Balanced, yet intense, ruthless in his need to succeed, always contributing to his team’s cause, he is among the finest cricketers Sri Lanka has produced.
Kumar Sangakkara counts among the most polished and prudent of batsmen. Nothing catches the eye about his work except its consistency and efficiency. Although he pulls and cuts efficiently and often, and uses his feet to spinners purposefully, and though he added 624 in an innings with Mahela Jayawardene once, there is something understated and underappreciated about his batting. Perhaps it is that he does not breathe fire, or not often, or withdraw into a cocoon or attack without mercy or resist obstinately or change tempo obviously or grit teeth anxiously or in any other way engage spectators and take them on the journey with him.
Rather, he gets on with the job in a determined, restrained and mostly amiable way. However, character is not to be confused with personality. It takes a lot of courage and commitment to maintain a high standard for a long period, to endure many upheavals and to be a regular in all forms of the game. He has out-stared many bowlers, survived many crises and always retained his educated equanimity. Not even the gunmen in Lahore could put him off his game. Afterwards he said that his country, too, had its troubles and that he would happily come back. Such men are born to bat at first wicket down.
Sanga’s character exists not so much on the outside as within. It is not colour he seeks so much as conquest, not passion so much as purity. At times he resembles a businessman going about his duties – the focus on the bottom line, reckless risks disdained. He is professional as opposed to combative, trusting training more than instinct, research more than hunches. In a way it limited his captaincy – Jayawardene reads the game better because he has less faith in reason. Sanga’s focus is not so much upon the performance as on the task and the career. Cricket called him, challenged him, even though his head was full of literature, even though he had many safer alternatives. He had to make it work. His ruthlessness comes from this need to succeed.
To that end he analysed the game, worked out the techniques and set about making his mark. From the start he made himself focus on the next ball and on playing it on its merits, and then the one after and so forth till it ends, as all things end, even some of Bradman’s innings. It is this ability to think about his game and the game and to reduce both to their bare essentials, a series of deliveries, that has set him apart. Everyone talks about isolating the next ball, but it takes a thinker to reject all other thoughts.
Sangakkara is an all-round man with an all-round game. He is a contributor. Hardly an hour, let alone a day or a match, goes by without something from him. Sometimes he even keeps wicket, and once, in a moment of levity, or opportunity (though surely not revenge, for it is never personal) he was observed rolling over an arm – a right arm, of course, for most modern batsmen operate with the stronger hand to the foremost.
It is the same off the field: the all-round man with the balanced outlook and yet the intensity needed to score as many runs as the most single-minded rival. In repose he talks eloquently and emerges as a mixture of proud citizen and frustrated idealist. Recently he visited schools in the war-torn northern parts of his country and talked about the need to rebuild and the common cause that alone could uplift the nation. He spoke from the heart, and staff and pupils listened, for his words rang true. He constructs his innings and his sentences carefully, and always with a sense of purpose. Sanga has the ability to recognise the aim and to direct his entire energies to its attainment. Nor is he easily distracted.
At the crease, too, he is balanced and organised. Every shot has a sense of cleanliness about it. Inevitably he does make mistakes, errors of judgement, but he rarely suffers from hotness of the head. Consistency of outlook and reliability of technique count among his strengths. He knows his limitations and remains within them, knows his game and applies it methodically. Dilshan may bash away, Jayawardene may caress, but Sangakkara concentrates on the pragmatic, with no ground given to impulse or appearance.
Of course, first wicket down is a tough position. It is not a place for the faint-hearted or self-indulgent. As openers are a breed apart, so are first drops, an adaptable lot ready to play the second ball of the innings or the 300th – like firemen that way, constantly on tenterhooks, never knowing what awaits, the new ball or a tired attack, ready for anything: caution, haste, containment, aggression. To succeed in this position, a man needs to know himself and his own game, and both need to be made of steel.
Sangakkara is the superior batsman because he scores more runs more often and in times of need. Nor does he ever let the side down. Indeed, he has gone into battle on its behalf, on and off the field. de Silva had a bit of Mr Toad in him; Sanga has a lot of Badger.
About Sanga’s batting it is enough to say that he sits alongside his distinguished contemporaries without losing anything by the comparison. It has been a strong period for first-wicket-down batsmen. It is the most difficult and influential position on the list, and it is to Sangakkara’s credit that he has never retreated from the responsibility, not as captain or as keeper.
He might not secure the same plaudits as them but he keeps his part of the bargain just as well, puts as many runs on the board, scores as quickly and as regularly as any of them. Look at the statistics – 8572 runs at 55, and 25 Test hundreds (and 20 stumpings, beat that!). Ask the bowlers. Of course he is not as likely to rip an attack apart as Ricky Ponting in his prime, does not attain the exceptional mixture of artistry and imperturbability as Rahul Dravid at his finest. But he walks out into the heat of battle, draws a lot of fire, and is seldom brought down. Like all these impressive peers he stops the rot before it sets in, softens the ball so that more sketchy batsmen can flourish. Let them do their worst.
Somehow, though, Sanga does not quite get the credit he deserves. If Ponting is great and Dravid is great and Hashim Amla is destined for mighty feats and Jonathan Trott is an immoveable object, then Sanga cannot be ignored. He has played so many wonderful innings, not least a stirring 192 in Hobart that instilled hope in an overwhelmed side, an effort cut short by the sort of umpiring blunder now eliminated by DRS.
Even in his own country Sanga does not tend to get the credit he deserves. Suggestions that he is the best batsman his country has produced tend to raise eyebrows amongst Lankans. Every nation remembers its first champion and forgives him his flaws. Locals talk about Aravinda de Silva and glory enters their eyes. They recall his blistering onslaughts, his vibrant innings, his stunning strokeplay, and most of all his brilliance in the World Cup final, the team’s greatest hour. Here was Sri Lanka in excelsis – a local boy proving he could mix it with the giants of the game. It was a breakthrough, an announcement; it was necessary. But de Silva was also mercurial and often unreliable. Like Brian Lara, he could dazzle and disappoint. He was a player of inspired bursts and great innings, as opposed to a great batsman. Perhaps he was, too, the first hero and so forgiven his frailties. History cannot be as accommodating. Sangakkara is the superior batsman because he scores more runs more often and in times of need. Nor does he ever let the side down. Indeed, he has gone into battle on its behalf, on and off the field.
Of course, he is not perfect. Money matters to him. To that end, he did not exactly hurry to England for the recent Test series, instead playing a few extra IPL matches. Nor was he above pulling strings to legitimise his choice. It was a mistake and both Sanga and his team paid for it. But it told of a certain disillusion, with the administration and high polity. Perhaps, like Anil Kumble, he will switch sides one day. It is devoutly to be wished because he has as much to offer off the field as on it, including the very intelligence and determination that has taken a steady youth player to the highest parts of the batting roll of honour.
Peter Roebuck is a former captain of Somerset and the author, most recently, of In It to Win It