Duleep Mendis has an involvement with the ICC Cricket World Cup which is quite unique, as the former Sri Lanka skipper has been involved in all nine editions of the tournament so far and in the first eight editions was actively part of the World Cups. While he played in the first four editions of the World Cup from 1975 to 1987, in 1992, he was the coach of the national cricket team while in 1996 he managed the World Cup winning side. In 1999, Mendis was the Chairman of Selectors while in 2003 he travelled to South Africa as Sri Lanka’s Batting Coach. In 2007, meanwhile, he was the CEO of the board. With the sub-continent hosting the event this time around, although his services should have been made use of, country’s controversial Cricket Interim Committee removed him as CEO of Sri Lanka Cricket and the direct ‘beneficiary’ of his removal was a member of the Interim Committee. The Island’ caught up with the former Sri Lankan skipper to obtain an insight to his experiences of Cricket World Cups. This is the first of three parts of the interview. Here are the excerpts:
Question: You have been involved in all ICC Cricket World Cups so far, a unique achievement given the fact that it’s extremely unlikely that any other person would have been involved in all previous nine editions over a 35 year period. Talk us through some of these tournaments.
Duleep Mendis: Well, it all started in 1975 when we played in the inaugural World Cup in England. It was quite an experience for us. To be part of nine World Cups is very interesting and special and I enjoyed every bit of it. It’s interesting that from the first World Cup to the last tournament our cricket has come a long way. The experience I gained in the first few World Cups helped me to go on. The highlight obviously was 1996 when we won the tournament. I was the Manager of that team and Chairman of Selectors. It was an unforgettable experience and I had a super Selection Committee. That committee we had understood cricket and understood what it takes to do well in such a big event. That experience I gained in the first few tournaments helped me really to face the challenges in subsequent ones.
Question: Your memories of the inaugural World Cup in 1975?
Duleep Mendis: We were in a tough half in that competition. But I must say that when we were preparing for the 1975 World Cup, we didn’t know exactly what to do. We worked hard and we practised for so many months, but there was something lacking. I feel that the fitness part was lacking very much and then of course we were not giving that much of importance to fielding. When you look at some of the teams today, the emphasis on fielding and fitness is huge. We really didn’t know at that time how important these two things were. I am not saying that we didn’t work on fitness and fielding, but what we did those days was nowhere near what was required and what they are doing today. These were the drawbacks and at that time we were not going into details about the opponents. We were discussing things the day prior to the match, but we never went into minute details. Of course in the present day, you get the systems and everything is in place. We didn’t know how important these things were at that time. Had we known, we would have done much better. I must also say that we didn’t play with those countries on a regular basis. That was another drawback. You all of a sudden face West Indies and that was the first time we were playing against them and that too in a World Cup. It was the same with the Australians. When you play on a regular basis your standard of cricket goes up, but we didn’t play regular cricket those days. Had we played, we would have known what the requirements were and what we lacked. At times you get hammered, but still you realise what you require to do well
Duleep Mendis: Those days we didn’t have helmets or any protective equipment. It was some experience getting hit during that run chase. Sunil Wettimuny was also badly hurt. But then you see, it never bothered me. Facing fast bowlers from thereon was no issue because I had already got hit. That was 100 miles per hour consistently coming at you. Not from one end, but both ends. And when we played the West Indies it was worse. When one chap finishes, another comes and it keeps going at the same speed. They were simply a champion side. All in all, I guess we put up a brave performance against the Aussies.
Question: Then four years later you went on to beat India. You played a key role making a half-century in that game. What was the feeling like to beat a strong Indian outfit?
Duleep Mendis: That was something that we really cherished. India had a brilliant side and we beat them playing in Manchester. It was a very good win for Sri Lankan cricket. As a team we beat India and that was fine, but we didn’t gain anything from the tournament by winning just that one game, although that gave us a lot of confidence that we could beat some of the best sides in the world. More importantly, prior to the World Cup, there was this game in Nottingham against a Probable England XI captained by John Barclay which we won. While that game was on, at Lord’s they were discussing whether to grant us Test status or not. They were probably waiting for the result of that game and it was heading for a draw. But later things changed and we went on to win that game and that carried a long way.
Question: Your memories of the 1983 World Cup. Sri Lanka beat New Zealand and you got a couple of half-centuries in the tournament?
Duleep Mendis: That was a very good side we had. We didn’t perform as well as we should have done though. But that was the time when things were changing and we really came to know what was required at international level. We also could have beaten Pakistan. Ashantha de Mel got five wickets in that game and he ended the tournament as the second highest wicket taker.
Question: Then four years later when the tournament returned to the sub-continent there were a lot of expectations, but Sri Lanka failed to win a single game.
Duleep Mendis: In 1987, unfortunately, I must say that there were so many problems within the team. I think no one really played as a team and there were so many things happening within the team and everyone was playing their own game and that was a World Cup I would like to forget. As captain, I tried everything that I could to keep the team together, but it was a very short period and I didn’t have enough time to put everything together. That was one World Cups where we never performed well.
Question: You were coaching the side in 1992 when New Zealand and Australia hosted the event. Something that was probably lacking within the team in previous tournaments was the fighting spirit and in this tournament the team showed character.
Duleep Mendis: By that time things had changed. We had played a lot of cricket by that stage and against lot of good sides as well. We knew what we lacked. We were aware what we had to do with fitness and how important fielding was. With those improvements we could see the performance too improving. The change, I believe, started somewhere there. When we looked at other sides, we knew what the others were doing and what we were not doing. We won two games and against Pakistan, the eventual winners, we took the game to the wire, before losing in the last over.
Question: A lot of people speak about the tour of Australia in 1995 toughening up the team. Was that tour a nice build up for the World Cup?
Duleep Mendis: There was a long buildup actually. Before Australia we had a tour to Pakistan and it was a tough tour. We beat Pakistan in both the Test and ODI series. Then in Sharjah we performed extremely well. I believe that even now we should be playing a lot of cricket because when you play good cricket, it’s easier for everyone. It’s easy for the captain and it’s easy for the selectors to pick the side. You sort of know who is performing and who is not. After Sharjah, we went to Australia just before the World Cup. That tour did a lot of good for the team. The Murali incident (chucking controversy) brought the whole team together. You got that feeling that everyone in the team was working hard towards beating Australia in Australia. The team did well. That was a good build up. When we finished in Australia, everyone in the team wanted one thing and that was to beat Australia in the World Cup. It so happened that they came into the final and we came up with an excellent performance to beat them.
Question: Dav Whatmore recently credited you for coming up with the idea to open the batting with Romesh Kaluwitharana. What promoted you to come up with that idea?
Duleep Mendis: Prior to the World Cup at different stages different people were performing in various capacities. At one stage, Sanath was performing, but Kalu wasn’t performing. Then it came to a stage where Kalu was performing but his wicket keeping was dropping. Kalu was scoring lots of runs in the lower order. Then when we had a discussion about his performance, we felt that there were some players who if they did well in one aspect their all round game improved. If you bat well, you tend to field well and if you bat well you keep wickets well. We couldn’t leave Kalu out of the side. We had no choice but to persevere with him, although his wicket keeping was dropping. It was only then that this idea came, to open with him. By nature Kalu is an attacking player. He’s not in the mould of someone like Sidat (Wettimuny) who is prepared to bat for days and days. Then we thought that with the restricted field in the opening overs, he maybe effective and we tried him.
It worked immediately. Then we tried for the second time and it worked again. At that point we thought that this will be the ideal concept to have for a tournament like the World Cup. Fortunately for us we went with that concept and the other teams didn’t have enough time to counter. When the other teams were wondering how to counter, the World Cup was over.
Question: Another factor that stood in good stead for the team was the flexibility. A person like Roshan Mahanama was batting at number seven, but effectively he could bat at any position.
Duleep Mendis: We adjusted our batting during the tournament according to the requirements and conditions. When we felt that runs were not coming we tried different people. When things were too hot we tried to consolidate. We could do a lot of things because we had a superb batting line up. When Roshan Mahanama is your number seven, what can you not do? There were enough batsmen who could fit in to any position. We were brilliantly led by Arjuna and Aravinda was probably at his peak. We felt that the team will go a fair distance, because everything was working. Sometimes in cricket, you do everything and nothing works, but here we could see that the moment we sent a batsman into adjust to a situation, he would score runs.
PART III: Fielding was a key part for our World Cup success –- Mendis
Question: During the 1996 World Cup you held the dual role of Manager and Chairman of Selectors. One aspect that stood out throughout that successful campaign was the excellence the team showed in fielding. Could you please elaborate on the emphasis that was given to fielding?
Duleep Mendis: Actually, given the amount of training we put in for fielding the other sides were shocked. It was amazing. The best part was how the players reacted when the importance of fielding was stressed. When you stress on certain aspects and put pressure on the players you need their corporation as well. That is when leadership comes to the fore. When the leader cooperates, others also follow and the job of the management becomes that much easier. But if the leader is not backing that decision and if he’s not cooperating, then it becomes an issue. But in 1996, we had a situation where the players always wanted to do more. They knew that the team was doing well because of the improved standards of fielding and they wanted to keep improving. In every game, we saved about 20 to 30 runs. That’s a hell of a lot in a One-Day International. You often lose ODIs by five or 10 runs. So, in those circumstances, to save 20 to 30 runs in every game was absolutely crucial. What we had in 1996 was a brilliant fielding outfit.
Question: Aravinda looked so determined in the 1996 final in Lahore. Is that the best you have seen of him?
Duleep Mendis: I would say throughout that World Cup he batted brilliantly. People only talk of his batting, but just see how well he bowled and the impact he made on the field. When we were struggling to get wickets he got us those crucial breakthroughs and he assisted Arjuna throughout, bringing all his expertise into play. That combination worked very well for us. We could afford to lose the openers early in the search for quick runs because we knew what Aravinda was capable of. Anyone who saw in that tournament would accept that it was the best of Aravinda we saw.
Question: What was Arjuna like as a captain?
Duleep Mendis: He did extremely well and Arjuna’s biggest strength was that he understood the game very well. He knew what exactly was required of some players at different times. It’s important for a captain to know what you can get from different players at different times. He had been with the team for a long time and he knew what the players were good at.
Question: Guys like Arjuna and Aravinda speak highly of the role Asanka Gurusinghe played in that tournament. What was Asanka like to manage?
Duleep Mendis: Unfortunately, no one talks of Gura when our World Cup win is talked about. But he was amazing. Leave out the World Cup, but some of the innings he has played for us have been superb ones against good sides in tough conditions. No one talks of Gura because his batting style is different. That’s why not many people talk about him. When Aravinda gets a hundred, people will start talking about it because it’s a brilliant picture to watch. Gura will put the score on the board, but not many people will talk about it because of his style. But he’s an effective player. To the outside world he may come out as a tough character, but actually he was a very mild person and a jovial character. He was a superb number three batsman as well.
Question: Talk us through the finishing stages of the semi-final against India in Calcutta. Was it scary?
Duleep Mendis: We wanted to finish the game properly. But unfortunately, the trouble started in one corner and Match Referee Clive Lloyd had to come and make a decision. We knew that the crowd through sheer disappointment threw stuff given the way India were losing. We wanted to finish off the game badly because it was a superb display by us in all three departments. It was disappointing that the game had to end that way, but at that time we knew that the team was performing really well and when you go through a World Cup tournament you face difficult times and then you realise that you can handle anything and any situation. You are not going to have an easy walk right through in World Cups. When you overcome those tough situations you get confident that you can do well. In 1996, one ambition the team had was to beat Australia. We badly wanted to meet Australia and beat Australia. That is one ambition all players had. Winning that World Cup meant a lot for Sri Lanka.
Question: The team got a hero’s welcome when you returned home. What was that feeling like?
Duleep Mendis: Oh, we were over the moon. Sunil Wettimuny (Played in the 1975 World Cup) was the captain of the flight that brought us back home. We were not scheduled to come on that flight, but the boys were keen to come on that flight itself and they accommodated us as there was some room in that flight. It was a fabulous feeling to come back home.
Question: You were the Chairman of Selectors in 1999 and the defence of the title didn’t go well at all, as the team crashed out in the first round itself. What went wrong?
Duleep Mendis: In 1999, there were obviously mistakes made. We went on too long with some of the seniors. It has happened not only to us, but to West Indies as well and it has just started to happen to Australia. At times you tend to go a little bit too far with some of the seniors and as a result some of the youngsters are kept out from coming through. Unless you do it properly and systematically, you are going to fall into trouble. It is always good to have a combination of youth and experience. You cannot have a side full of young players. There should be some senior players who are performing to guide them as well.
Question: Many feel that Sri Lanka missed out on a golden opportunity in 2003. After restricting Australia to 212 in the semi-final, would you agree that Sri Lanka should have gone on to win that game?
Duleep Mendis: We had a good side, but a few things didn’t go right for us that day. It’s a game that we should have won and it was a very unfortunate day for us as we did quite well on the field but couldn’t finish things off.