Hopps on Kumar Sangakkara and the Wisden Cricketers of the Year 2012

David Hopps in cric info

When Kumar Sangakkara challenged Sri Lanka’s political establishment during the MCC Spirit of Cricket Cowdrey Lecture at Lord’s last summer, it came as no surprise. His powerful intellect comes with an impulsive nature and a principled belief in right and wrong; his strong sense of national identity carries with it an idealism about how his country should develop after its long terrorist war. The lecture provided a platform to examine the ethics of Sri Lankan cricket; scribbling his speech in spare moments during the England tour, he did not waste his opportunity.

“Writing that speech became a deep personal experience,” says Sangakkara. “I knew there were ways it could be misinterpreted, but it was a story I felt I needed to tell. I was greatly moved by the response, especially in Sri Lanka, where many people seemed to identify with what I was saying.”

That forthright Lord’s address provided an impressive adjunct to what KUMAR CHOKSHANADA SANGAKKARA, born in Matale on October 27, 1977, expected to be his last Tests in England. The tour was largely forgettable, cursed by cool, unstable weather that brought regular stoppages and the sense of a series to endure rather than enjoy.

Sangakkara had resigned as Sri Lanka’s captain in April, after their World Cup final defeat by India, leaving the side in the hands of an uninspiring leader, Tillakaratne Dilshan, and temporary coach Stuart Law. In the final Test, at the Rose Bowl, he found himself captain again, dutifully accepting the role after Dilshan broke his thumb. Sri Lanka were 1-0 down, and there was no sustenance to be found in his own form: five Test innings had brought him 65 runs; in all, 17 in the UK had produced a pair of fifties.

At the last, he added a hundred, and in a manner that invited wonder he had not done so before. The Hampshire weather, both on the fourth evening, when he closed on 44, and on the final day, when his 119 took Sri Lanka to safety, was grouchy, and the crowd far from entranced. But Sangakkara was attuned to the task. He pushed an occasional circumspect drive and tucked the ball effectively off his legs, but it was his judgement of what to leave alone against an England seam attack revelling in favourable conditions that was striking.

“It was important to resist for Sri Lanka’s sake and prevent a 2-0 series defeat, but there were also personal goals to drive me on,” he says. “I knew we weren’t due to play another Test in England until 2014 and I’d be 37 by then. I had always wanted a Test hundred at Lord’s but, if that was not to be, then anywhere in England. The Rose Bowl felt as if it might be my last opportunity. Conditions were difficult and that made it feel like a special kind of challenge, to prove to myself that I could succeed in England.”

Two days after his lecture, Sangakkara made 75 out of 174 in a one-dayer at Trent Bridge. It was a reminder that he had every right to comment on the iniquities of Sri Lankan cricket – a right conferred by 11 years as an international player, more than 18,000 runs, two years of captaincy, an intellectual’s grasp of his subject and a leader’s passion for the cause. Sangakkara had become a rare example of a sportsman who provided revelations on and off the field.

He had long seemed equipped for the task. A commitment to education in his family home, overlooking Kandy Lake, was strong. His father, Kshema, was a respected lawyer with an interest in literature, law, philosophy and art. Kumar was a strong-willed pupil, not always easy to handle, but bright enough to be named the outstanding schoolboy of the year, and able to charm his way to popularity. He was a chorister, played the violin and read voraciously. He excelled at tennis, representing Sri Lanka Schools. But it was cricket’s team ethic that interested him most.

He followed his father’s example, beginning a law degree at the University of Colombo, but his cricketing prowess had been noticed. The degree was unfinished as he won selection for Sri Lanka A’s tour of South Africa in 1999. (He is adamant he will complete it after his retirement: he does not like loose ends.) But the breakthrough came during a home series against Zimbabwe A, with 156 not out in a one-day game in front of national coach Dav Whatmore. He broke into the senior side in July 2000, aged 22, as a batsman and wicketkeeper. In his second match, a one-day international at Galle, he struck 85 against South Africa.

Like Arjuna Ranatunga before him, Sangakkara proved a tough competitor and a proud defender of Sri Lanka’s heritage. But whereas Ranatunga was a streetfighter, Sangakkara’s combative approach and waspish asides from behind the stumps were more suavely packaged. This did not blind him to the more diplomatic skills of his great friend Mahela Jayawardene, and he became a loyal confidant and deputy. Against South Africa in Colombo in July 2006, they embedded the friendship statistically, adding 624, the highest stand in all first-class cricket; Sangakkara’s share was a career-best 287. From that point, he largely jettisoned wicketkeeping duties in Tests, though he still takes the gloves in limited-overs games.

“Mahela’s presence has been fantastic for me,” he says. “We have thrashed out ideas about cricket, life and every little thing we have come across. Decision-making is a lot easier when you have support you can rely on. But it is about more than friendship and advice. From a cricketing perspective, Mahela is a great challenge to me, in my view the best batsman Sri Lanka has ever produced, and someone to measure myself against. To work with him as a friend and team-mate and to pit myself against him as a cricketer is an opportunity that does not come along very often.”

Jayawardene quit the captaincy early in 2009 (he had already announced his decision before terrorists attacked the team in Lahore), leaving Sangakkara in charge just before his wife, Yehali, gave birth to twins. He was a more instinctive and hot-blooded leader, a less orderly one for sure, but surviving on his considerable wits. He started and ended his reign by leading Sri Lanka to a final – in the 2009 World Twenty20 and the 2011 World Cup. Sangakkara has always tackled issues head on, as England eventually discovered at the Rose Bowl, and Sri Lanka’s establishment discovered a fortnight later.

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