You've said in the past that it was your father who lit your passion for cricket. What do you remember of those early days?
My father loves cricket, so he's the one who introduced me to it. He played Under-13 and U-15 cricket, so he was pretty keen that I play it as well. He sent me for coaching with Jayalath Aponso sir, who worked with the academy in Moratuwa [Mendis' home town, just south of Colombo] and that was where my cricket started to change. If a foreign team came over, he'd make sure I was in the squad and playing those games.
Your father was a three-wheeler driver, I hear. He must have had to make some sacrifices to get you into the game?
He was a carpenter, actually, but then he had an accident and wasn't able to physically continue in that line of work. Then he started driving a three-wheeler. We got lots of help from our extended family - aunties and uncles. When I went on tours at the age-group level, I was able to make sure we had all the costs covered. There were many times when my father would go into debt to make sure I had the gear I needed. There were a few bats that he bought like that. He didn't tell me any of that. He just bought me what I asked for. He must have hoped that one day I'd come a long way in cricket. My mother was always encouraging as well. It took everybody's support - grandparents, teachers, coaches, everyone, but it's my father who I have to be most thankful for. He must be really pleased about how far I have come. Even though he doesn't tell me, he must be really happy.
Former Sri Lanka coach Graham Ford said that when you got into the team as a 20-year-old, you already had a very good technique. How did that develop?
Because my father had played cricket when he was younger, he trained me when I was young. I remember times at the cement nets in the Moratuwa stadium where people would yell at my father for throwing the ball at me so hard. They thought I was too little to handle pace bowling like that. But he kept bowling to me with the hard ball and helped me get rid of that fear of the ball and of fast bowling. Then after that, it was my coaches who gave me that foundation, in terms of technique.
Because you were scoring so heavily at school level, you were a pretty well-known name. You had a taste of fame at a young age. How did that affect you?
When you see your name and your photo in the newspaper or on TV, it gives you a buzz. You're at U-17 and U-19 level when those kinds of things can mean a lot to you. Not that they don't make me happy now. I always wanted to get to that next level, though, where my matches were being shown on TV. I didn't think I would get to that stage as young as age 20. Around 23-24 was my target.
"The Australians are more aggressive than everyone else. They bowl in a more attacking way, their fields are more aggressive, and they attack with their words as well. Everything is designed to try and make us freeze"
You had barely played senior cricket when you came to the international level. Was that scary?
There was a little fear. But the people in the team really made me feel at ease. I remember in my first innings against West Indies. Dhammika Prasad was on the boundary cheering every single shot I played. Almost every single ball! That kind of thing put me at ease. There are others in the team who made me feel really welcome. Dilruwan Perera really helped me out when it came to stuff around the team. Upul Tharanga did as well. They all helped me out so much.
I also probably didn't have enough knowledge to feel that fear, at times. I didn't know how to build an innings at this level back then. All I knew was to go out there and hit the ball. Some deliveries that should have worried me, I was trying to hit them for four. Maybe because I had barely played first-class cricket, I didn't have that deeper understanding of cricket. But when later I went on the England tour, I hit my first fifty and that was when I started getting some idea about how an innings can be built.
So what specifically did you learn in those first six months?
Angelo Mathews was the captain back then and Sanath Jayasuriya was the selector, and when I got out they never told me anything. There were probably many times when the team desperately needed runs from me, but I got out. They didn't pull me up until I had played at least ten to 15 matches. All Angie told me was to play my normal game and not worry too much. I think it was the freedom that they gave me that allowed me to learn how to build an innings. There was no pressure about scoring these many runs, or playing out these many balls.
When I look at the videos from back then, I feel like I was trying to hit a lot of balls for four. After going to England, I started leaving the ball and playing it a little more according to its merit. I started understanding what the team needed from me. Thankfully they didn't drop me through that period. They kept me in the team despite those early mistakes, which meant I could properly learn those lessons.
How long did it take you to feel like a part of the team?
That didn't come until after I hit 176 against Australia. They were the No. 1 team at the time, and if I could make a century against them, I felt as if I had a big future. To make that kind of score at that age against that kind of team - it gave me a lot of confidence. A lot of things changed for me after that innings. I felt as if I could build big innings.
That innings was one of the greatest Sri Lankan knocks. What do you remember about it?
We were out cheaply in the first innings, so when I went in to bat in the second, I didn't have any big expectations that I would score a hundred or anything. I batted quite aggressively back then - more so than now - and I middled pretty much everything that I tried. The pull shots I tried off the fast bowlers came off the bat really nicely. The sweeps went to the right place. I felt like I was making good decisions every ball, because everything was leading to good results.
There must have been some challenges to overcome during that innings, though?
They knew that if they could get us out cheaply again, the match was theirs. At first I batted normally, but when I started scoring a few runs, they suddenly seemed to fall a little, mentally. Then, because I was scoring quickly, they tried to stop the flow of runs rather than trying to get me out, which made things easier for me.
But the Australia team is more aggressive than everyone else. They bowl in a more attacking way, their fields are more aggressive, and they attack with their words as well. Everything is designed to try and make us freeze. At the start they were telling me that I was too little for them to worry about and that they'd get my wicket without any trouble. At the end of the tour, though, after we had won the series, I remember Mitchell Starc saying they would punish us when we went to their country. Other teams probably don't say things like that.
After that innings, people really started taking notice of you. How did that affect you?
I think there were a lot of expectations that because I had played an innings like that at a young age, I would continue playing innings just like that. I gave my best, but in the last year I wasn't able to do well at all in one-day cricket. When you go through dips of form, you see things about you in the media.
I also had a personal Facebook account back then - I don't any more - and people would tell me things directly. I didn't say much to them at the time, because I know how hard it is for anyone to get here and play international cricket. It got really bad, the kinds of things people said to me.
But I learned a really good lesson out of that: whether I'm scoring runs or failing, I've got to stay at the same emotional level. If I score a hundred today, I'm the hero in Sri Lanka tomorrow. If I don't score runs, I'm the worst player. But I can't think about any of that - I've got to stay level. No matter what anyone says, good or bad, I try to ignore it. When I train, I'm doing my best to be successful and win matches for Sri Lanka. People don't see that.
You said you left Facebook for this reason?
Yes, it was Thilan Samaraweera who suggested I should do that, and I'm really thankful. We were in Bangladesh, and he said, just get out of there and stop reading what people are saying. This was a year ago. I had a lot of pressure from social media. Having left it, I've been able to do a lot more in terms of getting my game right. Friends sometimes send me posts, and I don't even look at that. They are of no use to me. A lot of these people haven't played cricket, so what they have to say to me is irrelevant. If you're someone who has played cricket, I'd like to listen to what you say. Your job might be to create posts on the internet, ours is to win games. Now that I've learned that lesson, it doesn't affect me as much.
"I didn't know how to build an innings back then. All I knew was to go out there and hit the ball. Some deliveries that should have worried me, I was trying to hit them for four"
This is a kind of pressure previous generations of cricketers haven't had to deal with. Is learning to deal with that a huge lesson for any young cricketer now?
I'm not saying that you should quit social media altogether. You need some social media. My manager does a lot of things for me, and if I do a post on Facebook or Instagram or Twitter, my manager handles it. There is value in it as well, because even the bat brand that you use can get publicity out of it. And when people are throwing mud, or delivering sermons or whatever, if that doesn't affect you mentally, then that's fine. But it did affect me mentally. I wasn't able to handle it, if I'm being honest. People were suggesting I wasn't playing for the team, and I was hurt because I would never do that. When people say things like that, they've also got to take into account: how old is the person we're criticising? What has he done for the team in the past? Has he actually done anything worth throwing mud at him for? We don't think about that enough. So my advice to players coming up from U-19 level would be: if you can take that kind of unfair criticism and not let it affect you, then you can stay on social media. But because I wasn't able to do that, I got out.
What sort of things really hurt you?
Just that I shouldn't be in the team, that I've played enough at this level now, and that I'm not a player that will be of any use. Thilan aiya really helped me get through all of that. He said: "Rather than letting all these other people tell you how much you are worth, measure your own worth yourself." He told me that other people don't really know a thing about me. That helped me get stronger.
You had more criticism on social media in 2018 than any other time, and yet this is also the year in which you've scored 1000 Test runs.
It just shows how much of a lie it all is, doesn't it? I've shown that at 23 I was able to do something like this. There's also a chance that next year I'll fail completely and get dropped from the team. Just because I've scored 1000 runs this year, maybe I won't in the next year. I've got to understand that for myself and ignore everything else. A lot of people had a lot to say when I made two ducks at the Asia Cup. A lot of people would say things to me when I'd be fielding at the boundary as well.
I've seen you say things back to spectators when you're on the boundary as well.
Yeah, I have done that sometimes. I've yelled back when they've yelled at me. But then I've gone back into the dressing room and people have told me there's no point in responding - just make sure you're focused on your own game. When our own spectators treat us like that, we start feeling like the only reason they are coming to the match is to scold us. If there's a misfield or a dropped catch, they'd hoot at us. In the last little while, it's been like that in Sri Lanka. I'm not saying everyone is like that - there are a lot of spectators who love us. So my request is for them to help us out. Even in the media, or wherever.
One thing I've seen in other countries, like in India, is that even when a player is failing, what goes on TV are the matches in which they have done well. They do things like that. So rather than criticising us, why not talk about when we've done well? Then at least that person can get through that tough spell and play well again. Sometimes a young player might not be able to handle what you're saying, and their cricket career stops right there.
With the 1000 you've scored in 2018, you're up to almost 2500 Test runs now. What are your career goals?
I'm trying to score 10,000 runs in Tests and in one-dayers. But I can't do that in one shot. I've got to set myself little targets along the way. I've got to play for Sri Lanka for eight or nine more years, at least. I'm hoping to get to 1000 runs every year, so I can get there quickly.