“What’s the one word that comes to mind when you think of Kumar Sangakkara?” I asked a friend. “Artistocratic,” was the reply. Sangakkara, who is set to retire from international cricket after the second Test of Sri Lanka’s forthcoming home Test series against India, is without doubt Sri Lanka’s first global sportsman. He will be remembered for many things – a silken drive through the covers, or an acrobatic save behind the stumps; blooding youngsters during his captaincy and the bromance with team mate Mahela Jayawardene (one of the most enduring partnerships in world cricket). He is an articulate speaker who has the air of an Oxford-born cricketer, despite not having finished his law studies, and one who is equally at home demonstrating a masterclass in the art of sledging as he is in delivering an impassioned speech at Lord’s on the history of cricket in Sri Lanka. He is perhaps the only Sri Lankan cricketer to have had his presence announced at Wimbledon – truly, Sangakkara has embodied the global face of Sri Lanka cricket with panache and an effortless ease, both on and off the field.
Hailing from Kandy, the beautiful hill capital of Sri Lanka, Sangakkara’s childhood was steeped in an abiding love for literature, philosophy, law, playing the violin and a varied interest in sports. While he did show an affinity for cricket, he never played for any of the Sri Lankan youth teams, and it was only when he turned 21 that he was selected for the Sri Lanka A team. A string of eye-catching performances, including a six that smashed a dressing room window, paved the way for his ODI debut in 2000. He made his entry at a time when Sri Lanka’s finest generation – the Arjuna Ranatunga era – was on its way out. At the turn of the century, Sri Lankan cricket was looking for new heroes, as one epoch ended, in which the little island nation bludgeoned a canny rise through world cricket, not to mention winning a World Cup. Ranatunga had showed the world that Sri Lankans couldn’t be bullied anymore, and while Sangakkara epitomised a similar left-handed belligerence in Ranatunga’s middle-order slot, he refined it, bringing a suave street-smartness hitherto unseen in Sri Lankan cricket.
His Test debut followed soon after against South Africa, at home. He had a middling series, with a high score of 25, but it was in his next Test series, against the same opposition in South Africa, that he came into his own. Two half-centuries, including a 98 in Centurion, firmly announced the arrival of the silken left-hander on the international stage. “The third Test against South Africa in Centurion in my second Test series, I was batting on 98 – and I hope I don’t get in trouble with the ICC – but I got a pretty bad decision,” Sangakkara recollects. “That was a really important innings for me, because I played against a really tough pace attack – quick wickets – and that was probably the first time I thought I can become a Test player. My first Test series in Sri Lanka, I had had a terrible time.”
He had to wait till his 10th Test, against India in Galle in 2001, to score his first Test century. He scored his first double century – 230 – against Pakistan in Lahore the following year, in the Asian Test Championship, which was also his first triple-figures knock away. “In Sri Lanka, we take pride in winning away from home and scoring runs away from home in conditions that are tough,” he says. “So I’ve enjoyed every hundred I’ve scored, but the ones away from home are special.” Sangakkara has scored 38 Test centuries, with 14 of them away from home, and he has a Test century in every Test playing country and against every Test playing nation. His away average, though below his career average of 58.04, still stands at a very healthy 53.13.
One of his most memorable Test centuries abroad was his 192 against Australia in Hobart in 2007-08. After having been outplayed in the first Test, Sri Lanka were set a mammoth chase of 507 in the second. Sangakkara’s audacious hitting conjured up visions of a fairy-tale win, until his innings was ended by a poor umpiring decision. With 27 fours and one six, his innings is regarded as one of the best by a visiting batsman. “Scoring a century against Australia was special,” he says. “I had a grade two hamstring injury, and I managed to get back in 16 days and score a century in Hobart, in a losing cause unfortunately. Everyone wants to score runs against Australia, because you consider them the toughest side.”
Another overseas knock that Sangakkara holds dear is his first Test century in England, 119 in Southampton in 2011. “The hundred in England at the Rose Bowl was very, very satisfying,” he says.” I’ve found England very hard to bat in. I’ve watched Marvan score runs there, Dilshan, Mahela, Aravinda, Sanath all got runs. I watched all these players, and when I found it difficult, I had to come to terms not only with conditions, but also my own expectations.”
Sangakkara has scored 11 double centuries, placing him just below the record of 12 held by Sir Don Bradman. South Africa have been at the receiving end of two such mammoth knocks – the first one, 232, in Colombo in 2004 that helped set up Sri Lanka’s first Test series win over the visitors and the second, 287, in 2006, at the same venue. In partnership with Mahela Jayawardene – one of the many memorable on-field associations between two of the greatest friends in world cricket – the duo put on a record-breaking 624 for the second wicket, obliterating all first-class partnership records in the process.
Staggering as Sangakkara’s numbers are, what makes them even more exceptional are when they are compared with those of some of the greatest batsmen of his time, which firmly establish him in the pantheon of all-time greats. After 132 Tests, Sangakkara has scored 12,305 runs at an average of 58.04, with 38 centuries. In comparison, Sachin Tendulkar had made 10,469 runs at 55.39 with 35 centuries, while Ricky Ponting had scored 11,110 runs at 56.68, with 38 centuries. Sangakkara averages more than Tendulkar did in Australia, and while Tendulkar averaged 6.45 innings per century, Sangakkara averages 6.02. Sangakkara has scored 13 centuries in his last 32 Tests, but from Test 100 to 132, Tendulkar scored only five. And if you are looking for a matchwinner, look no further than Sangakkara: in matches that their country has won, Sangakkara has scored 5404 at 73.02 with 19 centuries, Ponting made 9157 runs at 59.46 with 30 centuries and Tendulkar’s contribution was 5946 runs at 61.93 with 20 centuries.
If there were any lingering doubts over his place in the list of all-time greats, his performances in 2014 put paid to them. It was his annus mirabilis – 2868 international runs, breaking Ponting’s record for most international runs in a calendar year. “He’s certainly as good as any player I’ve played against,” Michael Clarke, the Australia captain said of Sangakkara. “I think he’s batted at No. 3 for a lot of his career, in Test and one day cricket. It’s a really tough position, he’s scored runs all around the world against some very good bowling attacks. He’s been the number one batter in the world for a long, long time”.
Sangakkara’s limited-overs record makes for exceptional reading as well: 14,234 runs from 404 ODIs at 41.98 and 1382 runs from 56 T20 games at 31.40. He was the captain of the side when Sri Lanka made the final of the World T20 in 2009 and the 2011 World Cup. And while those two losses count among the few blemishes in his resume, he compensated by steering Sri Lanka to their maiden World T20 win in 2014, with an unbeaten half-century in the final against India. It was at this tournament that Sangakkara and Jayawardene announced the end of their T20 careers – the joint decision once again reiterating how inextricably their careers have been linked, for almost 15 years.
“We were the same age, a lot of our interests were similar, things we spoke about were common. We used to go to meals together,” says Sangakkara , who made his international debut when Jayawardene was the vice-captain of the side. “Murri (Muttiah Muralitharan) joined us, but then even now he behaves like a 16-year-old. We used to talk cricket, life … that’s how our relationship started. It was not a vice-captain to player relationship.” And there are few people who know Sangakkara as well as Jayawardene does. “Sometimes I wish he would answer the phone when I call, or at least call back in some reasonable time,” laughs Jayawardene. “Oh, and he’s so untidy. If you go to Kumar’s room now I guarantee it will be a mess.” If there’s one thing that Jayawardene would want to imbibe from his friend, it would be “his work ethic: having a game plan and sticking to it.” And it is only fitting that the duo ended their last ODI on home soil with a ‘stumped Sangakkara, bowled Jayawardene’ on the scorecard.
The sheer weight of runs means that Sangakkara’s wicket-keeping exploits have often been overlooked. He has 182 catches and 20 stumpings in Test cricket, and with 402 catches and 99 stumpings, he holds the record for the most wicket-keeping dismissals in ODI cricket. It wasn’t only Sangakkara’s bat or gloves that did the talking. His sledging of Shaun Pollock during the 2003 World Cup – “How’s the pressure here for the skippy, eh?” as the local hero strode out to bat, was done in typical Sanga style – suave and with aplomb, showing the new, bold face of Sri Lankan cricket.
This articulate face was best exemplified in Sangakkara’s MCC lecture – he was the first active cricketer called to upon to deliver the Cowdrey Lecture on the Spirit of Cricket. It was an absorbing, frank, poignant detailing of the history of cricket in Sri Lanka, which raised the hackles of administrators back home but earned him a standing ovation at the Long Room and much acclaim in the cricketing fraternity, for what was a true ode to the spirit of cricket.
With such an illustrious record, it is little wonder that when he announced his decision to retire, he was asked by the Sri Lankan sports minister to reconsider. Angelo Mathews, the Sri Lanka captain, said that he went down on bended knees asking Sangakkara to change his mind, something perhaps the rest of Sri Lanka would have done as well. “I’ve always prided myself on performing well for the side as an individual,” says Sangakkara on his decision, “but at the end of the day I want to be able to look my teammates in the eye and say I went out there because I really wanted to do well for the side, and it was nothing to do with individual records. I can do that right now.” Much like his batting, it was perfectly timed.