war. We had Tamil cricketers, Catholics, Sinhala Buddhists, Muslims - all sorts of Sri Lankans in the team. We talked about how if we could set an example of unity and understanding, that's the greatest thing we could do as sportsmen. We went to as many religious or cultural festivals as we could, as a team.

I loved getting right-handers out lbw. That was my dream wicket. I enjoyed getting left-handers to nick behind as well.

Chaminda Vaas will open the Vaas-Victoria Cricket Academy in Sharjah on December 4

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