Kumar Sangakkara was not an artist. Unlike his best friend Mahela Jayawardene, he never tried to paint a picture with his willow. He rather slogged it out with the precision, skill and tenacity of a sculptor. And the end product was glorious.
A total of 12,350 runs and 38 centuries in 133 Tests (the numbers will increase after his final game), and another 14,234 runs and 25 hundreds in 404 ODIs confirm Sangakkara’s status as a giant of the game. Then there are those 703 dismissals across formats. His batting average jumped to 67-plus in the longer format after he gave up keeping. He has compiled 200-plus scores 11 times in Test cricket—10 double tons and one triple hundred. It leaves him just one short of Sir Donald Bradman’s record of 12. In the twilight of his career, Sangakkara became the first batsman to hit four consecutive centuries in a World Cup. At 37 years of age, the left-hander has decided to call time on his career. He’s going on his own terms. Time to stand up and applaud the champion.
P Sara Oval is the only cricket ground in Asia that had hosted Bradman. Glamour-wise, it’s the poorer cousin of the Sinhalese Sports Club. Both are in Colombo, but strikingly different in terms of affluence. Founded in 1889, the Oval, however, is considered to be the sanctum sanctorum of Sri Lankan cricket. Sangakkara, the traditionalist, has picked the right venue for his swansong.
A tri-series in Colombo in mid-2006 had given this correspondent an opportunity to get Sangakkara up, close and personal. The series had ended up being a 26-ball tournament. South Africa decided to return home following an LTTE terror strike. India stayed on to play a bilateral series, but a cyclone made its landfall and the matches were washed out.
As the players were checking out, Sangakkara agreed to give a one-on-one at the Taj Samudra hotel lobby. He spoke about his career and cricket; the value of putting in the hard yards and why sledging had been an integral part of his game during the early years. Sangakkara said he did it from behind the stumps to get under the skin of the batters. And it worked, especially against lesser players. He had several run-ins with his rivals, including an infamous one with Shaun Pollock. He had a stand-off with his cricket board when he was the captain. But as he grew older, Sangakkara mellowed down and let his bat do the talking.
As a young boy, Sangakkara wanted to follow in his father’s footsteps and become a lawyer. But cricket beckoned and he decided to take the plunge. The legal profession missed out on a fine prospect, but cricket gained a lot.
Even during that washed-out series, Sangakkara never compromised on his training. He was always the last man to come out of the nets. Last year, during the Asia Cup in Bangladesh, I saw him taking throwdowns after a three-hour practice session. His teammates had returned to the dressing room, but Sangakkara continued for another half an hour. I asked him about putting in the extra shift even after so many years of international cricket. “This has always been my way of doing it. I’m very meticulous about my preparation,” he said with a smile.
Sangakkara’s cricket has always been about optimising the potential through hard work. He started as a grafter, became a run-machine and is now ending as a sporting emissary.
The MCC Spirit of Cricket Cowdrey Lecture in 2011 gave an insight into his persona. He spoke as a global ambassador for the game. He also put his country’s cricket in perspective.
“I suspect many of you might have anticipated that I pick one of the many topics being energetically debated today: the role of technology, the governance of the game, the future of Test cricket, and the curse of corruption, especially spot-fixing.
“All of the above are important and, no doubt, Colin Cowdrey, a cricketing legend with a deep affection for the game, would have strong opinions about them all.
“For the record, I do too. I strongly believe that we’ve reached a critical juncture in the game’s history and that unless we better sustain Test cricket, embrace technology enthusiastically, protect the game’s global governance from narrow self-interest, and more aggressively root out corruption, cricket will face an uncertain future.
“But while these would all be interesting topics, deep down inside me, I wanted to share with you a story, the story of Sri Lanka’s cricket, a journey that, I’m sure, Colin would have enjoyed greatly because I don’t believe any cricket-playing nation in the world today better highlights the potential of cricket to be more than just a game… A game that brings the nation to a standstill; a sport so powerful it is capable of transcending war and politics.”
Sangakkara mesmerised with his oratory and erudition. An exceptional cricketer and individual, he still has a lot to contribute to the game even after his retirement.
It was a fantastic gesture from BCCI secretary Anurag Thakur to fly down to Colombo to felicitate the great master. “Kumar Sangakkara is a true legend of the game. His conduct both on and off the field has been exemplary. He’s one of the most consistent performers of our times and a role model for youngsters around the world. On behalf of the BCCI, I would like to wish him the very best for his future endeavours,” said Thakur.
BCCI president Jagmohan Dalmiya, too, was effusive in his praise. “Kumar Sangakkara has not only been a true asset for Sri Lankan cricket, but also a great ambassador for the game. I congratulate him on all his achievements and wish him a happy and successful life post-retirement,” he said.
Where does Sangakkara stand in the pantheon of greats? There’s no point getting into that debate because you don’t compare the greats. Sangakkara’s cricket transcended geographic boundaries and it was his biggest contribution to the sport. A cricketer par excellence and a gentleman, the guard of honour was richly deserved.