Substance over style

Personality : Sri Lankan run-machine Sangakkara will retire from cricket next week but his legacy will live on
Last Updated 15 August 2015, 18:34 IST

Think of Sri Lanka -- a nation that was initiated into Test cricket only in 1982 and considered minnows until they stunned everyone by winning the World Cup in 1996 -- and plenty of legends come to mind that have shaped the fortunes of the country. From Arjuna Ranatunga, who turned them into a fearless entity, to Sanath Jayasuriya, who reinvented the all-out hitting at the top of the order, and from Aravinda de Silva, who gave them the famous trophy at the Gadaffi Stadium with a brilliant century in the final against Australia, to record wicket-taker Muttiah Muralitharan and to the classist Mahela Jayawardene, all of them strike a chord in a unique way. And, then there is Kumar Sangakkara, one who has just batted under their radar in a very understated manner but easily stands out as, perhaps, the biggest monument in the island nation.

Next week, the batting artist Sangakkara will stop wielding his bat on the international stage, choosing to wind down an immensely successful 15-year career in faraway England and probably in private leagues in other parts of the world.

“I am proud of all my personal innings, without a doubt,” said the 37-year-old. “All the hundreds... People ask me about statistics and I always say the only thing I really know for sure is the amount of Test hundreds I have scored. Whatever format you might play, at the end of the day, it is your Test capabilities that allow you to make a mark. I have enjoyed all of those.”

Sangakkara’s pride emerges from the fact he is the fastest to reach 8,000, 9,000, 11,000 and 12,000 Test runs in terms of innings taken, showing how well he has created a name for himself at a time when greats such as Sachin Tendulkar, Ricky Ponting and Brian Lara graced the game and garnered plenty of fame and adulation. It also shows how well he has blossomed with every passing year and proving age is just a number.

Sangakkara, holder of 38 centuries and 52 half-centuries and a staggering 12,305 runs in a 132-Test career, got most of them without much fanfare. Like many left-handers, who ooze style when they play the cover drives, Sangakkara’s run building was based on compact and effective method. He did play the drives, not in an elegant manner, but banked more upon his strength of cutting an pulling.

“I used to have these arguments with Thilan Samaraweera in the dressing room about who had had the best looking forward defensive shot in the Sri Lankan side,” Sangakkara, who has scored Test centuries in every country except Zimbabwe, spoke surprisingly about himself. “He (Samaraweera) always told me that I had the ugliest forward defensive shot he had ever seen in his life and Mahela (Jayawardene) and Marvan (Attapattu) had the nicest. They always say, the left-handers were extremely graceful. I watch (Brian) Lara bat, Upul Tharanga and Lahiru Thirmanne from the younger lot. Whenever I play the cover drive, with the back knee bent and head back, I just say to myself how can that be stylish.

“Most of the things I do don’t seem elegant but I’m glad with the amount of runs I’ve scored and how effective I’ve been. You can put me in that classical left-hander mould. You always search for the classic (Sachin) Tendulkar push off the back-foot shot for a boundary. I always like to play all the shots Lara played, but you can’t. I knew my limitations and I played around it.”

Yes, the huge back-lift of Lara wasn’t there, the style, grace and technique of Tendulkar wasn’t there, the elegance of Jayawardene wasn’t there, but Sangakkara more than made up for it with pugnaciousness and the craft to maximise skills he was blessed with. And his dominance was just not limited to Tests but ODI cricket as well where he kept wickets till the end, gathering a whopping 14,234 runs, 25 centuries and 93 fifties.

A pivotal player for Sri Lanka along with his close friend Jayawardene, the biggest regret for Sangakkara would definitely be not winning the 50-over World Cup that would have just enhanced his legacy. Twice they came close, reaching the final in 2007 and four years later as well. Both the times, they couldn’t cross the line.

That pain was atoned in Bangladesh where Sangakkara took it upon himself to correct the wrongs of the past. He cracked an unbeaten 52 as Sri Lanka finally tasted world glory, beating India in the World T20 final.

Sangakkara’s contribution goes beyond cricket as well. Son of a leading lawyer, Sangakkara too almost pursued the same path before cricket drew him in completely. A mentor to all the youngsters in the side, Sangakkara is also not scared to voice his opinion when things are not going too well with the Board.

His MCC Spirit of Cricket Cowdrey Lecture, delivered in 2011, gained global attention. The youngest and first active international player to present it, Sangakkara touched on factors that had everyone in rapt attention.

As Sangakkara decides to walk into the sunset like every player who picks the bat, Sri Lanka will not only be missing a legend for his priceless contribution on the field but off it as well. For 15 years, the Lankan dressing room is used to having Sangakkara and Jaywardene, the twin pillars that have held them strongly. One called time after the World Cup earlier this year and the other will next week. And it goes without saying, how much cricket will miss him.

(Published 15 August 2015, 16:47 IST)

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