Kumar Sangakkara: Not Many Compare To Sri Lanka’s Selfless Statesman

I remember very well the moment I first fell for Kumar Sangakkara. It wasn’t at Lord’s, or any other cricket ground, but in a sideroom at the offices of the Terrence Higgins Trust in King’s Cross. And he wasn’t playing a cover drive, or diving to take a catch, but interviewing HIV and Aids workers about their day jobs. Sangakkara was, still is, an ambassador for the ICC’s Think Wise campaign, run in partnership with Unaids and Unicef. He had asked the ICC to arrange a roundtable chat with experts in the field. A couple of journalists had been invited along to provide, I assumed, a little positive publicity, to watch him pose for a photo, pass on a couple platitudes, then pop off in his limousine.
Turned out Sangakkara couldn’t have cared less whether the press were there or not, and had little interest in talking cricket. Instead, he spent an hour at the head of a long table, listening to representatives from various charities, some of whom had only a vague idea who he was. “I am here to learn,” he told them, “I am very privileged to be here among you, to talk to you and, more than that, to listen to you. Because when I do put my face out there for the ICC I would like to be informed as much as possible, to be able to back up what I say with factual knowledge.” The only photos he posed for were the ones the staff asked him to be in. “Whatever you do it is not about doing it in front of 20 cameras,” he said. “It is when there are no cameras and no one there to write about it or talk about it.”
Afterwards, I asked Sangakkara why he had spent so long inside. “If I do something I make sure I try and seriously commit to it. With time, with effort, with knowledge, whichever way I can.” Later that same summer, he gave his famous Spirit of Cricket lecture, besides which all others since have paled in comparison. I was there then too, lucky enough to be in the audience to hear him say: “My loyalty will be to the ordinary Sri Lankan fan … they are my foundation, they are my family. I will play my cricket for them. Their spirit is the true spirit of cricket. With me are all my people. I am Tamil, Sinhalese, Muslim and Burgher. I am a Buddhist, a Hindu, a follower of Islam and Christianity. I am today, and always, proudly Sri Lankan.” By the time he had finished, I was completely smitten.
Sangakkara has announced that he will retire from international cricket later this summer. This although his game is, and has been for some time, on a high plateau, one approached by only the very finest players in history. Last year he made 2,868 runs in international cricket, at an average of 53. No one has ever scored more in a calendar year. This year he became the first man in history to score centuries in four consecutive ODI innings, and during the World Cup too. At the age of 37, Sangakkara sometimes seems to have solved cricket, as a computer solves checkers or a bright child a Rubik’s Cube.
Time was when they said Sangakkara’s problem was that he was such a better batsman at home, and of course he is, but he will still finish with (all-format) averages of 49 in Australia, 49 in New Zealand 44 in England, 43 in India. He is the only man in each of Test cricket’s top ten lists of highest averages, most runs and most centuries. Which means that he’s one of the greatest batsmen of all time by any measure you’d care to take. Another year like this last one, and he would sit second to Sachin Tendulkar as Test cricket’s leading run-scorer, and overtake Don Bradman as the man who has scored the most Test double-hundreds. But he’s not interested. He says he would have quit sooner if his great mate Mahela Jayawardene hadn’t beaten him to it. He thought the team would suffer if they both left at the same time.
“I’ve been told if I play another year or two years, I could score another 1000 runs. I might be the second highest run scorer, or I might be able to break the Don’s double-century record. But if you really think about it, if that’s the only reason you want to prolong your career, then it is really time to say, ‘thank you very much,’” Sangkkara said. “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 team-mates 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. I can do that right now.”
A gent to the very end. Seems that Sangakkara is surely one of those rare players cricket fans all around the world can agree on. A shock then, to see one of my very favourite contemporary cricket writers, Osman Samiuddin, admit in print: “I am not a fan of Kumar Sangakkara. I never have been.” Too perfect, too earnest, too bloodless, Osman explained. He was more of a Mahela man.
We all have our favourites, especially those of us who fell in love with the game through watching it from beyond the boundary. I can list those of many of my friends in the game, and I love what each person’s choice says about them (Rob Smyth & Martin McCague, Lawrence Booth & Allan Lamb, Emma John & Mike Atherton, Andrew Miller & Angus Fraser, Gideon Haigh & Chris Tavaré, Kevin Mitchell & Doug Walters. I could go on). If pushed, I’d plump for Shahid Afridi, with Peter Trego and Sangakkara both in close running for the second spot.
Osman’s feelings about Sanga are the flip side of that favouritism. This is one of those cases, just as common, but expressed less often, where a fan feels impervious to the charms of an indisputably great player. Just as we all have our own heroes, so most of us have our own blindspots, players who leave us cold, however adored they are, however acclaimed they may be. Jacques Kallis is a common one. So is Graeme Smith. Must be something about South Africans. For me, it was Ricky Ponting, whose batting always felt so charmless, so ruthlessly efficient, that it seemed to me to be almost too mechanical to admire. Wrong, I know, but there was just no getting around it.
With Sanga, I bend the other way. I can understand the criticisms. Certainly he was once a merciless sledger, and perhaps that made him something of a hypocrite. They say too that he has a politician’s sensibility, and loves to sweet talk the media. If they’re right, it worked with me. I can swallow all that and smile. In my eyes, to my ears, the man is a marvel, and the game will be poorer for his going.
By Andy Bull (The Guardian)

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