A Giant Departs

In Hail and Farewell by Bill Ricquier


CC BY-SA 4.0 : Image: Kumar Sangakkara batting in his final ODI in Sri Lanka.JPG


Where does Kumar Sangakkara stand in the pantheon of the game’s great players? Near the top  of that there can be no doubt.

The former England batsman David Gower has just published a book on his choice of the 50 greatest cricketers of all time. This is not the first such volume but Gower’s selections are hard to fault. He has chosen two Sri Lankans: Muttiah Muralitharan, ranked as number 30, and Sangakkara who comes in at 41, just ahead of the Australian wicketkeeper Adam Gilchrist .( They, and Alan Knott ( 50 ) are the three wicketkeepers on the list.)

One should not overdo the numbers but , in Sangakkara’s case , it would be absurd to ignore them. With 12,305 runs, he is the fifth highest Test run – scorer of all time. Only Don Bradman , with twelve, has made more than his eleven Test double centuries( including one triple), and he has made three other scores of 190 or more.

It is the average, though, which is the most revealing. Sangakkara’s Test average of 58.04 puts him ninth in the list of batsmen who have played twenty Tests or more and he is first among batsmen who have made at least eight thousand Test runs. Among current players who have played at least thirty Tests his nearest rival is Younis Khan with 53.02.

Javed Miandad is famous (if you like this sort of thing) for having averaged at least fifty throughout his career. Sangakkara has not quite managed that but of course for the first half dozen years he was keeping wicket as well. As at the end of February 2006, when he had played 53 Tests, he averaged 46.06. In July of that year, in the first Test against South Africa at Colombo, he made 287 in Sri Lanka’s only innings, putting on 624 for the third wicket with his great friend Mahela Jayawardene, the biggest partnership ever for any wicket in all first class cricket. Sangakkara was not keeping wicket in that series and has hardly kept in Tests since. Playing purely as a batsman he averages 68.05, which is genuinely phenomenal. One need hardly add that he has become a reliable and often brilliant slip fielder.

Twice he has been chosen as Wisden’s leading cricketer in the world, for 2011 and 2014. The first time, among other notable achievements , he made what was, rather surprisingly, his first Test century in England. At Southampton, standing in for injured captain Tillekeratne Dilshan ( Sangakkara had stepped down as national captain himself after the World Cup defeat to India) he secured a draw with a second innings century. At the time he said one of his dreams was to score a Test century at Lord’s but that he would be 37 when Sri Lanka were next due to tour England, in 2014. He didn’t need to worry: he was there at Lord’s in June 2014. He scored that century , 147 in a thrilling draw. In the second and final game, at Headingley, he scored 79 and 55 in a stirring Sri Lankan win.

And it doesn’t stop there. Sangakkara is the second highest scorer in one- day internationals, behind only Tendulkar. He also has more dismissals in one day internationals than any other wicketkeeper. He scored four centuries in the World Cup in Australia and New Zealand , playing “traditional” but positive, authoritative and resourceful cricket. One suspects , though , that he derived more satisfaction from his performance in the World T20 competition in April 2014. Sri Lanka beat India in the final in Dhaka, Sangakkara seeing them home with 52 not out off 38 balls.

Sangakkara is also great to watch. Left handers often seem to have that extra something special. But Sanga doesn’t have the exquisitely casual elegance of Gower. Nor does he display the extravagant freedom and exuberant style of Brian Lara, so reminiscent sometimes of the greatest of all, Gary Sobers. Nor do you see the bullying muscularity of Graeme Smith or Matthew Hayden or the crab- like obduracy of Shivnarine Chanderpaul. What you see is a master technician . He works prodigiously hard , not to look good but to score runs. The looking good is the consequence of a craftsman’s striving for perfection.

And now it is all over, or nearly. There has been a lot of nonsense written lately about cricketing departures, largely in the context of Chanderpaul’s exclusion from the West Indies’ recent series against Australia. One cannot criticize Sangakkara for calling it a day while he is still one of the game’ s top players. It is perhaps a pity , and dare one say it , slightly unworthy of him , that his commitments to Surrey are playing a part in the logistics of his retirement from Test cricket; but such is the way of the world.

And, of course, it is not the end. It will be intriguing to see what path Sangakkara follows after his playing career ends. He may well not really know himself. In the past he has said that he will complete his law studies at the University of Colombo. In 2011 he memorably delivered the annual Cowdrey Spirit of Cricket lecture at Lord’s; one cannot think of any other current active sportsman being asked to perform such a function. It is not impossible to imagine this highly intelligent, articulate, principled and determined man playing a role on a public stage.

Bill Ricquier. 6/7/2015

The article was published in the Sunday Leader :  http://www.thesundayleader.lk/2015/07/19/a-giant-departs-the-world-stage/

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