Rohan Wijeyaratna, in Island, 25 May 2019, with the title “The Best is Yet to come”
Men with disciplined minds, set their sights on far loftier goals than others given to average thinking. Such are the virtues that have made Kumar Sangakkara become what he now is. Kumar Sangakkara has played many a fine inning in his time. They have spanned across every notable playing field and every nook and cranny worth knowing on the cricket map. They have stretched across all types of the game – from Tests to ODIs, to the T20s. In each of them, his performances have won him accolades from men of discernment. Be it with bat or lip, he has made his mark. His opponents know only too well how fiendishly difficult it is to match him – be it at play or at his lip and intellect, either singly or in combination.
Ahead of its time
But none of those innings will measure up to the one he is soon poised to play. At 41 years of age, he now stands as President designate of the Marlybone Cricket Club, when its current President steps down in September. The honour is so compelling, it would stagger many local cricket pundits who tend to bestir themselves only when the world outside has recognized our heroes first. The fact that this most conservative, most prestigious and most exclusive Cricket Club of all, found it fit and proper to break with tradition and nominate Kumar Sangakkara as its President for 2019-2020, is suggestive that the MCC will not idly twiddle its toes when they see a good man coming. This is particularly so, when he is so ideally well suited to serve their larger needs worldwide. In picking their man, the MCC were unwilling to consider any trappings outside sheer merit, and in choosing Sangakkara to be their first non-British President in its 232 years of existence, the MCC has forged well ahead of its time.
MCC’s challenge ahead
Growing trends in world cricket have compelled a prudent MCC to look beyond its traditional British shores for its next President. The old order is changing. India’s growing dominance and MCC’s waning global influence could not have escaped attention. Keen on shedding its rotund, bucolic image to a more lean and hungry one, the MCC perhaps figured, they have to reach out and influence the rest of the world if they were to continue safeguarding the custodianship of the Laws, the game’s traditions and most importantly, the Spirit of Cricket concept. In an act that can only be termed as extremely foresighted, the MCC looked beyond its shores for its next leader and settled on a daring prospect. In selecting Kumar Sangakkara for this rare honour, the MCC has managed to grab itself a lot of useful attention, even before Sanga’s term began.
The perfect foil
None would argue that in Kumar Sangakkara, one sees the perfect foil to effect the transition of the MCC in this 21st century from a very exclusively British private Cricket Club, to a more globally orientated entity, capable of reversing its thinning global influence. Towards this end, Sangakkara’s nomination could be the first step and he fits the bill perfectly. He is well spoken and articulate; well read and well informed. He is blessed with a razor sharp intellect and is never out of his depth in any conversation. He is suavely cosmopolitan, delightfully well-mannered, modern yet old fashioned and universally respected. In choosing him as the medium of transition from what was, to what will be, the MCC chose wisely, for, much like his batting, he will not let the side down. In fact, it would be hard to find someone on whose shoulders the very British traditions and by-plays which surround the MCC, would sit more easily upon, than Kumar Sangakkara.
But to say that Sangakkara is a mere vehicle of convenience towards achieving a challenging goal for the Marylebone Cricket Club is unkind. Given the challenges, he is probably the finest broom one could lay one’s hands on to sweep away the cobwebs at Lord’s, and usher in a new order. Assuredly, he will need to cement international friendships and generate goodwill reaching far beyond the cricket fields. Because he was thought to be so thoroughly well equipped, capable and deserving; and because he can smell the winds of change more acutely than most, it is but fitting that he has now been tasked to navigate the MCC through hitherto uncharted waters. He may be the first non-British national to ascend the Presidency, but he won’t be the last.
Prophets often go without honour in their own country. Genius fares no better. The latter can be spurned by an insensitive populace, unable to recognize or grasp its depth. Detractors may not know but genius involves a lot of hard work and gallons of perspiration. It involves the infinite capacity for taking pains, and calls for an uncommon singleness of purpose in whatever the pursuit. These are attributes which normal men given to easy life wouldn’t know the first thing about. They call for a discipline made of the finest steel in men. Sanga has them all.
The pursuit of perfection and the associated single-mindedness have been Sanga’s greatest allies. They have been his most significant contributions towards his own successes. These are characteristics which largely contribute towards moulding one’s character. The underlying theme is discipline. Men with disciplined minds, set their sights on far loftier goals than others given to average thinking. Such are the virtues that have made Kumar Sangakkara become what he now is.
The irony of it all
Be it his spectacular bouts of oratory (from behind the stumps or from a podium), or his deeds with the bat, Sangakkara hasn’t received the attention he deserves even in his own country. It has not been widely suggested that he is the best batsman this country has produced. Older generations still croon over the mercurial brilliance of Sathasivam or Sargo’s Hammondesque power. Younger ones prefer to remember the volatile brilliance of Jayasuriya or Dilshan, or the sublime artistry of Aravinda de Silva. The ruthlessly clinical, cleanly executed, highly bankable efforts of Sangakkara, hardly get a mention. These are the very qualities which have made him the most influential Sri Lankan batsman in the modern era, yet they have gone largely unnoticed. Truth be spoken, Sangakkara has scored more runs more often in times of need, than anyone else batting for his country. Often they have come while batting at first drop and mostly against a gleaming new ball. Yet, few have taken note.
Some startling reading
In a comparative study among cricket’s all time ‘greats’, Test averages are what separate men from the boys. They tell us of a player’s consistency in the highest theatre of cricket, over the period of his active playing years. They tell us of the consistency of a player’s effectiveness over his opponent. Besides, statistics don’t lie. They may not tell the whole story, but they do, to a great extent. A comparative study of some of cricket’s most influential batsmen can make startling reading.
Unlike others on the list, Sangakkara also kept wicket for part of his career while holding 182 catches in Tests and effecting 20 stumpings. In 404 ODIs, he held 402 catches and effected 99 stumpings while scoring 14,234 runs at an average of 41.98. Although comparisons can be odious, in whichever group one places him as a batsman, Sangakkara’s achievements cannot be dwarfed nor ignored. It takes a lot of commitment and character to maintain a high standard over a long period of time and Sangakkara’s achievements speak louder than all the words one could muster.
But despite being unquestionably an all-rounder of international class, it is as a batsman that he will be best remembered. Often having kept wicket, he would bat at No 3 – a position which is the exclusive preserve of only the resolute, the resilient, and the single minded. Being a position of awesome responsibility, it is the single-most authoritative position which directly influences the rest of the batting. Successful first drop batsmen are those who have a profound knowledge of their own game and are blessed with a discipline and character, which enable them to play within their limitations. That Sangakkara has never been known to shirk or step back from his responsibilities is where his greatness lies. He could be facing the fury of the opposition from the second ball of a match, but it would be the broadest of bats on offer with hands, head, feet and body in perfect harmony and commendable symmetry. Often he would get down to business right away, for dominance is always better when applied with minimum delay. Before he gave up wicket keeping, Sangakkara amply qualified as the finest Sri Lankan all-rounder of all time. If that survey covered the international arena, he would again have come very close to the top. His statistics are irrefutable, but its not the statistics alone that matter. His ‘all-roundedness’ has made him such a uniquely influential personality in the game, little wonder the MCC didn’t fail to grab him.
Plum Warner – an MCC cornerstone and former captain of England, once described the MCC as “a private club with a public function.” A long time later, its global influence has receded and the necessity to regain its footing has been acutely felt by those charged with caring for the club’s well-being. Modernity has also compelled the MCC to shed some aspects of its exclusivity. First, it was the acceptance of women members into the fold, and now for the first time, a President from outside the shores of England. 50 years ago, both would have been unthinkable!
The Spirit of Cricket Lecture
The winds of change were not lost on Sangakkara when he delivered his ‘Spirit of Cricket Cowdrey Lecture’ at Lord’s in 2011. It was the first time a non – Britisher and still an active cricketer, graced that rostrum. That in itself was a groundbreaking honour for both Sangakkara and his country. He then delivered an outstanding oration which made the world croon at every word he uttered. In the process he didn’t fail to make some stinging references to the Sri Lankan cricket administration, in a speech considered by some, as the most courageous in cricket history, for that very reason. Given the suffocating political atmosphere which prevailed at the time, this was praise well earned. But the speech unfailingly earned the wrath and derision of the then Sports Minister, who considerably lowered his own standing through an unwarranted burst of criticism that was out of place and out of taste. Given the significance of his new appointment and the intended projections of influence the MCC may wish to exert globally, it is unlikely that Sangakkara will merely decorate the club with his presence and provide a colourless Presidential year in office. It is more in keeping with his persona that he makes the MCC and the cricket world both, sit up and take notice.
The ‘Call of Lanka’
Much like Imran Khan, Sangakkara is not averse to telling truth to power. And much like Imran Khan, it is likely that this wise, well read, articulate and urbane man, will not allow his considerable talents and unrelenting passion to wither after cricket. A wider and more fulfilling public role beckons, and one hopes he will heed the call and give leadership to a new generation of men, willing to hear ‘The Call of Lanka’ better, and serve it with greater sincerity. It’s a hunch, but a strong one. The best of Sangakkara is yet to come!