Shanaka Amarasinghe, courtesy of The Cricket Monthly where the title reads “Liberation Song”
While many marriages end up with love turning to hate, there are some relationships that go the other way. The heroes of these stories rarely know whether they are loved or hated, but their journeys nevertheless invoke strong emotions.
Kumar Sangakkara evoked strong emotions in whatever he did. For many he was the symbol of a nation – a Horatio, bravely guarding the bridge to mediocrity. For many outside Sri Lanka he was a model batsman, a freakish record-breaker and an accented ambassador. But for me he was more real than that. He was the symbol of a generation. My generation. My loathsome, underachieving, fearful, suppressed generation.
Sangakkara schooled at Trinity College in Kandy, home of the Asgiriya Stadium. Over in Colombo, at S. Thomas’ – another Christian missionary school – I was a coastal boy, at home on the beach. Born on the cusp of the 1980s our generation was the first in Sri Lanka to have regular access to television. Our parents had not been exposed to pop culture, and had certainly not experienced the sexual revolution of their peers in the West. In that sense they were still stuck in the 1950s: stiff-upper-lip Victorian values, listening to the BBC on their short-wave radios and teaching their children received pronunciation.
Our parents raised us with limited scope. An unhealthy respect for rules and norms was inculcated in us at an early stage of our middle-class existence, and many a classmate beats out a comfortable living as a doctor, lawyer or accountant. Others joined banks, took loans, built houses and worked towards paying off their loans. Silently, with pursed lips, they fended for their children and cheered them on in their entirely pointless quest for a medal in an Under-6 50m dash at nursery school. Henry David Thoreau’s observation that “most men lead lives of quiet desperation” never rang truer. Our parents bragged about our academic achievements at dinner parties while giving us hell at home; the next generation of parents are putting their kids’ non-achievements up on Facebook and tacitly comparing them. The cycle is uninspired and unending. Nobody is winning.
I hated this culture. Its conformity was stifling. Its insistence on “what will people think?” meant our childhood incentives were driven by shame and fear. There is a legendary story of Kumar’s father – Kshema – walking into the dressing room after his son had scored 197 for the Trinity 1st XI and berating him in front of his team-mates for getting out to a bad shot. This was the story of our generation. Results were important – and not necessarily the team’s result. Enjoyment? What is that?
In school we were taught to write between the lines. Neatly. Anything outside the lines, any creative impulses or expressions of individuality, were instantly shamed. Teachers and parents used public ridicule as a lesson for those with original thought. “Because I say so” was a common refrain at school, at home and on the sports field, where asking for water was viewed as a weakness. Add to this a brutal, bloody war and our generation really had very little to speak of with fondness.
Sangakkara was six when the war broke out in earnest. It was very much a part of our lives for 26 years. We went to school through it, passed exams through it and waited for three years, twiddling our thumbs, to enter university. We didn’t know any better. Bomb blasts were normal. Body counts were normal. Getting frisked was normal. Soldiers and guns were normal. It was oppressive. It bred paranoia and racism. But what could we do? It was survival. It was existence. Not life.
And for years I hated watching Sangakkara because almost every innings of his reminded me of this historical archive that shaped us. Watching him bat reminded me of the giant ball and chain we dragged. He was technically correct, studied, measured, high-percentage, conservative, hard-working, and the result of endless toil. Despite the runs, his innings displayed a deliberate aversion to failure. The furrowed brow, the absent smile. He played safe, as we were taught to.
The early and middle Sangakkara was never flamboyant, risky, aesthetically pleasing or larger than life on the pitch. For the longest time, the fear our generation carried seemed to overtake his talent and ability. It caused him to stop just short of being the dominant force that would have won Sri Lanka games, and instead made him the reliable mainstay of an eccentric batting line-up. He would do his job even while others refused to bat around him. Not to do so would have let down the dressing room and his harshest critic, his father, whose measure of success, it appears, was typical of his generation: the batting average, rather than the number of games won. For years I watched Sangakkara, willing him to take that risk, come down the wicket, hoist that ball and put the thrill of victory ahead of cementing his own, albeit excellent, contribution to a losing cause.
His first hundred in a successful ODI chase came as late as 2012. And those were the shackles I wanted him to break for long. He was so good that “scoreboard pressure” shouldn’t have mattered. Together, he and Mahela Jayawardene were a batting hybrid that should have made Sri Lanka the greatest ODI team on the planet. They didn’t. Why not? Because of Mahela’s fearlessness to the point of being careless, coupled with Sanga’s carefulness to the point of appearing fearful. Sangakkara’s servility to Dhoni at the infamous double toss of the 2011 World Cup final belied the confident, articulate speaker we had come to expect, thereby exposing the underlying Sri Lankan mentality that we don’t deserve to belong. Can you blame him? It was what we had been told all our lives. Conflict must be avoided and disruption is impolite. Hierarchy is everything.
And then something happened around 2012. Freed of the responsibility of captaincy, and realising his time was ebbing away, Sangakkara changed his approach. Suddenly he was batting with more freedom, looking to dominate attacks and expand his repertoire of shots. It was a revelation, and for someone who had watched him subconsciously reiterate the mantras of our hopeless generation for so long, it was an epiphany. His performance at the 2014 World T20 was a microcosmic reversal in a career that contained many heavy scores – except when it really mattered. After failing in the first five games of the tournament, he was tentative in the final. All the fears of the past were knocking on his helmet. An entire tournament without runs? Unheard of. “What will people think?” And then, in a desperate attempt to escape the self-imposed shackles, he skied a sitter and was dropped. The lease of life seemed to give him perspective, just as it must to those who miss an accident by an inch or beat cancer.
In that instant it looked like he realised that avoiding failure is not nearly as exhilarating as seeking success. The second chance had given him freedom, a freedom he cultivated around then with a glorious run of form across formats. He won the game and the World T20, the kind of match-winning performance that he hadn’t achieved on previous occasions.
Sangakkara was always a role model. Sadly, a generation that valorised him for being “above average” didn’t realise that “brilliance” was well within reach. In his remarkable riposte after his son’s retirement, Sangakkara’s father ironically failed to realise that his method of mentoring may actually have been responsible for his son’s failure to emulate Don Bradman as he had “expected”.
In the twilight of his career, Sangakkara cut loose. He smiled more, and visibly enjoyed his cricket. He was not afraid to take on the establishment, and was happy to lap up the accolades at Wimbledon like he belonged there. He finally came into his own. And for that I admired him. His example was – finally – inspiring. The transformation was apparent on the scorecards as it was in his demeanour. And coming out of the dark recesses of our conditioned minds, his “arrival” was as brave a move as any knock he had ever taken on his helmet. Instead of his batting reminding me of a beautiful but caged bird, he inspired our generation to soar, unfettered by obligation and prudery. Whether we will heed this example remains to be seen. It’s not easy to ignore the dictates of years of enforcement, but he has certainly been a catalyst.
While many cricketers end their careers in their late 30s, our generation of entrepreneurs, economists, visionaries, artistes and thinkers are only finding themselves at that age. A progress stunted by years of oppression and violence is finally finding its path. Hopefully our journey will be as successful as Sangakkara’s. He inspires us to be more than “good enough”.
Shanaka Amarasinghe is a full-time lawyer and part-time journalist in Sri Lanka. He hosts a radio show, “The Score”, and blogs here….. © ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
- “Sangakkara’s Ecumenical Farewell at the Oval … in contrast with Mahinda Rajapaksa’s Shortcomings,” ……https://thuppahi.wordpress.com/2015/08/28/sangakkaras-ecumenical-farewell-at-the-oval-in-contrast-with-mahinda-rajapaksas-shortcomings/
- Roberts: “Kumar Sangakkara steps forth like Young Ceylon,” http://www.islandcricket.lk/columns/michael_roberts/121370217/kumar-sangakkara-steps-forth-like-young-ceylon