Sangakara-4

The stumps have been drawn. They have applauded the master off the ground. Kumar Sangakkara will not take field in Sri Lankan whites anymore. No one will punch the ball through cover with as much panache, or loft the ball over mid-on with such remarkable ease. Never again will Sri Lanka witness a man disguising a machete as a paintbrush with such ridiculous ease. Abhishek Mukherjee celebrates a genius who barged his way to the top — racing ahead of other modern champions.

I had seen Kumar Sangakkara score a hundred against India at Galle, but I had not taken him very seriously at that time. He seemed another wicketkeeper who could bat, and I, in all my naivety,  even argued that he should not make it ahead of Romesh Kaluwitharana. Kumar Sangakkara retires: Will we ever get to see the perfect mix like the Sri Lankan legend?

Sanath Jayasuriya and Marvan Atapattu and Mahela Jayawardene, or even the ageing Aravinda de Silva and Hashan Tillakaratne, seemed to be bigger threats. It took me a late night at Bristol — or rather, at home, watching a telecast live from Bristol — to understand that Sangakkara was special — as special as anyone who has wielded the willow.

India scored 304. Sachin Tendulkar had a hundred. Sanath Jayasuriya fell early. All was well for India. The lanky frame in dark blue emerged from the steps on to the historic ground where WG Grace and Gilbert Jessop and Wally Hammond had once trod on. The blade flashed. And flashed. And flashed. Kumar Sangakkara’s 287 against South Africa and other great knocks

Sri Lanka reached fifty in the sixth over. Ninety-five in the 12th. Kumar Sangakkara eventually holed out to extra-cover off Harbhajan Singh. His 66 came up off 47 balls. Sri Lanka were 96 for 1 in 12.5 overs. Another two hours, and they were bowled out for 241.

Glued to the television for that one-hour session of play, I realised I had witnessed a very, very special innings. Over years I would see more of these. The sixties and seventies became ‘daddy hundreds’. And Kumar Sangakkara became a legend. Kumar Sangakkara’s 192 against Australia in Hobart: An aberration in a 15-year career of placid culling of bowling attacks

Sri Lankan scorecards in the 2000s had a pattern to them: next to Muttiah Muralitharan you always seemed to find 50-17-82-6 or something similar; there was Chaminda Vaas, fooling one batsman after another with his guile; with the bat there was that demon called  Jayasuriya, that poet called Mahela, that maverick called Tillakaratne Dilshan, and that forgotten grafter called Thilan Samaraweera.

Alongside all them was Sanga. As we graduated from dreamy-eyed fan-boys to armchair critics, Sanga evolved from a livewire rascal behind the stumps to the most feared batsman in the world.

You should have woken early in India to catch a glimpse of his disdainful treatment of the Australians in their pomp at Bellerive. He had thrown it away after rushing to 57 in the first innings, but was not willing to give up this time.

Sri Lanka were chasing 507. They were bowled out for 410. Sangakkara scored 192 of these in 282 balls. He stepped out to unsettle Stuart MacGill; he lofted Mitchell Johnson for six over extra-cover; he punched Stuart Clark over cover off back-foot; he backed away, waited, and gently placed Brett Lee past point (how against that pace?), making it seem the easiest shot ever. Lee came back at screaming pace; Sanga took it from outside off and leg-glanced him for four.

The bowlers could not get him. Rudi Koertzen did, for Stuart Clark had him caught off his shoulder and helmet. A fortnight later he scored 92 (Sri Lanka were bowled out for 188) and 152 against England at Kandy.

Remember New Zealand, 2006-07, where they could not get him out? Sri Lanka got 170. Sanga remained unbeaten on 100. Sri Lanka got 268. Sanga, 156 not out. They got everyone out. They stopped everyone from scoring. They — Shane Bond and Chris Martin and Jacob Oram and Daniel Vettori — could not do anything to Sanga. It seemed the Lankans were batting against two attacks on two different grounds.

You could go on listing innings, but there are too many of them. It is an exercise in futility. What does one do? Describe all four hundreds scored in four consecutive innings in the World Cup?

Does one probe into numbers to see how great he was with the willow? No, for Arunabha Sengupta has already done a wonderful job of it.Use flowery words for his cover drive? But Shiamak Unwalla has been there, done that.

It is pointless to press any harder on the fact that Sangakkara is right up there, putting a claim as strong as Hobbs and Hammond and Sobers and Richards and Tendulkar and Lara and several others for the seat next to Don Bradman’s at Valhalla.

But the legacy of Sangakkara will go far beyond that. Every batsman has his trademark shot. Sangakkara had his plethora of cover-drives, the most exquisite of which was the one played on one knee. He was clinical, sometimes to the brink of annoyance, with his strokeplay. If there was a gap, he almost always bisected it: it was seldom closer to one of the two fielders.

But even that is not Sangakkara. They did not invite Kallis or Tendulkar or Lara or Ponting for the Colin Cowdrey lecture. There he was, the craftiest of sledgers who got under the skin of batsmen with such ease, delivering the most revered speech in the sport. They listened to him at Lord’s Presentation Hall with unabated attention.

Sanga loves English poetry. Going by Andrew Fidel Fernando’s account in The Cricket Monthly, Sangakkara wrote ‘sappy’ ‘five-page’ love-letters to Yehali every day.

Sanga would have made a bad lawyer and a terrible coach, he has confessed. It is difficult to understand why, for few are as articulate in practice, as methodical in routine, as clinical in execution, as effervescent behind the stumps,or as eloquent in speech.

There, however, is more to Sangakkara. Unlike their Indian and Pakistani and Bangladeshi counterparts, Sri Lankan fans are more patient.They have backed their heroes, backing them unconditionally in victory and defeat. When Sri Lanka Cricket could not pay their men, the cricketers went ahead to play ICC World T20 2014, and won it, Sanga sealing it with a 35-ball 52 not out. The men were ecstatic. The fans, elated. The board refused to care. It did not matter.

Sangakkara is not the greatest cricketer to emerge from the Emerald Isles. That honour would go to Murali. He did not revolutionise cricket the way, Arjuna and Jayasuriya did.He was not as good a captain as Mahela. Neither was he the dominant partner in the 624-run stand. He did not win a World Cup.

And yet, there has been none like Sanga. The infectious smile is probably a Sri Lankan thing, but no one has a smile to match his. They say he wins hearts wherever he goes. He sledged, but emerged dignified even in that.

His untarnished image despite Sri Lankan cricket’s power politics over the past two decades made him a hero to match few for his countrymen. So has Mahela and Murali, but with Sanga it is different, for with his gift for the gab and immense popularity he could have made the transition seamless. He chose not to.

Arjuna was the commander. Aravinda, a prodigy who decided to become the bread-earner. Sanath, a marauder. Mahela, an artist in full flow. Murali, a demigod. Chaminda, the wily old fox.

Sanga was all of that in one, and more, lots more. He looked friendly and approachable. When Arjuna and Aravinda retired, Mahela and Sanga had come up, and Murali and Vaas were there. Then went Vaas and Murali. But the twins were there, combatant-in-arms of many a battle, though time was running out for them.

But the duo were around, till Mahela called it quits. The end was nigh, but we dared not utter it. We did not want Sanga to go, for there was a hollow nothingness beyond Sanga that we wanted to turn our backs to — for we were to lose someone the kind of whom the world has not seen the like of.

There was a reason that Angelo Mathews, the man on whose shoulders the unenviable job of carrying Sri Lankan cricket rests, told Indian Express: “I haven’t seen the great Donald Bradman but Sanga is easily the most consistent batsman I’ve ever seen.”

We believe Angelo. Sanga is the most consistent batsman of our times. Sanga is probably the closest to Bradman we have seen. And that is why Sanga leaves Sri Lankan cricket — the world of cricket — in a void that is not likely to be filled in years.

That is precisely why we do not want you to go, Sanga.

(Abhishek Mukherjee is the Chief Editor and Cricket Historian at CricketCountry. He blogs here and can be followed on Twitter here.)