Kumar Sangakkara © Ike Li / Ike Images
Kumar Sangakkara © Ike Li / Ike Images

Two years since international retirement, Kumar Sangakkara continued piling runs for Surrey in English County Championship Division One. Piling is probably an understatement; he was actually plundering runs rather. But then, such is his artistry that he even plunders with grace. Sanga got 1,491 runs last season at 106.50. The next best was fellow teammate and a ten-year younger Mark Stoneman, who got 1,156 at 60.84, earning a ticket to the English side. He had played 3 more innings than the then 39-year-old Sanga.

Kumar Sangakkara, a colossus, retired from the international cricket in 2015, leaving the fraternity wanting more. They say ‘retire on a high’, but that seldom translates to peak. You don’t quit international arena after slamming 4 consecutive tons in a World Cup or averaging over 61 in Tests in past 20 months prior to retiring. No, you don’t.

But then that’s Sanga. He gets 1,481 runs in county cricket and retires from First-Class cricket.

Sri Lanka’s loss to Sanga’s premature (my opinion won’t change) retirement has certainly been league cricket’s gain around the world. From T20 leagues in Pakistan, Bangladesh, Australia, West Indies and Hong Kong to county cricket in England, the world outside Sri Lanka has certainly seen more of Sanga in recent years.

At 40, he still crouches with a boyish enthusiasm and maintains remarkable fitness. However, during the Hong Kong T20 Blitz he advocated for T20, the perceived prodigal child of cricket, and mentioned something very important: “For a retired cricketer like me, T20s is the easiest format to play and remain competitive at my age. Yes, I am definitely a has-been.”

He is leading the Galaxy Gladiators Lantau in the Blitz and what else is lined up this year? Brace yourself for some disappointment: “Here and at the moment PSL (for new team Multan Sultans). That’s about it.”

Any chances of turning up for the T20s in England this summer?

“No, no, not at all. Maybe as a spectator,” he smiles.

Sanga was out for a 16-ball 14, striking an attractive pull for a six, before falling to Samit Patel’s guile. Every passing innings is a count less on the finger to the remaining outings of a magical career. Sometimes solace can be sought in low scores too. It’s an assurance that Sanga is staying for now considering his track record to retire at peak.

Be wary when he scores big in next T20 leagues that very well might be the curtains drawn.

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Sanga has been a pioneer across formats, piling over 28,000 runs in international cricket. He has played two World Cup finals, leading Sri Lanka in one of them, and appeared 3 World T20 finals, winning in 2014.

However, Test cricket defines him. He retired with 12,400 runs at a staggering 57.4. In the 86 out of 134 Tests, where he did not keep wickets, his averaged almost 67.

Is Tests pinnacle?

Brand Sanga was created by Test cricket. You expect Sanga to sing the clichés of ‘Tests being the pinnacle’. The articulate communicator in him goes on to imply the same but not without hurling practical questions — whose answers are yet to be found.

Conversing with Sanga, one thing is for sure: the takeaways are bound to be rich in insights. I realised how he can present both sides and then take sides of one very subtly. No wonder he once trained to be a lawyer.

“You can’t deny that T20s is hugely attractive not just to players but also the fans. Ultimately the fans matter because if there are no fans then there is no stage to play. It’s really important to ask fans what they need from Test cricket, what attracts to them and what more can be done in that sense, rather than we telling them that this is what is going to happen. We need to be sensitive to that.

“For sustaining Tests, we have tried to address this question from cricketing perspective and now it’s time to the viewers. Relevance in sport is so important in terms of not just growing the sport but also sustaining it. Most important thing for the game is to be relevant for the time it is being played in.

“Fans need to tell us [the lawmakers] their needs that will help them stay loyal to the format. If they can answer this, we can understand what we missed and address it,” opined Sangakkara, putting the ball in the court of game’s biggest stakeholders, the fans.

Sanga goes on to address the issue of disparity of income for Test cricketers that have contributed majorly to the exodus. Where the likes of Virat Kohli, Steven Smith and Joe Root pocket over a million dollar just through national contracts, someone in the similar league (Kane Williamson, for example), pockets a fourth or fifth of that. Zimbabwean skipper Graeme Creamer reportedly earns less than $90,000.

“There are various things that have been discussed, about parity of pay, especially when it comes to match fees for Test cricket. Shouldn’t there be a blanket minimum pay for Test cricketers? The top countries are being paid a certain Test-match fee and that should be reflected all throughout the Test-playing countries,” Sanga suggested.

In the age of T20s where attempts are being made to help Tests remain at pinnacle, where do ODIs stand? Stands do get filled thanks to the fast-paced nature of the 50-over format that has borrowed the unorthodoxy and scoring rates of T20s. However, too many one-sided contests may end up dwindling the interest in the long-term. Will ODIs be squeezed out of the equation for the greater good?

“I am not sure (if that can be a solution). I wish I could give a definitive answer. It’s important to respect all three formats. Whether you want to sustain Tests with the money that T20 brings in, or reduce Tests by a day or employ more day-night matches. Too many things are being done to answer this question. Like I said before, a more inclusive structure is needed with fans participating to help cricket stay relevant to the age.”

Batting for T20s

The lure, the greed, the glitz, the unorthodox aspect, the game’s underbelly are words often associated with lucrative T20 leagues. Sanga chose to pinpoint the positives without stating the obvious just like he would flamboyantly yet vigilantly caress the ball through gaps. He drove away the notions with cautions, concluding the shortest format “positives outweighs the negatives”.

“T20s have brought in news fans. Since its inception it’s been a huge pillar of strength for world cricket. It has given a lot of players’ opportunities to express at the world stage. It’s also fun and you meet new people. It also gives opportunities to retired cricketers like me to still participate and be competitive, also travel around the world.

“There are mostly positive but a few negatives around too. Lot of younger players take up T20 instead of playing international cricket but those are exception sorts. Overall, this format has a great future. We keep talking of promoting the game in countries, which do not have a rich culture of Test cricket; this is the ideal format to introduce, like in Americas or China.

“It has a time-slot of three hours and easily accessible. It makes it more viable for the kids too.

“T20s have also got more girls interested in this sport and that also helps in inter-generation support. These women will go on to be mothers and have a great influence on their kids on which sport they are introduced to. If you ask me, the positive right now outweighs the negatives of T20 cricket.”

Sanga also believes the fat cheques and mushrooming leagues are not a threat to international cricket, which remains at top of the mind for any cricketer: “I think international cricket is very strong still. For any player, I think the honour of representing their country be it in Test, one-dayers or T20 cricket, it’s still the pinnacle of the game T20s are nice as option because not everyone is going to play international cricket. For them to still play the game at a good level, earn and display their skills around the world in tournaments like these are important.”

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Sri Lanka have over the years produced plethora of unorthodox cricketers. The role of coaches has become important in honing such talents. The likes of Lasith Malinga or Ajantha Mendis wouldn’t have attained the levels they did, had they been forced to conventions.

On the subject of over-coaching, Sangakkara mentioned that the game had place for both orthodox and unorthodox exponents. The role of the coach should lie in understanding on what is the purpose of technique and enabling the player for “glorious display of skill set in the middle.”

“To recognise the uniqueness in the player who is under your charge and to enhance that rather than side-line it,” Sanga remarked. “Evolution of T20s has helped other formats. Looks at the run-rates in Tests … also the athleticism has gone up and that’s good for the game.”

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Associate Nations and World Cups

Sangakkara is playing his second Blitz tournament in Hong Kong. Gladiators, his team, were defeated by 31 runs in the first match by Kowloon Cantons. Having played international cricket for a decade-and-half, Sanga has been enriching the young Hong Kong cricketers.

Despite 90 per cent of Hong Kong’s population not being remotely interested in this sport, Hong Kong have advanced to the 2018 World Cup Qualifiers by securing third place in the ICC World Cricket League Championship.

“It’s good that tournament like these happen. It gives young Hong Kong players a great opportunity to play alongside some of the pros of the world and learn from them. From a developmental perspective it’s good,” Sanga told CricketCountry.

Considering the rise of standards of the associate teams, what does he think of the ever-going debate of number of teams participating in the World Cup and World T20, considering it’s important to maintain the balance between television revenue and development of sports? Cricket Hong Kong’s former CEO Tim Cutler flings the bouncer.

“It’s a tough one but it’s important to get the balance right. It’s nice to have more teams participate but at the same time it’s a benchmark tournament and you can’t dilute the quality of it. The newer sides have to play enough cricket to be prepared to compete against the top sides and if that happens it becomes an easier decision.

“But even for better teams there is no guarantee that you will qualify. West Indies will be playing the World Cup qualifiers. There are newer sides of high quality like Afghanistan. They have fantastic players in Rashid Khan and Mohammad Nabi, and few others who can really test out the international sides. There are newer sides of high quality but more will done to get rest of the teams up to the standards as quick as possible,” Sanga ducks the direct answer.

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Finally on Sri Lankan cricket. Sri Lanka had a torrid 2017. In fact, they have struggled to cope up with the exits of Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene. Malinga seems a spent force and is out of the side. And in Tests, there is too much load on the ageing shoulders of Rangana Herath.

The constant chopping and changing of players hasn’t helped and adding to the woes has been the musical-chair scenario with captains. Dinesh Chandimal had led in absence of Angelo Mathews, who had stepped down after losing the home series against Zimbabwe. Chandimal was replaced by Upul Tharanga, who suffered two consecutive whitewashes in ODIs and was then axed in favour of Thisara Perera. Meanwhile, Chandimal was named Test captain. In between, Chamara Kapugedera and Malinga also led the side in ODIs.

A few months on, Mathews has been reinstated as limited-overs captain. He then got injured, only to be replaced by Chandimal as a stand-in.

Don’t blame me for the maze. It’s Sri Lankan cricket. On a positive note, they appointed the high-profile Chandika Hathurusingha, a man vehemently backed by Sanga, as coach.

Sanga admits that he has been a bit out of touch with Sri Lankan cricket but he goes on to back the decision to reinstate Mathews: “Angelo Mathews has been one of our best captains. He is back at the helm Mathews got injured in the last series (in the Bangladesh tri-nation) and Chandimal took over and captained well. Earlier, Thisara too captained well. I think this decision has to do with restructuring and rebuilding as we have a new coach now. It’s probably about settling down to one definite captain and proper team,” he signed off.