Class, resilience, watertight technique, sublime wristwork, and all these with a tinge of Caribbean flair. In their 45-year long history in international cricket, Sri Lanka, despite being a small island nation, has presented all flavors of batsmanship. Resilience has been common across all their greats representing the fight in the country to stay relevant which was marred with Civil War for 27 years.
Kumar Sangakkara had all the aforementioned qualities in copious amounts. Except, he did not have the Caribbean flamboyance but replaced it with the unshakeable focus.
The focus was implanted in Sangakkara at an early age by his father, Kshema, who would feed him uncountable throwdowns in the backyard fixating on minor body movements for months. The pedantic nature of his father was conspicuous when despite scoring 197 in a school game, Sangakkara was castigated by him in front of his teammates for getting out to a bad shot instead of getting an attaboy. This was after Sangakkara excelled in badminton and tennis too but had circled back to cricket on the advice of his school principal.
Playing school cricket at all age groups, the left-hander made an impression right from the beginning. The greats of Sri Lankan cricket had their eyes on him and the southpaw justified the attention by scoring 156* for Sri Lanka A in a List-A game against Zimbabwe. He was fast tracked into Sri Lanka’s ODI side, making his debut on this day in 2000 in the first ODI against Pakistan at Galle. Couple of weeks later, he was given his maiden Test cap, in the first Test against South Africa.
Sustaining the position at the top is always tougher than reaching the summit. The focus attained after tireless sessions with his father would now come in handy. Sangakkara did not have a great start to his career.
He showed hint of his resolve but numbers did not do justice to the talent he promised. While in Tests, his average jumped to 46.6 by the end of 2001 from 24.9 in four Tests in 2000, in ODIs, it fell down to 22.3 after ending 2000 at 42.4.
“Sanga took his time to settle in but once he found his feet, he was always on a roll”, said Mahela Jayawardene (who played 550 international games with Sangakkara) in a video interview for ESPNCricinfo.
Jayawardene’s words perfectly describe Sangakkara’s rise as an international batsman. His Test average quickly soared into the 40s (a hallmark of an established Test batsman) and stayed on an upward curve throughout his career. But in ODIs, it took the southpaw some time to crack the code. Alongside his average, the strike-rate was underpar as well and grew steadily with time.
Even in Test cricket, Sangakkara’s first Test hundred - 105* against India at Galle which came in his 10th Test - was the maiden hundred of his first-class career in 50 matches. At that time, very few may have thought that the slenderly built left-hander will pile up a behemoth of statistics. Sri Lanka definitely did themselves a favor by keeping their faith in him.
Much like his career, Sangakkara had quite a few innings when he suffered a wobbly start. A modest man, everytime you will ask him about his stand of 624 runs with Jayawardene - the highest in Test and First-class cricket history - he will remind you that he was dropped and bowled off a no-ball early in his contribution of 287.
On the days when he hit the rhythm from the word go, he was a delight to watch. In the first ODI against India in Rajkot in 2009, a runfest, Virender Sehwag and Tillakaratne Dilshan pummeled the bowlers scoring 146 and 160 respectively. Yet, it was Sangakkara who played the innings of the match bashing 90 runs off only 43 balls.
Irrespective of what kind of day it is, if Sangakkara is in for long, he will be one of the hardest batsmen to dismiss. He will adorn the cricket field with his silken cover drives, caressing pull strokes and captivating inside-out shots in the process. Such was his class, even his attacking strokeplay was based on touch and timing.
He was a perfect foil for Jayawardene, a batsman of similar class and elegance. One of the most iconic on-field friendships in world cricket, easily one of the highest significance in Sri Lankan cricket, them batting together was cricket’s equivalent of a classical music show. Quite fittingly, they hold the record for the highest partnership in Test and first-class cricket.
For a major part of his career, Sangakkara’s name was not taken in the same breath with other modern-greats like Sachin Tendulkar, Ricky Ponting or Brian Lara. Silently, he eclipsed them on the runs tally accruing 28,016 international runs, second only to Tendulkar.
Not only in terms of quantity, the left-hander is ahead of any other Sri Lankan legends in terms of impact as well. He was the crisis man who amassed most runs in Test victories for Sri Lanka (5,449) at an average of 71.7 - again the highest (with minimum 1,000 runs). In ODIs, he has the second most number of runs in Sri Lankan victories (8,240) despite playing fewer innings than both Jayawardene and Sanath Jayasuriya.
Heading back to Tests, no one comes close to his average outside Sri Lanka.
Outside subcontinent, he remains to be Sri Lanka’s best by distance - 3,045 runs at 47.6 - both better than any other Lankan batsman.
He has most runs batting at number three, over 1,500 runs more than the next best, Rahul Dravid. He has 11 double hundreds, only one less than the record holder, Sir Don Bradman. He is the joint fastest to complete 10,000 Test runs, in elite company with Tendulkar and Lara. You add his 464 international games as wicket-keeper and 82 as captain and you ponder if anyone else has contributed more to Sri Lankan cricket.
If Sangakkara made a decent start to his Test career, he ended it on absolutely fantastic terms. Marching towards statistical immortality in the final years of his career, Sangakkara turned out to be an inspiration to veterans. Post turning 35, he pushed his Test average above 55 and ODI average over 40.
During this phase, he ticked a lot of boxes in every batsman’s wishlist. On the verge of 2012, he scored his first Test hundred in South Africa which led to Sri Lanka’s first Test win in the Rainbow Nation. In 2014, he finally got his name on the Lord’s Honor’s Board with his first Test hundred at the Home of Cricket. An unusual animated celebration spoke what it meant for him. In the same year he joined the triple hundred club stroking Bangladesh for 319 runs. More importantly, he was finally able to cross the ‘final’ hurdle alongside Jayawardene to lift a World Cup for Sri Lanka.
In between, he won the ICC Player of the Year award, ICC Test Player of the Year award (once each) and ICC ODI Player of the Year award (twice).
In Test cricket, he completed 12,000 Test runs in typical New Zealand conditions during a knock of 203 out of the team’s total reading 356. He was clapped off the field by the Kiwi side stating the respect the gutsy left-hander deserved and New Zealand being New Zealand displayed why they are the most loved side in the cricket world.
Jayawardene had retired from Tests by then playing his last match against Pakistan in August 2014. Sangakkara also wanted to call it quits but decided to hang on saying the team cannot afford two big guys leaving together. He further delayed his exit when the then Sri Lankan skipper, Angelo Matthews asked him to stay a while longer post the 2015 World Cup.
In the World Cup, Sangakkara hammered four consecutive hundreds, an unmatched feat. His ODI career, which saw 404 matches, suffered an anti-climatic end in a World Cup quarterfinal where Sanga battled to accumulate 45 runs off 96 deliveries watching Sri Lanka collapse for 133 from the other end.
His four Tests after the World Cup brought him only 197 runs at an average of 24.6, yet many wanted him to continue. But for him, the flame burning within had stifled envisaging the future of Sri Lankan cricket.
His final Test, against India in August 2015, brought the Sri Lankan President and Prime Minister to the stadium to bid adieu to one of their most colossal figures of the game. In the last three years of his career, he ensured he should be considered as one of the all-time greats to pick a cricket bat.
Playing county cricket in 2017, his last season of first-class cricket aged 39, Sangakkara plundered eight hundreds in 16 innings for Surrey. He completed 100 hundreds across all forms of professional cricket during this purple patch affirming that he does age like wine.