Ahead of a series in which Samit Patel looks set to play a key role, Vithushan Ehantharajah spoke to the batting allrounder about playing in India, his ambitions in the longer form of the game and the moment it all clicked.
Are you now entering that phase in your career where you’ll be looking to cement a regular international place in all three formats?
Absolutely – obviously it’s a bit difficult because there’s so much competition, but I want to be playing cricket, whatever the form, regularly. Jonny Bairstow performed tremendously well against South Africa over the summer and took his chance, and I feel I’ll have chances coming my way in the next year, whether against India or New Zealand.
You’ve enjoyed a good year with England and Notts and signed a new three-year deal with the county. From the outside, it seems you’re really enjoying this period of your cricket – that can only be a good thing, right?
Of course. This is quite a crunch time for me so I’m glad things are settled and I can focus on doing well on the field to reap the rewards off it. There’s a lot of cricket to be played in my career, if I do the right things, and this year will determine where I’ll be playing that cricket. First thing will be to get through this series.
Does knowing the new captain Alastair Cook appreciates your talent make the transition to the Test side easier?
Going into any dressing room can be tricky, but once you’ve gone out of the dressing room you have to earn back a bit of respect. After my time away from the England side, I feel I’m doing that, slowly. But I need to keep going in that direction and not take anything for granted. It’s nice to know you have the backing of the coach and the captain, but ultimately it’s up to me to make it count.
There seems to be a notable change in your attitude towards your cricket in the last couple of years. Does part of you wish that change had come sooner?
Well you live and you learn, don’t you? Everyone will have things about them they wish they would have changed sooner. But you learn from your mistakes and I feel I’ve learned from mine and made myself stronger.
When did that moment of clarity occur?
It was a case of realising I love playing for England and knowing I only had a small window to keep doing it. But as far as an actual moment, it was when I received a call from Andy Flower during the 2011 World Cup in India, which I wasn’t a part of. He was touching base, seeing how I was and how my pre-season was going. We had a few chats about me going out to Australia, including a few meetings we had while I was in Australia during the 2010/11 Ashes. But just the fact that he called made me realise that I am a part of his plans and that was a massive inspiration for me. I’ve always got on well with Andy, and his faith in me keeps me going.
Are we right in thinking he recommended that you try Thai Boxing in a bid to improve your fitness?
Yes, that’s true. Flower recommended it to me and I thought, ‘Yeah, why not!’ I was in Australia for the 2010/11 Ashes; while England were playing, I was training with Thai Boxing champion Shannon ‘Shaggy’ King. It was really tough, not just for me but also for my wife; we’d only got married three months beforehand, and suddenly I was off for the whole winter. But we both knew it was for the benefit of my career and that if we made the sacrifices now it would pay off in the future. Now it’s up to me to make sure it wasn’t in vain! When I got my first Test cap for England against Sri Lanka it was a great boost for both of us.
Moving on to this next chapter in your career – how are you planning on dealing with the pressures of being an allrounder in Test cricket?
I try not to put too much pressure on myself – I’m a pretty easy going player so it’s important that I don’t try and fill my head with too much when I’m playing. I’ve only played two matches so it’s hard to tell how I’ll do in Test cricket. But I’m excited by this tour of India. I want to make a statement that I’m ready and able to play more Test cricket. I don’t want to be pigeonholed as someone who just plays in the subcontinent as a second spinner. I want to be a Test player all around the world.
You’ll be familiar with quite a lot of the Indian batsmen and how they operate in their own country after your appearances on a couple of ODI tours there. What’s the most important thing you, as a team, need to get right?
It’s important to get their openers out early. Gautam Gambhir and Virender Sehwag are pretty important to getting them off to a good start, so that’s something we’ll need to try and prevent. They’ve got some inexperience in their ranks, which we’ll look to take advantage of, but you’ve still got the pressure of Sachin, Virat Kohli and MS Dhoni coming in. But I think the key will be the openers – if they get firing then it’s demoralising for any team.
Are you prepared for that moment when you bowl at Sachin, with a billion people willing him on to get the better of you?
I’ve no doubt they’ll be willing on all the Indian batsmen to get the better of me! I’m anticipating that they’ll all look to target me. I know the sorts of fields I’m going to have and I’ll be ready for them if they make a mistake. But given Sachin’s my role model it’ll be a pretty amazing experience! I’ve bowled against him once in an ODI which was great. I’d definitely get him to sign my ball if I get him out…
You’ve come across India quite a few times in the last few years. Does the familiarity with the players help?
Definitely. People forget we’ve beaten India a few times. We know the characters we’re dealing with. I was pretty starstruck when I first shook hands with Dhoni, but after a while you see him as just another player you need to get out.
What has been the main lesson you’ve learned from playing international cricket?
Probably concentrating on yourself and the things that you can control. When I first started playing for England, I’d always be in awe of the players I was up against, especially when you’re bowling to the likes of Ponting, Gayle and Sachin. But I realised quickly that there’s no point worrying what they are doing – I need to concentrate on why I’m in the team and what I do best.
Looking forward, it’s very rare that England play with a second spinner at home. If you are to establish yourself in this side, chances are, it’ll be because of your batting…
Of course, but only because Swanny’s a fantastic bowler. That’s not to say I don’t think I can play ahead of him as a frontline spinner, as we offer different things. But his record is outstanding – there’s a reason he’s one of the best spin bowlers in the world – so it’ll be very hard for me to get in that way. We’ve got a good record together so, if anything, the more successful we are the more likely the selectors will go with us alongside each other. But he’s so much more experienced – I’ve only just begun learning about Test cricket.
Personally, what would you deem as a successful tour?
Winning the series would be out of this world. We’re going to India with every intention to win so it would be fantastic to be a part of a side that achieved that goal. Personally, a five-wicket haul with Tendulkar as one of the scalps would be brilliant…
The latest issue of All Out Cricket magazine, including an in-depth special on the India v England series, is out now