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Kumar Sangakkara: A face of Sri Lankan identity and an all-time great

Kumar Sangakkara: A face of Sri Lankan identity and an all-time great

Kumar Sangakkara © Getty Images

Kumar Sangakkara, born October 27, 1977, is the best batsman produced by Sri Lanka, and can also be called one of the best ever anywhere in the world — while all the time remaining a more than decent wicketkeeper.  Arunabha Sengupta looks at his career and argues that when without the big gloves, the sophisticated man from Kandy can indeed be counted in the most exclusive of batting lists.

Man of many parts

In several dimensions, every one of them prominent and some exclusive, Kumar Sangakkara is rare, and often unique.

He is one Sri Lankan batsman who can be deemed world class without dispute, be it based on the delight offered by his classy, exquisite cover drives, or a glance at the majestic numbers he has toted up in his 13 years of cricket. And one needs to add that he was a wicketkeeper for a fair portion of his career, good enough to handle the vagaries of turn dished out on Sri Lankan snake pits by that champion spinner called Muttiah Muralitharan.

And then, he is perhaps the only leading cricketer to profess a fancy for Oscar Wilde. Sangakkara’s refinement and education forms as much part of his cricketing character as his skill and technique with the willow.

He is at home at the wicket against the best of bowling, raising onlookers to throes of ecstasy with his drive, cuts, pulls and temperament. He is equally at ease when asked to address the entire cricket world, given the honour of delivering the MCC Spirit of Cricket Cowdrey Lecture at Lord’s at the age of just 33.

His sophistication reverberates in his cultured shot making and clipped, articulate diction and strong idealism. He takes on the might of the greatest bowlers and challenges the quagmire of Sri Lanka’s political establishment and the questionable ethics of the country’s cricket administration, doing both with the same poise and elegance. He tinkers with his technique, staying ahead of the rest of the world, averaging a stupendous 60 in nearly 90 Tests over the previous ten years. With the same casual nonchalance, he scribbled and perfected his speech during the hectic English tour of 2011.

Sangakkara does not need the media to glorify his achievements, hit bat can do all the talking, facts and figures form the most eloquent eulogies. Curiously, he does not need the services of a speech-writer; he can do that job better than most of the hacks in business.

Sangakkara is a Sri Lankan hero.

Not only because he has more than 10,000 runs at an average touching 57 over 117 Tests. Not only because he has even more runs in One-Day Internationals (ODIs) at an average touching 40. Not only because he has led Sri Lanka to two World Cup finals, the 2009 Twenty 20 championship and famed 2011 showdown in India.

His contribution is much more than that.

He is an example of all-round holistic perfection, he is a voice of the nation, and he is a face of his country’s identity, a man who bears the hopes, dreams and promises of the future of his people after years of turmoil, civil wars and terrorism.

The rise to the top

Sangakkara was blessed by birth. His father Chokshananda was a respected lawyer with interests encompassing the spheres of literature, philosophy and art. As he grew up in his family home, a house overlooking the picturesque Kandy Lake, young Sanga was encouraged to keep an open mind and indulge in plenty of versatile activities. He was bright, even outstanding, if somewhat tempestuous as a schoolboy at Trinity College, Kandy. He read widely, was a member of the school choir and played the violin. He excelled in tennis, going on to represent Sri Lankan schools. And obviously his talent at cricket was palpable from the very beginning. Additionally, from very early days, he had oodles of charm, the secret of his lasting popularity.
After school, Sangakkara started pursuing a degree at law at the University of Colombo, but it had to be shelved as his cricketing deeds demanded more and more of his time. After some excellent outings for the Nondescripts Cricket Club, he made his way to the Sri Lanka A side. In 1999, he toured South Africa with the ‘A’ side. By the following year, he had been included in the Test and ODI teams.

Again he was an exception. The world was witnessing a revolution in the way wicketkeepers approached batting. Alec Stewart of England and Andy Flower of Zimbabwe had already added their weight at the top of the order in spite of donning the bigger gloves. Sangakkara joined the new brigade, and was soon played as a genuine batsman. He walked out at number three to hammer 74 in the Boxing Day Test at Druban, and followed it up by opening the innings and getting 98 at Centurion.

He was good enough to handle both jobs, and the keeping gloves were handed back when England visited early in 2001. Sangakkara came close to scoring his maiden hundred yet again as he fell for 95 at Kandy. He ultimately got there with an unbeaten 105 against India. The following year, 2002 him score his first double hundred in Test cricket, 230 against Pakistan in the final of the Asian Test Championship at Lahore.

Kumar Sangakkara: A face of Sri Lankan identity and an all-time great

Kumar Sangakkara has amassed 10,486 runs in 117 Tests, at an average of 56.98 so far © Getty Images

The compiler

Runs were amassed down the years and the double centuries came thick and fast. Zimbabwe were taken for 270 and South Africa for 232 in 2004. The South Africans were ground to death as he took 287 off them in 2006 when he put on 624 with close friend Mahela Jayawardene. Bangladesh suffered from back to back double hundreds in 2007. Indians were slaughtered for 219 at Colombo in 2010 and the Pakistanis for 211 in Abu Dhabi in 2011.  With eight double centuries Sangakkara is behind Don Bradman’s 12 and Brian Lara’s nine in the all-time tally. Besides, there were scores of 199 not out against Pakistan in 2012 and 192 against Australia at Hobart in 2007.

Sangakkara has been a huge compiler of runs, by far the most prolific produced by Sri Lanka. He is also the classiest ever to emerge from the island, a synthesis of style, pedigree and panache.

It took a while, but selectors were gradually convinced that the phenomenal run scoring ability was more valuable than the all-round worth as a top order batsman and more than decent wicketkeeper. True, his comments from behind the wicket, laced with suave sophistication and sting of wicked wit, is missed as one watches the Sri Lankan spinners in action. But Sangakkara the batsman is too priceless an asset to squander for the extra value that he brings in as a stumper. A look at some numbers is enough to ascertain this and it does the selectors a lot of credit for having made this wise decision.

Sangakkara batted admirably enough in the 48 Tests as the designated wicketkeeper, but he has been almost without equal in those that he has played as a genuine batsman.

Sangakkara is not one of the best batsman-wicketkeeper we have seen — a very decent one, but that’s about it. However, as purely a specialist batsman he definitely has strong claims to being one of the very best of all time.

Sangakkara ‘s career T Runs Ave 100s 50s
As wicketkeeper 48 3117 40.48 7 11
As specialist batsman 69 7369 68.86 26 31
Total 117 10486 56.98 33 42

While he scored at a decent 40.48 with seven hundreds in the 48 Tests as wicketkeeper, Sangakkara has amassed an amazing 7,369 runs at 68.86 with 26 hundreds in the 69 Tests he has played as a specialist batsman. One can perhaps argue for his place as one of the greatest ever and perhaps at the very top among left handed batsmen in the history of Test cricket.

To underline the two sides of the argument, let us look at the best batting records among the ones who played as specialist wicketkeepers. Sangakkara manages decent but not spectacular numbers in this capacity.

Best batsmen as wicketkeepers (minimum qualification 2,000 runs)

Wicketkeeper T Runs Ave 100s 50s
A Flower (Zim) 55 4404 53.70 12 23
AC Gilchrist (Aus) 96 5570 47.60 17 26
LEG Ames (Eng) 44 2387 43.40 8 7
MJ Prior (Eng) 72 3813 42.36 7 26
KC Sangakkara (SL) 48 3117 40.48 7 11
MS Dhoni (India) 77 4209 39.70 6 28
AJ Stewart (Eng) 82 4540 34.92 6 23
Mushfiqur Rahim (Ban) 34 2054 34.23 2 12
BB McCullum (NZ) 52 2803 34.18 5 15
BJ Haddin (Aus) 49 2514 33.97 3 12

However, at the same time, if we consider only specialist batsmen (who have played as batsmen and not the designated wicketkeeper in the match, we find that Sangakkara way ahead of the others, with only Don Bradman in front of him. Just behind him is Clyde Walcott, who also obviously shed the weight of the bigger gloves with excellent effect. Bradman, Walcott and Sangakkara also end as the only specialist batsmen to have scored more than 100 runs per Test.

Best batsmen in Tests, ignoring their records as specialist wicketkeepers (minimum qualification 2,000 runs)

Specialist batsman T Runs Ave 100s 50s
DG Bradman (Aus) 52 6996 99.94 29 13
KC Sangakkara (SL) 69 7369 68.86 26 31
CL Walcott (WI) 29 2910 64.66 12 11
RG Pollock (SA) 23 2256 60.97 7 11
GA Headley (WI) 22 2190 60.83 10 5
H Sutcliffe (Eng) 54 4555 60.73 16 23
KF Barrington (Eng) 82 6806 58.67 20 35
ED Weekes (WI) 48 4455 58.61 15 19
WR Hammond (Eng) 85 7249 58.45 22 24
GS Sobers (WI) 93 8032 57.78 26 30

As a specialist batsman Sangakkara upstages such batting giants as Graeme Pollock, Herbert Sutcliffe, George Headley, Ken Barrington, Everton Weekes, Wally Hammond and Garry Sobers.

So, while one can question his inclusion in an All Time World XI as a wicketkeeping all-rounder, there are definitely more than valid arguments for him being there as a specialist batsman.

Among the current players, Sangakkara is not always spoken of as the best in the world. But, nevertheless he heads the chart with a towering career batting average of nearly 57.

Active batsmen with average over 50

Current Batsman T Runs Ave 100s 50s
KC Sangakkara (SL) 117 10486 56.98 33 42
JH Kallis (ICC/SA) 164 13140 55.44 44 58
SR Tendulkar (India) 198 15837 53.86 51 67
HM Amla (SA) 71 5913 52.32 20 27
MJ Clarke (Aus) 97 7656 52.08 24 27
S Chanderpaul (WI) 148 10830 51.81 28 61
AB de Villiers (SA) 87 6637 51.44 17 33
Younis Khan (Pak) 86 7114 51.17 22 27

Perhaps some of it has to do with gradual reduction of his keeping duties till he gave up the job of a stumper totally in 2008, but Sangakkara has improved over the years as a batsman. If we look at his sustained runmaking since 2004, his average has remained over 60 for over the incredible period of 84 Tests. Whichever way one decides to look at it, he has been a supreme performer.

Sangakkara’s batting record seen in cumulative terms

Sangakkara since T Runs Ave 100s 50s
2000 117 10486 56.98 33 42
2001 113 10312 58.25 33 41
2002 100 9320 58.61 30 36
2003 91 8612 59.39 29 33
2004 84 8200 60.74 29 29
2005 73 7086 61.61 26 24
2006 64 6664 65.33 25 24
2007 53 5422 64.54 21 20
2008 46 4454 57.84 17 18
2009 40 4020 60.90 16 15
2010 29 2937 62.48 12 10
2011 22 2217 58.34 9 8
2012 12 1208 63.57 5 4
2013 2 441 110.25 3 1

The only gaps in Sangakkara’s career perhaps remain the less than brilliant figures in England, India, South Africa and West Indies. In England he did redeem himself somewhat by scoring 119 exquisite runs at Rose Bowl. In South Africa and West Indies we can assume he will rectify his records if he tours again. And his lack of success in India, where the conditions are almost identical to home, is baffling to say the least. However, his willow has dominated the rest of the lands over all these years, and apart from England to an extent, no side has been untouched by the blaze of his bat.

Sangakkara and Sri Lanka

For all the charisma and accomplishments, Sangakkara was a rather reluctant captain of the team. The selectors preferred the more down to earth diplomacy of Jayawardene, with whom much of his career has overlapped.

It was mainly around the two stalwarts that the Sri Lankan batting revolved for most of the last decade. It was on their robust shoulders that the island’s batsmanship emerged as a finished, high quality product as opposed to the rough edged, brimming potential that often remained unfulfilled in the days of yore. The art of the Sri Lankan willow can be traced from the dusty scrolls of history involving Mahadevan Sathasivam, down to the sporadic heroism of Aravinda de Silva and Sanath Jayasuriya. However, it arrived in full glory in the world-wide scale of substance because of these two extraordinary gentlemen of the modern era. From the late 1990s to the current day Jayawardene and Sangakkara lent the finishing touches to the craft of the Lankan bat, combining indigenous talent of the island with the blueprint of international class.

When Jayawardene led the team, and the country became a force to reckon with in world cricket, Sangakkara accepted his buddy’s claims to the helm, thus becoming a loyal advisor and deputy. The friendship and their contribution to the Sri Lankan cause was stamped and sealed in the record books when they added 624 against Dale Steyn and Makhaya Ntini at Colombo in 2006.

Sangakkara did take on the responsibility of the captain in 2009 after Jayawardene voluntarily handed over his responsibilities. Staring his stint with series wins against Pakistan and New Zealand, Sangakkara ended his captaincy days winning five of the 15 Tests and losing three. All the losses came against India, including the only series defeat under his leadership. He also led Sri Lanka to the finals of the World T20I in 2009 and the World Cup in India in 2011. More impulsive and less cool-headed at the helm than his friend, Sangakkara did a decent job through his remarkable ability to think on his feet.

In the One Day game, he has been more than successful, but not as prolific a batsman as in the longer format. He has also continued to keep wickets in ODIs, mainly to lend balance to the side. His success in the shorter format was also delayed; he got to his first ODI century in his 86th game and did not quite make up for lost time in the Sachin Tendulkar way. His collection of 11,798 runs at 39.99 looks impressive in isolation, as do the footage from many of his 16 centuries. But, he has been more prone to cameos in the shorter version of the game and those huge knocks he so enjoys in the Test matches have been somewhat limited.
Batting at his very best and improving steadily with age, Sangakkara perhaps has a few more years of  excellent cricket left in him. He has already seen Sri Lanka through a remarkable phase, taking over from the excellent job done by Arjuna Ranatunga and Aravinda de Silva, and combining with Jayawardene, Muralitharan and Chaminda Vaas to make the island country a cricketing powerhouse. The legacy is already rich. The numbers sparkle as do his wit and erudition when he voices his ideas and opinions on the cricketing world stage.

He has often gone on record saying that he hates loose ends, and will therefore complete his degree in law once his cricket career is over. However, that eventual educational drive still seems to be some years away. There are more battles to be won on the pitch before the scene is shifted to the courthouse. His graceful presence at the wicket will probably continue to entertain and charm for quite some time to come.

(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He writes about the history and the romance of the game, punctuated often by opinions about modern day cricket, while his post-graduate degree in statistics peeps through in occasional analytical pieces. The author of three novels, he can be followed on Twitter at http://twiter.com/senantix)

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