Kumar Sangakkara is one of the most complete cricketers the game has seen. As a left-handed batsman, he has the technique to score runs in all conditions and all formats and the single-mindedness to be one of the great accumulators. As a wicketkeeper, he has served Sri Lanka with great skill and unwavering commitment in one-day cricket as he did in Tests before giving up the gloves in 2006 to concentrate on his pivotal role at number 3. He repaid his team by raising his Test average from around 40 as a keeper-batsman (which in itself is a figure only a select few can match) to around 70 when he plays as a specialist batsman. As captain, senior player, and elder statesman he has set an impeccable example to teammates and the game at large.
He is not only a very versatile cricketer but a grounded one. He comes from a part of the world where politics are inevitably involved in cricket, and where the governments and boards that stand behind the players can be reconstituted at the drop of a hat. In such a potentially volatile environment, it takes a special ability to isolate oneself and focus on doing the things that lead to good performances on the field. Not that he has hidden from the realities of the world: he did not spare
Sri Lanka’s political Establishment when he delivered a forthright Cowdrey Lecture at Lord’s in 2011. In fact, his intelligence is evident in everything he does. He is always alert behind the wicket and always thinking with a bat in his hand. You can almost see the planning and the manipulation that goes into his innings, the changes of pace, the changes of tack as he works out what the opposition bowlers are trying to do against him, and what he should do in response.
He is more than just a run-scorer on a grand scale, although he is certainly that. He has made 11 double-centuries in Test cricket (plus scores of 199 not out and 192 twice), more than anyone but Don Bradman himself, and when he made his highest score of 319 he followed up with 105 in the second innings. That was in a match against Bangladesh, off whose bowlers he took two further double hundreds, and he also helped himself to 270 against a weak Zimbabwe side. This is not meant as a criticism, more as confirmation that he treats every game the same, as an opportunity to score runs and force a win. Sri Lankans may often play an exotic brand of cricket with smiles on their faces, but they are tough competitors with a fervent desire not to be taken for granted. Sangakkara’s innings are tailored to the situations he finds himself in. He does not bat long for the sake of it and one of his finest hours came against the favorites India in the World Twenty20 final in Dhaka in 2014 when he shook off a run of low scores to guide Sri Lanka to the trophy with an unbeaten half-century in 33 balls. That was a special day for several senior Sri Lankan players who had reached a number of major one-day finals without being able to emulate the 50-overs World Cup triumph of 1996. Modern players are inevitably judged by what they do in one-day cricket as well as Tests and Sangakkara was a focal point of the Sri Lanka one-day side that lost two World Cup finals and two
World Twenty20 finals between 2007 and 2012. It was after the loss to India in the 2011 World Cup final that he stepped down as Sri Lanka captain.
Sangakkara puts down his ability to cope on pitches outside the subcontinent to have learned the game on the Asgiriya school ground in Kandy, which was also used to stage Test matches for many years. The ball bounced and moved around there more than at most Sri Lankan venues, and gave him a head start when he toured places like Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and England.
He has scored more than 5,000 Test runs outside his home country at an average of well over 50, a record only a few Asian batsmen can match. Compare his record away from home, for example, to that of Mahela Jayawardene, himself an immense figure in Sri Lankan cricket and Sangakkara’s partner-in-crime for many years (they shared numerous big stands together, including a world record
partnership of 624 against South Africa in Colombo). Unlike Sangakkara, Jayawardene was never quite as influential overseas as he was at home, averaging less than 40 in Tests outside Sri Lanka.
For a while, one of the few blemishes on Sangakkara’s CV was the absence of a Test century on English soil but he put that right on his third tour with a fighting hundred to save the match at Southampton in 2011. Three years later, he went better still by playing a lead role in Sri Lanka’s first Test series win in England, scoring 147 and 61 at Lord’s, where they only just hung on for a draw,
and a pair of 50s in their dramatic victory at Headingley.
As many of the finest batsmen seem to, Sangakkara got wiser and even better as the years went by. In 2014, the year in which he turned 37, he scored more international runs than he ever had before and remarkably for the fourth time topped 1,000 runs both in Tests and in one-day internationals. Only one other batsman – Ricky Ponting – had performed this feat even twice. His golden form
continued in the first week of 2015 with a double century out of a team score of 356 against a very decent New Zealand pace attack in good bowling conditions in Wellington, after which he said he might review his plan to retire from all international cricket after the World Cup. Why give up when things are going so well?