Scyld Berry courtesy of the Daily Telegraph where the title is “Kumar Sangakkara, cricket’s new elder statesman, proves there is more to life than records and milestones”
England are still in flux. Sri Lanka are already preparing. Their touring team will play two one-day internationals in Ireland this week while Kumar Sangakkara, their world-class No 3, today starts the first of two championship matches for Durham. If Sangakkara increases his Test batting average from 58 to 61, he will go second on the all-time list, behind Sir Donald Bradman. With this end in mind, amid his overall pursuit of excellence, Sri Lanka’s left-hander will be playing at the Riverside against Yorkshire, in preparation for Sri Lanka’s two Tests against England in June.
“There is no shame for a cricketer in saying that records and milestones are important,” Sangakkara said. “The whole point is the way you go about achieving them, and understanding whatever you do is subordinate to what the team wants.”
He is now the fourth-highest run-scorer in one-day internationals (12,500 runs) and the ninth-highest in Tests (11,151) – not bad for a wicketkeeper much of the time. He is also the first Sri Lankan to become the unofficial elder statesman of world cricket, and he is as well-versed as many statesmen in the politics and history of the world, for he has the acutest of minds.
Sangakkara has a healthy glow, too, at the age of 36. It might be due to the Colombo sun, which he left last week, or the bracing wind at the Riverside in which he is asked by our photographer to pose. Most likely, though, the glow is the consequence of winning the World Twenty20 final in Dhaka last month, when he was man of the match for his unbeaten 52 off 35 balls. “There are certain things you dream about as a player, and one is being not out at the finish when your country wins a world tournament,” he said.
It was Sri Lanka’s second global trophy, and brought Colombo to a standstill when the players were driven in an open-top bus to a reception in Parliament by the president. ‘Second’ does not sound many, but Sri Lanka have now won twice as many global tournaments as England, and in one generation as opposed to many, because they did not gain Test status until 1981.
“I owed you that one,” Sangakkara said to Paul Farbrace as he came off the field: Farbrace, Sri Lanka’s head coach then, is England’s deputy coach less than a month later. In his five previous innings in the World T20 finals Sangakkara had scored 20 runs but, given his keen sense of history, he knew that other wicketkeepers had come good with the bat in a global final, like Adam Gilchrist in the World Cup of 2007 and M S Dhoni in 2011. So he did, too.
This sense also told Sangakkara that Sri Lanka’s triumph was the culmination of an era. Their first global trophy was the World Cup of 1996, when their captain, Arjuna Ranatunga, ordered his batsmen to attack as no batting line-up had done before. Sri Lankan cricket has gone far to fill the vacuum created by the decline of West Indian cricket, free of the inhibitions that come from over-coaching. But at the next World Cup, in England in 1999, Ranatunga’s team were knocked out in the first round, prompting a demand for fresh blood, like Sangakkara’s.
Not that Sangakkara was always marked out for greatness. He was not, in his own words, “a schoolboy cricketer of repute” and certainly did not match the prodigious Mahela Jayawardene, who as a 13-year-old drew crowds of 10,000 to watch him bat in Colombo. Besides, Sangakkara came from Kandy, and the great strength – and weakness – of Sri Lankan cricket was its Colombo-centricness. Not until Sangakkara went down from the hills to the capital, when he had two years to wait before starting law at university, did his cricket take off.
But what he had learnt at his school, Trinity College in Kandy, set him apart from Jayawardene and his contemporaries, brought up on the slow, low pitches of the capital. As Sangakkara explained this formative influence, he looked out of the window of the Riverside pavilion: “In Kandy it used to rain a lot, very much like here. Sometimes you had five days of drizzle and there was dampness in the air, and the pitch was always green, so the ball would swing and seam and there was always good bounce and carry.”
Sangakkara had the unique advantage of his school ground being a Test ground: the Asgiriya Stadium. “Batting there on those wickets was what really enabled me to play fast bowling. The ball bounced far more than anywhere else in Sri Lanka.”
Hence, as a direct consequence, Sangakkara’s fine record overseas: he has made a Test century in every country apart from West Indies, where he has played only four Tests. In Sri Lanka he has averaged 63 against 52 away from home; Jayawardene has averaged 61 in Sri Lanka against 39 away.
All this was to happen however when he walked down the road in 1997 in that delightful area of Colombo where the Raj built cricket clubs. Sangakkara was going to join the Colombo Cricket Club – perhaps the most luxurious of all, with its wooden pavilion – when he was hailed by Asoka de Silva, the former Test player and umpire, outside the gates of the Nondescripts Cricket Club. He persuaded Sangakkara to join them and their band of Test players, like Hashan Tillakeratne and Russel Arnold, as a wicketkeeper.
Sangakkara says he then had no intention of playing cricket for a living: he was working for a hi-tech firm in Colombo before starting his legal career. But one day in the Nondescripts dressing room everyone was asked about his ambition in cricket, and Sangakkara declared he wanted to bat for Sri Lanka. “There was a bit of laughter in the dressing room when I said that,” he recalled.
Then came the clear-out after the 1999 World Cup and he was picked in a one-day match for Sri Lanka A against Zimbabwe A at Moratuwa, scoring 150. “I guess the stars had to be aligned that day,” Sangakkara said. “Dav Whatmore [Sri Lanka’s coach] told me later that he walked into the dressing room just after I had hit a six that broke the window, and he asked who hit it.”
Soon afterwards, thanks to his training in Kandy, Sangakkara was scoring Test runs in South Africa – which very few Asian batsmen do – at No 3, while also keeping wicket. It is an impossible combination, yet Sangakkara averaged 40 while doing so. “I played 40-odd Tests as a keeper-batsman. The trouble was that I was batting No 3 and there was a period when I had to go in in the first five overs. Five, six or seven is ideal for a keeper so you have time to put your feet up first.”
Liberated from keeping, Sangakkara has averaged 69 as a specialist Test batsman. Without one hand tied behind his back, or rather two donned in gauntlets in front of him, he might be second to Bradman already. And this is in spite of never having played in a series of more than three Tests. Frustrating? “You have these two-Test series now, and if you hit a purple patch it’s gone. I think three Tests should be a minimum but you have to have a context for Test cricket that creates spectator interest.”
Sangakkara is one of those cricketers whose words demand an audience, which is one of the reasons he was asked to deliver the MCC’s Spirit of Cricket lecture. Bearing in mind that Winston Churchill did not make Harrow’s first XI, and Cicero failed to win a Twenty20 contract with Roman Republicans, it has to be rated the finest piece of oratory by any cricketer. “In our cricket you see the character of our people, our history, culture and tradition, our laughter, our joy, our tears and regrets … My responsibility as a Sri Lankan cricketer is to further enrich this beautiful sport.”
Not only did Sangakkara utter these words in his lecture: last month, especially, he practised what he preached. In the lecture’s course Sangakarra touched on four forces which no cricketers outside Sri Lanka have faced. Firstly the civil war, when anti-Tamil pogroms in Kandy prompted his parents to hide Tamil friends in their house. “My first cricket coach, Mr D H de Silva, a wonderful human being who coached tennis and cricket to students free of charge, was shot on the tennis court by insurgents.”
And last week, Sangakkara added as an update, his coach passed away in Australia. Then came the tsunami at the end of 2008. Sangakkara and his wife joined the relief convoy led by Muttiah Muralitharan to southern and eastern Sri Lanka. Ever since he has supported Murali’s Foundation of Goodness.
Mahela with food lorry & cricketers on east coast with relief goods–Pix by Charlie Austin
Following the tsunami and civil war, the charity has done much to promote reconciliation – involving cricket as well as food, schools and bicycles – in the north. “You see in those children [in the north] such an amazing zest for life – and for building relationships with kids from other areas.”
Five cricket grounds have been built amid the landmines and devastation, the army making several out of marshland. Sangakkara has seen 5,000 people watching a girls cricket match. “You can’t make amends for 30 years, but you can provide the best possible future here onwards for everyone. In Sri Lanka now you don’t have hurdles. Take Angelo Mathews: his father is Tamil and he’s now captaining Sri Lanka.”
The third force to assail Sri Lankan cricket was the bomb attack on the team’s bus in March 2009. As the bus neared the Lahore stadium, and Pakistan’s security men melted away, “the bullets started to hit. It was like rain on a tin roof”. Lying on the floor, Sangakarra saw the player next to him shot in the thigh. In his lecture he recalled: “As I turn my head I feel something whizz past my ear and a bullet thuds into the side of the seat, the exact spot where my head had been a few seconds earlier. I feel something hit my shoulder and it goes numb.”
But then the perspective and humour, born of those experiences in the civil war. As he said in his lecture: “Tharanga Paranavithana, on his debut tour, is also next to me. He stands up, bullets flying all around him, shouting, ‘I have been hit’ as he holds his blood-soaked chest. I see him and I think: ‘Oh my God, you were out first ball, run out the next innings and now you have been shot. What a terrible first tour.” Miraculously, no cricketer was killed although seven were injured and six Pakistani policeman, the bus driver and two civilians perished.
The fourth force assailed Sangakkara after he criticised the Sri Lankan cricket board during his lecture, accusing them of being involved in “a mad power struggle”. Such was the official disapproval that he felt the heat of the security services on returning home. “But there was a huge amount of public understanding and I was very touched by that.”
As the rhetorical climax, Sangakkara proclaimed his identity: “I am Tamil, Sinhalese, Muslim and Burgher. I am a Buddhist, a Hindu, a follower of Islam and Christianity. I am today, and always, proudly Sri Lankan.” It was a mighty statement in a neo-con world which portrays other people as different, alien, hostile, inferior, killable.
In the more prosaic meantime, at the Riverside, he will set about tightening his technique for conditions in England, where his Test average is no more than 30. To this end he spent a half-season with Warwickshire in 2007, where he met Jonathan Trott. “Trotty was not the focused, ultra-professional cricketer he turned out to be for England. He was a lot more carefree,” Sangakkara said. “He didn’t narrow his mind down to just cricket and he enjoyed life a lot more. I think he had to change himself on playing for England, and in that push for excellence you can forget to enjoy yourself and take time away from the team.”
A wealth of worldly and cricketing wisdom will be embodied in one person in the first half of this summer. And even England supporters might not begrudge an increase in Sangakkara’s average by three runs.
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