It wasn’t supposed to end like this but that didn’t stop the crowd at P Sara Oval from getting to their feet and applauding a champion who walked into the sunset one last time. There were tears and some were inconsolable as Kumar Sangakkara trudged back to the pavilion after scoring 18.
That’s the kind of legacy Sangakkara has left behind in Sri Lankan and world cricket.
The ending wasn’t as sad as that painful 96-ball 45 in World Cup at the Sydney Cricket Ground but he deserved a better one.
Sangakkara wasn’t a child prodigy but as he left the P Sara Oval, he had 28,016 international runs to his name – trailing only Sachin Tendulkar in terms of the most international runs scored in the history of the game. He is also the only batsman to feature in the top 10 in terms of runs, average and centuries in Test cricket.
Looking at these stats one may imagine that Sangakkara got off to a blistering start. But that isn’t the case. In his first year in Test cricket, he averaged 33.31 without a single century. His ODI start was even slower. In the first three years (2000-2003), he averaged just 28.55 with a strike rate of 69.39 and just two hundreds. That he finished with mind-boggling statistics is a testament to the hard work he has put in over the years.
He started off as an average player but he wasn’t afraid to make changes. He was one of the most improved players in international cricket.
He had a limited range of shots, but as his career blossomed, he started adapting to the needs of the game. He added more and more shots to his repertoire. When he started, he scratched around for survival.
His innings were grinders, then there was some fluency instilled and then those were converted into match-winning knocks. Thirties became fifties, fifties became hundreds and then hundreds became double hundreds. From a strike-rate of 67.29 in ODIs in his first year, he ended with a strike rate of 78.86. He had mastered the art of pacing the innings. From a fighter to a master, Sangakkara defied logic as he improved immensely with age.
Talk of Sangakkara and the first word that comes to your mind is consistency. During the India-Sri Lanka encounters, every time Sangakkara strode out to bat, conversations among friends started with, “Sanga aa gaya hai batting karne, at least 50 to pakka hai.” (Sangakkara has come out to bat, expect him to score at least 50). These comments were tinged with frustration, of course.
Over the span of his 15-year career, 2000, 2005 and 2008 are the only years when Sanga did not average over 40 in Tests. His average was over 50 in ten of the years he played.
Since 2010, he averaged almost 53 in ODIs.
His best year in international cricket came in 2014 at the age of 36, when he shattered record after record. He scored 2,868 international runs, breaking Ricky Ponting’s mark for most runs in a calendar year.
He became the first batsman in ODI history to hit four consecutive tons at the 2015 World Cup and has averaged 86.20 with a strike-rate of 102.86 in ODIs this year.
For most of his career, Sangakkara was underappreciated. He played in the shadows of cricketing greats such as Sachin Tendulkar, Jacques Kallis, Ricky Ponting and Rahul Dravid. Only in the last couple of years have people realised the worth of Sangakkara.
Sangakkara was like that spider who never gave up. Every time he fell to the ground, he got up stronger. One of the more famous stories is when he spent three days in the nets working on his technique after struggling against Trent Boult in both the innings of the Christchurch Test late last year.
“I spent three days trying to understand what I should do with my body and my setup to try and get my feet moving a bit better, and my bat going in the direction of the swing, especially to Boult, because to me he was the biggest threat that I was facing,” Sangakkara said at the time. “I tweaked and tweaked, and kept hitting balls with the fielding coach throwing at me, and I felt pretty comfortable that it was working well, to a left armer. It ended up working well.”
The result? A sublime innings of 203 in the next match at The Basin Reserve. An innings that forced one of cricket’s more aggressive captains— Brendon McCullum — to get defensive
He signed up for Durham to play county cricket to prepare for Sri Lanka’s previous tour of England – a place where he had averaged a mediocre 30 in Tests. He ended the Test series with a average of 85.50 including that elusive century at Lord’s.
During the course of his career, Sangakkara was often criticised as a flat-track bully who only performed at home. But it is a big misconception. He ended up with an average of 53.13 in away Tests. An average higher than Brian Lara, Ricky Ponting, Younis Khan, Rahul Dravid and Inzamam-ul-Haq. He averaged 60.33 in Australia, 41.04 in England and 61 in New Zealand. He scored centuries against every opposition and in every country except the West Indies.
Being selfless was another quality that he possessed. He gave up keeping at the request of the selectors, who wanted him to contribute more with the bat. He wanted to continue keeping but he gave it up in the interest of the team. In the end, it was the best thing to happen to him: As a non-wicketkeeper, he scored 9283 runs at 66.78, an average second only to Don Bradman.
He decided to prolong his Test career so that the team was not slammed by his retirement and Mahela Jayawardene’s retirement at the same time. He gave up the captaincy so that another leader could be blooded in the time for the 2015 World Cup. He has eleven double centuries and could have easily extended his career in pursuit of more records but this is what he had to say:
“I’ve always prided myself on performing well for the side as an individual, but at the end of the day I want to be able to look my teammates in the eye and say I went out there because I really wanted to do well for the side, and it was nothing to do with individual records.”
An eloquent speaker, he spoke with the same elegance as his cover drive. His 2011 MCC Spirit of Cricket Lecture will go down in history as one of the best cricketing speeches of our age. He was fearless, he took on the Sri Lankan administration and challenged Sri Lanka’s political establishment. He had the guts to drop non-performing veterans like Sanath Jayasuriya and Chaminda Vaas.
He took over the captaincy after the brutal Lahore attack when the whole of Sri Lanka was still recuperating. He was injured in the gun attack but he carried the team through the tough period. Lead them to the final of the World T20 and Sri Lanka’s first ever ODI series win in Australia. He still regrets not winning an ODI World Cup. He was a part of the 2007 and 2011 finals that Sri Lanka lost and also 2009 World T20 final. However, he signed off in T20Is with style with a match-winning 35-ball 52 against India in the 2012 World T20 final.
A streetwise man, he was sometimes pretty irritating for the opposition behind the stumps. He would appeal for anything and everything. He sledged and sledged hard. His sledging of Shaun Pollock from behind the stumps is legendary. Once he tricked Pakistan’s Ahmed Shehzad into thinking a throw was coming. In reality the throw was far away, Shehzad dived and got hurt. Sangakkara responded with a cunning smile.
A wonderful human being is how Virat Kohli described him and he was dearly loved in Sri Lanka. The following anecdote presented by him at the Cowdrey lecture is a testimony of his greatness.
“A week after our arrival in Colombo from Pakistan I was driving about town and was stopped at a checkpoint. A soldier politely inquired as to my health after the attack. I said I was fine and added that what they as soldiers experience every day we only experienced for a few minutes, but managed to grab all the news headlines. That soldier looked me in the eye and replied: “It is OK if I die because it is my job and I am ready for it. But you are a hero and if you were to die it would be a great loss for our country.”
Not only in Sri Lanka, he was loved worldwide. In 2009, at the Brabourne Stadium, Sehwag’s fascinating knock of 293 had knocked the winds out of Sri Lanka’s sails. India were on the cusp of becoming the No.1 side in Tests. But Sangakkara came out fighting in the second innings and scored a brilliant 137. The Mumbai crowd can be hostile to the opposition – ask Ricky Ponting or Andrew Symonds – but that day, they appreciated and applauded Sangakkara. They enjoyed every minute of it. He walked off to a standing ovation. Sri Lanka lost. I was in the stands and watching the crowd reaction made me realise that there is something special about this guy..
It’s been a fascinating journey. But as he walks into the sunset, a sudden realisation strikes. We won’t be treated to those silken flicks, intelligent dabs, lovely straight punches and more than anything, glorious down-on-one knee cover drives that could bring a smile to the face of the most depressed of souls. Adios Kumar Chokshanada Sangakkara, Cricket will be poorer without you.