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Kumar calibrated within the Sangakkara Family and the World of Cricket

August 3, 2015

Andrew Fidel Fernando, courtesy of ESPNcricinfo and Cricket Monthly, August 2015, where the title reads “The cult of Sanga”

the Sangas Kumari & Kshema Sangakkara Sanga cover drives Kumar’s classic cover drive —Getty

When clients came to see Kshema Sangakkara in the late 1980s and early 1990s, many were made to wait. A renowned civil lawyer, Kshema would be busy in the backyard of his colonial home, which had sat proudly on a Kandy hillside for close to a century. “Why don’t you come now?” his wife Kumari used to ask. “They have been waiting here a while.”

“So?” Kshema would reply. “Let them wait. They have come to see me. I can’t see them until I’ve finished working with my son.”

When Kumar thinks of his childhood, he remembers the long hours of tennis-ball throwdowns, being roused early on weekends for shadow-batting, and the evening lectures on batting technique. He also remembers his report cards often reading “absent” during his first few years at Trinity College. “You don’t have to go to school today,” Kshema would say, “you can come with me on a trip.” So father and son would climb into the family van and travel to eastern Ampara or north-central Anuradhapura for Kshema’s next case. The bumpy rural roads of wartime Sri Lanka, made to seem worse by his father’s “terrible taste in vehicles”, lent a sense of peril to the adventures. “You know,” says Kumar, “we even had a driver once who broke his wrist driving our van, because the transmission was so stiff.”

“I was always chuffed when I could prove my father wrong. When I scored runs sometimes, I said, ‘Listen, this is how I did it, and it’s completely different from the way you taught me'”

Other days Kumar played outside with friends and neighbours till dusk. “He was a naughty child,” older sister Saranga remembers. On one occasion, not heeding his mother’s warning, he left the property and was bitten by a stray dog. Another time, while his parents hid Tamil families during the Black July riots in 1983, six-year-old Kumar asked his parents if this gathering of his friends could happen every year.

But through the years, amid the violent national crises that speckled his youth, Kumar played sports. And while he played, his father coached him. “My father’s view was that if you were going to spend time playing something, you should play it correctly,” Kumar says, “which is fine.

“But very quickly the coaching became a pain in the neck. All my siblings went through this. If we had a two-hour practice, we would work for maybe half an hour, and argue for the other one and a half hours. It was a tug of war and I was always chuffed when I could prove him wrong. When I scored runs sometimes, I said, ‘Listen, this is how I did it, and it’s completely different from the way you taught me.’

“But then the older I got, the more I understood. The more I realised, I guess, the value in what my father said.”

Two days out from his third-to-last Test match, Kumar Sangakkara is hunched over a cardboard box in the backyard of his own house, his children flitting noisily about his legs. Their home is east of the capital – far enough from Colombo’s rapidly advancing concrete for water monitors to sun themselves on grass banks, for cranes to wade around in rice paddies and for parrots to twitter from the palms.

This June morning had spilt over into frenzy when Sangakkara’s five-year-old twins spied a grey langur in the jackfruit tree just beyond the back verandah. After skating around the house declaring to all that a monkey was in the garden, Swyree and Kavith announce to their father that they would very much like to take it captive. So, box in hand, Sangakkara is now busy making them a trap.

He sends the kids off on a string of missions: “Who can find me a rope?” “See if you can get a stick about this long.” “Ask amma if we can have a banana to use for bait.” Then he tries to show them how all this fits together – the stick propping the box open, the rope leading around the corner, where the children would wait in silence, then yank the box shut when the monkey comes for the fruit. He knows they will never ensnare a monkey like this, so the whole scene is mildly humorous – only, there is no decent punchline in sight. It is a dad joke. Long after the monkey has tired of the commotion and left, Sangakkara calls out: “Look, Swyree, there’s the monkey.” When she looks at him, he is pointing at her brother.

“I can’t see what value I will be to the team if I carry on for 12 months. My taking up a place for another few months is just delaying the future for someone else”

In the midst of a Test series against Pakistan, on the heels of a big loss in Galle, these are precious, stolen moments. Soon the father has to quit goofing around and prepare for the afternoon’s training session and team meetings. If it had been up to him, he would have been an ex-international cricketer, free to carry on with the backyard fooling for as long as his kids would stand him.

Sangakkara had contemplated stepping away from Tests as far back as the middle of the last year, when he got a call from Mahela Jayawardene, who had typically had the same thought. “We can’t have two guys leaving at once,” Sangakkara had said, and put his plans on hold. Later in the year, when he went to the board offices to announce he would not play any international cricket beyond the 2015 World Cup, the selectors and Angelo Mathews implored him to reconsider. Even now, after he has delayed his exit twice and confirmed the August series against India will be his last, many are desperate for him to stick around for another year.

“I think in Sri Lanka we have real trouble letting go,” he says in the car, en route to the Taj Samudra hotel, where the team is set to assemble. “I can’t see what value I will be to the team if I carry on for a few months, or 12 months. If they want the senior players to assist the team – to come and spend some time at training or in the dressing room – all that can be arranged. We are all willing to do that. But my taking up a place for another few months is just delaying the future for someone else.”

In public, Sangakkara is often hawking Sri Lankan cricket’s marvels; crowing about the raw ability, the free-flowing style, and fusion of resolve and finesse. But when he reflects on Sri Lanka’s shortcomings at close quarters, the veil slips. He lingers long and becomes glum. “The thing about our first-class cricket when I started out was that it was much more competitive than now,” he says. “There were more players of quality in the same team, whereas now it’s spread very thin.

“Maybe when you leave school now, you have so many other options with what to do with your life, young boys take that other option over cricket. The country has moved forward, but our domestic structure hasn’t developed from then to now. And what I don’t understand is: why do we worry so much about school cricket? It’s the first-class system we should be focusing on. Who’s going to play in the Sri Lanka side at 18? No one. In Asia, this is the whole thing. We’re always looking for the next boy wonder.”

Sangakkara is more justified in his frustrations than most. From among Sri Lanka’s exceptional lot, he stood to gain most from the pre-Test priming that cricketers have, say, in Australia. When he dismantles Saeed Ajmal in Galle or quells James Anderson at Lord’s it is tempting to think of him as this industrial lathe that has been cutting bowlers to size since the dawn of the planet. But while greatness was written on the wall for men like Aravinda de Silva, Jayawardene and Muttiah Muralitharan, Sangakkara had to painstakingly chisel his legacy on stone.

In public, Sangakkara is often hawking Sri Lankan cricket’s marvels. But when he reflects on Sri Lanka’s shortcomings at close quarters, the veil slips

Take his early travails with slow bowling. The rains and the greener, quicker pitches in Kandy had fitted him with a serviceable technique against seam, but then, “I watched the guys who had grown up in Colombo – watched someone like Mahela – play spin, and I didn’t really understand how to do that”.

Sangakkara had been routinely fooled by variations. He was hesitant to use his feet. He found it tough to hit against the turn. Forget cutting loose, rotating the strike was a nightmare. In some Tests, his batting partners may as well have set up camp and settled in with supplies at the non-striker’s end. Sangakkara scored decent enough runs in his first few series, but even against seamers he rarely looked like a player around whom the top order would pivot. No one imagined this bag of bones would one day be a statistical behemoth averaging over 68 across 84 Tests as a specialist batsman, or the proprietor of more batting records than any other Sri Lankan.

“I came into a Sri Lankan team full of World Cup winners and greats in their own right. Where I began wasn’t where they began,” Sangakkara says. So he ventured in a direction few Sri Lanka players consider. While prevailing wisdom taught that international success rested on leaving one’s natural technique unmolested, Sangakkara chose to evolve.

A change of grip was among his early renovations. “Early in my career Aravinda de Silva came and said to me: ‘If you want to drive straight, you have to change your grip.’ “When I did that, suddenly, from being a player who could only hit between third man and cover on the off side, I was driving past the bowler.”

Early in his international career, Sangakkara had his fair share of troubles against the slower bowlers. It took practice, focus, and a willingness to reshape his batting for him to get to where he is today © Getty Images

Behind the scenes, nudging him perpetually towards perfection was Kshema, whose copious, often unsolicited advice his son had by now learned to sift through. “You know, it’s funny thinking now – it used to infuriate me when I was younger, and my father would torture me with a particular movement for months, then come and suddenly say, ‘No, forget all that. Disregard what I’ve been telling you – let us start on this new thing.’

“But that’s one thing he has always said: ‘Always be open to change. That’s how you improve. Change with a plan and you’ll find yourself growing.’ I always thought that was his way of justifying another new-fangled theory, but maybe that was his philosophy on life. In the end, that’s how I’ve thought about my cricket every single time.”

Series to series, Sangakkara’s alterations seemed minuscule. It was like a chair was adjusted here, a picture frame straightened there. But over time, the transformation has been immense. That looseness outside off stump was dealt with. Crinkles in his sweep and cut were flattened out. And when hundreds begun to organise themselves in a stack, he knew he was making it work. He had two tons in Galle to begin with, then big doubles in Lahore, Bulawayo and Colombo. In a top order featuring Sanath Jayasuriya, de Silva and Jayawardene, Sangakkara played the gritty foil. Others sailed to centuries; Sangakkara clawed and scratched and thought himself there.

While greatness was written on the wall for men like Aravinda de Silva, Mahela Jayawardene and Muttiah Muralitharan, Sangakkara had to painstakingly chisel his legacy in stone

“There were lots of innings where I was not in sync. Sometimes I fought that, but then eventually learned to allow myself to fall into a rhythm. There were times when I started really uglily and really had to fight it out, until suddenly, one ball, after two hours, gets you into perfect rhythm. Then everyone thinks: ‘Where the hell has this guy been all this time?'”

This was Sangakkara through the early 2000s. He was one of the Sri Lankan batsman opposition bowlers worried least about, yet at the end of the day they would find him clinging on, 57 not out. At some point the next morning, after looking like he wouldn’t survive the opening spells, Sangakkara would reinsert himself into his opponents’ flesh, and continue the bloody drip, drip, drip.

In contemplating Sangakkara’s career – in acknowledging the recent frequency of fifties, the seeming inevitability of his tons, and the Bradmanesque pile of double-hundreds – it is important to take stock of the beginnings. It is crucial to mark out his starting point, because in the rickety van that is Sri Lankan cricket, amid public clashes with administrators and captaincy crises, Sangakkara’s journey to greatness has resembled one of those winding wartime trips to Ampara or Anuradhapura, with his father absorbed in his own work but always close by.

Schoolboy Sangakkara is said to have displayed his trademark eloquence while wooing the girl who would eventually become his wifeSchoolboy Sangakkara is said to have displayed his trademark eloquence while wooing the girl who would eventually become his wife © ICC/Getty Images

Jayawardene once said about his friend’s stomach for training: “Kumar bats and he bats and he bats, and he keeps and he keeps and he keeps.” And though he fiercely denies this, Sangakkara seems to once have been a schoolboy who pined and pined and pined for the girl who would eventually become his wife.

It apparently went like this: Sangakkara was smitten by Yehali, but Yehali, not so sure, dispatched friends – twin girls from her class – to reconnoitre and report back. Now, having spent almost two decades in Australia, twins Jini and Dilu Kulathungam are indistinguishable over the phone, forever interjecting to amend and augment each other’s recollections.

“We went to this English Literature tuition class so we could find out a little bit more about him, and I think the first thing we noticed was that he wasn’t like other boys,” one of them says. “No, he was a bit of a teacher’s pet. I remember him sitting right in front and answering all the questions.”

He would further distinguish himself from other young men through his unabashed love for English poetry. Poetry that, when the couple’s relationship warmed up, he quoted lavishly in daily love letters. Jini and Dilu lived adjacent to Sangakkara’s school, so had the task of transporting the missives.

Sangakkara scored decent runs in his first few series, but rarely looked like a player around whom the top order would pivot. No one imagined this bag of bones would one day be a statistical behemoth

“I remember Yehali reading us some of the letters, and yeah, they were probably pretty sappy,” Jini says. “Kumar was a romantic at heart, I think.

“But if he heard us saying this, he wouldn’t like it.”

No, he despises it. He straightens in a chair on his back verandah, and crinkles his nose at the first mention of this sorry backstory. So keen is Sangakkara to distance himself from it, he disavows not only the strength of his affections for Yehali at the time, but his whole supposed passion for poetry.

“Jini and Dilu have told you all rubbish,” he says. “Don’t believe a thing they say.”

Yehali is just out of sight, watching over the children, near the rear French doors, but she reveals herself at the first sound of denial from her husband, like she had been lying in ambush the whole time.

“Really Kumar? You didn’t write me letters? There were five-page letters!”

“I might have written you one letter.”

“I still have them saved somewhere. What about the chocolates you used to send through Jini and Dilu?”

“Yeah, because I was worried about what they were feeding you at school.”

It’s a lame response. He is reeling.

“There was a book of poems as well.”

“Rubbish.”

Satisfied that her husband is on the run, Yehali returns her attention to the children. Her version of events has the weight of verbal evidence as well. Sangakkara’s own childhood friend Dharshana Senarath remembers the lengths Sangakkara would go to. “The way I knew how much he really liked her was because every day he would buy one of those 100-rupee payphone cards to call her. I don’t think he could call her from his house at that time. Even some time after that, when she had moved to Colombo, sometimes he would travel from Kandy to Colombo to drop off a gift for her and go back, just for that.”

As Sangakkara rains down smouldering stares from billboards all over the country, it is not difficult to see why he objects so sharply to revelations about this lovesick past. Here is a man who has crafted his public image almost as carefully as he has his batting technique; who has steered clear of the political hand grenades that have devoured countless others in Sri Lankan public life.

Even when waging firefights with the board, he chose his moments prudently. During the early stages of Sri Lanka’s 2014 World T20 campaign, Jayawardene had taken to Twitter to voice his displeasure at Sri Lanka Cricket’s handling of the news of his and Sangakkara’s T20 retirement, but it was after the team returned with the trophy that Sangakkara joined his friend in a state of righteous anger. In another spat the previous year, Sangakkara claimed the moral high ground by choosing to play for his local side over his IPL franchise at the Champions League T20, before launching a verbal mortar at SLC secretary Nishantha Ranatunga. Officials are foolish to engage Sangakkara, because while they are ever tainted in these scrapes, his armour seems to gleam a little brighter from each public skirmish.

“There were times when I started really uglily and really had to fight it out until suddenly, one ball, after two hours, gets you into perfect rhythm”

Few in Sri Lanka have managed fame as effortlessly as Sangakkara. Many of his great innings have had a wobbly beginning. Those tetchy lunges against high-quality spin still persist. But hand the man a microphone, put him in front of a crowd and he is a natural through and through.

He earns affection quickly and decisively, sometimes leading with that dashing smile, other times emitting a winning chuckle. His verbal repertoire is so vast he seems to have four answers to every question, and unfailingly chooses the reply best calibrated to present company. His speech is easy, quick and flowing. And he times the pants off his jokes. The most famous example is his recollection of novice opener Tharanga Paranavitana clutching at his bloody chest during the 2009 Lahore attack. “Oh my God,” Sangakkara says of his inner monologue at that moment. “You were out first ball, run out in the next innings, and now you have been shot. What a terrible first tour.”

Three days before the second Test against Pakistan in June, he is in sparkling form again in a conference room just inland of the western town of Matugama. The paint company he endorses is hosting a weekend retreat for its salespeople. Around 50 men and women are clustered around large round tables, throwing varied questions at Sangakkara, who is there to inspire and encourage.

Sanga and Maiya: has there been a better double act? © Getty Images

When a young man asks if there is truth in the rumour he is planning a political career, Sangakkara scratches his chin and furrows his brow in faux reflection.

“Yes, I mean, I read I was contesting the upcoming election in the papers,” he says. “Apparently I’ll be needing votes from Kalawewa.”

The room breaks out in laughter.

“At least if they had said I was contesting from a Kandy electorate or a Colombo electorate, it could be believable. But Kalawewa? I think I’ve only ever driven through there. Not an ideal start to my political career.”

Before the room has quieted after another round of laughs, Sangakkara is a step ahead, seizing a teachable moment.

“But that’s not to say no one should go into politics,” he says. “Politicians also provide an invaluable service to the country – we need them. It’s not for me, I think, but if anyone else in the room feels that that is their calling in life, that’s a great thing for Sri Lanka.”

Officials are foolish to engage Sangakkara, because while they are ever tainted in these scrapes, his armour seems to gleam a little brighter from each public skirmish

And on he goes, dealing in even-handed motivation, punctuating his answers with the occasional cricket story. Before long he is asked if he will live overseas in the future. “Sri Lanka is home, and it’s the only place for me,” he replies. The room is in raptures. The audience is besotted. Sangakkara could unbuckle his belt and moon them at this point and still they would all come away enchanted. Forget that exemplary set-up at the crease, you think. Forget his otherworldly average as a specialist batsman. This is Sangakkara’s real forte. This is his superpower.

“Ever since he was a little boy – since kindergarten – he was outgoing,” older sister Saranga says. “He was always very comfortable in front of crowds, whether it was with plays that we did or in playing his violin. His teachers loved that. That charm has always been part of Kumar.”

It was this charm that propelled the sharp rise of his stock in the West. The 2011 speech at Lord’s heightened appreciation for him at home, but its full impact was felt overseas, where he came to occupy a unique space: an Asian cricketer who is among the game’s leading intellectuals. Where before his consistency had been something of a subcontinental secret, in the last four years the world has awoken to his exceptional record.

Sanga speaks -AFPWhen Sangakkara speaks, the cricket world listens © AFP

In an otherwise ignominious Test for his team, Sangakkara raised a standing ovation at the MCG on Boxing Day in 2012 when he became the fastest to 10,000 Test runs, alongside Sachin Tendulkar and Brian Lara. “I knew that if I had got there in any innings before that, I would have been the fastest alone,” he says. “But then I reached 10,000 there, and the screen at the ground had my name on top, then Sachin and Lara. I would be an absolute liar if I said that didn’t give me a lot of satisfaction. David Warner, who was fielding close by at the time, had seen that, been surprised and said something like: ‘He’s consistent, I’ll give him that.’ You know, it was something to strike even Warner.” That record is actually among Sangakkara’s less impressive achievements. He has been the fastest to every other 1000-run milestone from 8000 to 12,000.

As his Western legend grew, it has been tempting in the East to see Sangakkara as an Anglophile – a Sri Lankan who wishes he were otherwise. But you only need observe him for a day at home to know this is spectacularly unfair. His Sinhala is as sophisticated as his English, and unblemished by the western phrases that have invaded the modern vernacular. He makes a cheese omelette for breakfast but eats it with his fingers, mixing it with pol sambol and a dark chicken curry. His living room is lined with two levels of local art. Among the pieces he has recently had framed is a line drawing of a young boy picking at a sitar.

Better to say he is a social chameleon, who, perhaps subconsciously, affects mannerisms and adjusts his inflection out of a desire to be liked wherever he goes.

His verbal repertoire is so vast he seems to have four answers to every question, and unfailingly chooses the reply best calibrated to present company

Sri Lankan cricket fans resent being likened to their counterparts elsewhere in the subcontinent. The island is passionate about cricket, they like to think, but capable of turning off when the going is poor. “Fickle” may be a better description than “balanced”. The party following Sri Lanka’s World T20 victory was enormous and euphoric. In contrast, when their team was knocked out of the ODI World Cup this year, Sri Lankan fans not only overcame disappointment, they briskly moved on to supporting, then feeling upset, for New Zealand. Cricket is just for fun, Sri Lankans feel, so why get bent out of shape over it?

In recent years, no cricketer has frayed this relative composure as much as Sangakkara. The snowballing of runs since 2010, combined with his speeches, good looks and humility have given the cult of Kumar a fanatical edge. These devotees trawl social media and message boards, flaming those who so much as under-celebrate a Sangakkara milestone. When Sangakkara had tweeted about encountering a “rude” immigration officer at Heathrow airport, a small sortie from this Sanga Bala Sena demonstrated outside the British High Commission in Colombo.

While Sangakkara’s supporters have grown, however, a dissenting group has also become equally vocal. These are the Maheliacs – essentially the hipster movement in Sri Lankan fandom – who feel that though Sangakkara’s numbers are excellent, Jayawardene’s contribution has been greater, through intangibles like strategy and aesthetics.

Sri Lanka cricket fans rarely let their passions spill over; the same can't be said of Sangakkara fans - a group of whom are seen here demonstrating in Colombo in April 2011, demanding Sangakkara be reappointed captain</i>Sri Lanka cricket fans rarely let their passions spill over; the same can’t be said of Sangakkara fans – a group of whom are seen here demonstrating in Colombo in April 2011, demanding Sangakkara be reappointed captain © AFP

The Sanga-love that took hold following the World T20 win typified Maheliac gripes. Jayawardene had top-scored for Sri Lanka during the campaign, and, perhaps more crucially, been the team’s tactical heartbeat following Dinesh Chandimal’s mid-tournament ouster as captain. The defence of 119 in the sudden-death group match against New Zealand, for instance, bore all the Jayawardene hallmarks: the early introduction of spin, the yapping wolves around the bat, the inspired fine-tuning from slip. Sangakkara, meanwhile, skidded through the tournament on scores of 14, 0, 4 and 1 until his unbeaten 52 in the final seized the narrative, even from the bowlers who were most instrumental to that win.

Of course this rivalry exists only in bars, at bus halts and three-wheeler stands, because there has not been a hint of dissent between the two, let alone resentment. “I don’t think our relationship has ever been based on trying to outdo each other,” Jayawardene says. “We’ve definitely helped each other along by sharing our knowledge, or telling each other if something isn’t quite right with their game, but it’s never been a competition. Nothing like that.” One of their more grievous quibbles had come in 2007, when captain Jayawardene had set his mind on dropping himself from the ODI side following a slim run of scores. Sangakkara, just as trenchantly, persuaded him in the end that this was folly. Even their fights are cute to the point of being pathetic.

The 2011 speech at Lord’s heightened appreciation for him at home, but its full impact was felt overseas, where he came to occupy a unique space: an Asian cricketer among the game’s intellectuals

Their only rivalry has been played out in latter-day interviews, awash in complimentary one-upmanship. For example, Sangakkara would often let fly with: “There’s never been any doubt in my mind that Maiya’s always been the better batsman.” Then Jayawardene would counter: “Kumar would say I am the best, but if you look at the numbers, it’s quite clear who was.” Betrayed by his own statistics but never short of words, Sangakkara reaches for a more nuanced homage: “Mahela reverses pressure so well, and makes it easy for anyone to bat with him.” And on and on it goes, in a great big bum-patting merry-go-round, until everyone but the pair is nauseous.

Sanga and Mahela -

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When clients came to see Kshema Sangakkara in the late 1980s and early 1990s, many were made to wait. A renowned civil lawyer, Kshema would be busy in the backyard of his colonial home, which had sat proudly on a Kandy hillside for close to a century.”Why don’t you come now?” his wife Kumari used to ask. “They have been waiting here a while.””So?” Kshema would reply. “Let them wait. They have come to see me. I can’t see them until I’ve finished working with my son.”

When Kumar thinks of his childhood, he remembers the long hours of tennis-ball throwdowns, being roused early on weekends for shadow-batting, and the evening lectures on batting technique.

He also remembers his report cards often reading “absent” during his first few years at Trinity College. “You don’t have to go to school today,” Kshema would say, “you can come with me on a trip.” So father and son would climb into the family van and travel to eastern Ampara or north-central Anuradhapura for Kshema’s next case. The bumpy rural roads of wartime Sri Lanka, made to seem worse by his father’s “terrible taste in vehicles”, lent a sense of peril to the adventures. “You know,” says Kumar, “we even had a driver once who broke his wrist driving our van, because the transmission was so stiff.”

“I was always chuffed when I could prove my father wrong. When I scored runs sometimes, I said, ‘Listen, this is how I did it, and it’s completely different from the way you taught me'”

Other days Kumar played outside with friends and neighbours till dusk. “He was a naughty child,” older sister Saranga remembers. On one occasion, not heeding his mother’s warning, he left the property and was bitten by a stray dog. Another time, while his parents hid Tamil families during the Black July riots in 1983, six-year-old Kumar asked his parents if this gathering of his friends could happen every year.

But through the years, amid the violent national crises that speckled his youth, Kumar played sports. And while he played, his father coached him. “My father’s view was that if you were going to spend time playing something, you should play it correctly,” Kumar says, “which is fine.

“But very quickly the coaching became a pain in the neck. All my siblings went through this. If we had a two-hour practice, we would work for maybe half an hour, and argue for the other one and a half hours. It was a tug of war and I was always chuffed when I could prove him wrong. When I scored runs sometimes, I said, ‘Listen, this is how I did it, and it’s completely different from the way you taught me.’

“But then the older I got, the more I understood. The more I realised, I guess, the value in what my father said.”

Two days out from his third-to-last Test match, Kumar Sangakkara is hunched over a cardboard box in the backyard of his own house, his children flitting noisily about his legs. Their home is east of the capital – far enough from Colombo’s rapidly advancing concrete for water monitors to sun themselves on grass banks, for cranes to wade around in rice paddies and for parrots to twitter from the palms.

This June morning had spilt over into frenzy when Sangakkara’s five-year-old twins spied a grey langur in the jackfruit tree just beyond the back verandah. After skating around the house declaring to all that a monkey was in the garden, Swyree and Kavith announce to their father that they would very much like to take it captive. So, box in hand, Sangakkara is now busy making them a trap.

He sends the kids off on a string of missions: “Who can find me a rope?” “See if you can get a stick about this long.” “Ask amma if we can have a banana to use for bait.” Then he tries to show them how all this fits together – the stick propping the box open, the rope leading around the corner, where the children would wait in silence, then yank the box shut when the monkey comes for the fruit. He knows they will never ensnare a monkey like this, so the whole scene is mildly humorous – only, there is no decent punchline in sight. It is a dad joke. Long after the monkey has tired of the commotion and left, Sangakkara calls out: “Look, Swyree, there’s the monkey.” When she looks at him, he is pointing at her brother.

“I can’t see what value I will be to the team if I carry on for 12 months. My taking up a place for another few months is just delaying the future for someone else”

In the midst of a Test series against Pakistan, on the heels of a big loss in Galle, these are precious, stolen moments. Soon the father has to quit goofing around and prepare for the afternoon’s training session and team meetings. If it had been up to him, he would have been an ex-international cricketer, free to carry on with the backyard fooling for as long as his kids would stand him.

Sangakkara had contemplated stepping away from Tests as far back as the middle of the last year, when he got a call from Mahela Jayawardene, who had typically had the same thought. “We can’t have two guys leaving at once,” Sangakkara had said, and put his plans on hold. Later in the year, when he went to the board offices to announce he would not play any international cricket beyond the 2015 World Cup, the selectors and Angelo Mathews implored him to reconsider. Even now, after he has delayed his exit twice and confirmed the August series against India will be his last, many are desperate for him to stick around for another year.

“I think in Sri Lanka we have real trouble letting go,” he says in the car, en route to the Taj Samudra hotel, where the team is set to assemble. “I can’t see what value I will be to the team if I carry on for a few months, or 12 months. If they want the senior players to assist the team – to come and spend some time at training or in the dressing room – all that can be arranged. We are all willing to do that. But my taking up a place for another few months is just delaying the future for someone else.”

Kumari and Kshema Sangakkara in their Kandy home, where Kumar grew up © Michael Roberts

In public, Sangakkara is often hawking Sri Lankan cricket’s marvels; crowing about the raw ability, the free-flowing style, and fusion of resolve and finesse. But when he reflects on Sri Lanka’s shortcomings at close quarters, the veil slips. He lingers long and becomes glum. “The thing about our first-class cricket when I started out was that it was much more competitive than now,” he says. “There were more players of quality in the same team, whereas now it’s spread very thin.

“Maybe when you leave school now, you have so many other options with what to do with your life, young boys take that other option over cricket. The country has moved forward, but our domestic structure hasn’t developed from then to now. And what I don’t understand is: why do we worry so much about school cricket? It’s the first-class system we should be focusing on. Who’s going to play in the Sri Lanka side at 18? No one. In Asia, this is the whole thing. We’re always looking for the next boy wonder.”

Sangakkara is more justified in his frustrations than most. From among Sri Lanka’s exceptional lot, he stood to gain most from the pre-Test priming that cricketers have, say, in Australia. When he dismantles Saeed Ajmal in Galle or quells James Anderson at Lord’s it is tempting to think of him as this industrial lathe that has been cutting bowlers to size since the dawn of the planet. But while greatness was written on the wall for men like Aravinda de Silva, Jayawardene and Muttiah Muralitharan, Sangakkara had to painstakingly chisel his legacy on stone.

In public, Sangakkara is often hawking Sri Lankan cricket’s marvels. But when he reflects on Sri Lanka’s shortcomings at close quarters, the veil slips

Take his early travails with slow bowling. The rains and the greener, quicker pitches in Kandy had fitted him with a serviceable technique against seam, but then, “I watched the guys who had grown up in Colombo – watched someone like Mahela – play spin, and I didn’t really understand how to do that”.

Sangakkara had been routinely fooled by variations. He was hesitant to use his feet. He found it tough to hit against the turn. Forget cutting loose, rotating the strike was a nightmare. In some Tests, his batting partners may as well have set up camp and settled in with supplies at the non-striker’s end. Sangakkara scored decent enough runs in his first few series, but even against seamers he rarely looked like a player around whom the top order would pivot. No one imagined this bag of bones would one day be a statistical behemoth averaging over 68 across 84 Tests as a specialist batsman, or the proprietor of more batting records than any other Sri Lankan.

“I came into a Sri Lankan team full of World Cup winners and greats in their own right. Where I began wasn’t where they began,” Sangakkara says. So he ventured in a direction few Sri Lanka players consider. While prevailing wisdom taught that international success rested on leaving one’s natural technique unmolested, Sangakkara chose to evolve.

A change of grip was among his early renovations. “Early in my career Aravinda de Silva came and said to me: ‘If you want to drive straight, you have to change your grip.’ “When I did that, suddenly, from being a player who could only hit between third man and cover on the off side, I was driving past the bowler.”

Sanga at practice -Getty
Early in his international career, Sangakkara had his fair share of troubles against the slower bowlers. It took practice, focus, and a willingness to reshape his batting for him to get to where he is today © Getty Images

Behind the scenes, nudging him perpetually towards perfection was Kshema, whose copious, often unsolicited advice his son had by now learned to sift through. “You know, it’s funny thinking now – it used to infuriate me when I was younger, and my father would torture me with a particular movement for months, then come and suddenly say, ‘No, forget all that. Disregard what I’ve been telling you – let us start on this new thing.’

“But that’s one thing he has always said: ‘Always be open to change. That’s how you improve. Change with a plan and you’ll find yourself growing.’ I always thought that was his way of justifying another new-fangled theory, but maybe that was his philosophy on life. In the end, that’s how I’ve thought about my cricket every single time.”

Series to series, Sangakkara’s alterations seemed minuscule. It was like a chair was adjusted here, a picture frame straightened there. But over time, the transformation has been immense. That looseness outside off stump was dealt with. Crinkles in his sweep and cut were flattened out. And when hundreds begun to organise themselves in a stack, he knew he was making it work. He had two tons in Galle to begin with, then big doubles in Lahore, Bulawayo and Colombo. In a top order featuring Sanath Jayasuriya, de Silva and Jayawardene, Sangakkara played the gritty foil. Others sailed to centuries; Sangakkara clawed and scratched and thought himself there.

While greatness was written on the wall for men like Aravinda de Silva, Mahela Jayawardene and Muttiah Muralitharan, Sangakkara had to painstakingly chisel his legacy in stone

“There were lots of innings where I was not in sync. Sometimes I fought that, but then eventually learned to allow myself to fall into a rhythm. There were times when I started really uglily and really had to fight it out, until suddenly, one ball, after two hours, gets you into perfect rhythm. Then everyone thinks: ‘Where the hell has this guy been all this time?'”

This was Sangakkara through the early 2000s. He was one of the Sri Lankan batsman opposition bowlers worried least about, yet at the end of the day they would find him clinging on, 57 not out. At some point the next morning, after looking like he wouldn’t survive the opening spells, Sangakkara would reinsert himself into his opponents’ flesh, and continue the bloody drip, drip, drip.

In contemplating Sangakkara’s career – in acknowledging the recent frequency of fifties, the seeming inevitability of his tons, and the Bradmanesque pile of double-hundreds – it is important to take stock of the beginnings. It is crucial to mark out his starting point, because in the rickety van that is Sri Lankan cricket, amid public clashes with administrators and captaincy crises, Sangakkara’s journey to greatness has resembled one of those winding wartime trips to Ampara or Anuradhapura, with his father absorbed in his own work but always close by.

Schoolboy Sangakkara is said to have displayed his trademark eloquence while wooing the girl who would eventually become his wifeSchoolboy Sangakkara is said to have displayed his trademark eloquence while wooing the girl who would eventually become his wife © ICC/Getty Images

Jayawardene once said about his friend’s stomach for training: “Kumar bats and he bats and he bats, and he keeps and he keeps and he keeps.” And though he fiercely denies this, Sangakkara seems to once have been a schoolboy who pined and pined and pined for the girl who would eventually become his wife.

It apparently went like this: Sangakkara was smitten by Yehali, but Yehali, not so sure, dispatched friends – twin girls from her class – to reconnoitre and report back. Now, having spent almost two decades in Australia, twins Jini and Dilu Kulathungam are indistinguishable over the phone, forever interjecting to amend and augment each other’s recollections.

“We went to this English Literature tuition class so we could find out a little bit more about him, and I think the first thing we noticed was that he wasn’t like other boys,” one of them says. “No, he was a bit of a teacher’s pet. I remember him sitting right in front and answering all the questions.”

He would further distinguish himself from other young men through his unabashed love for English poetry. Poetry that, when the couple’s relationship warmed up, he quoted lavishly in daily love letters. Jini and Dilu lived adjacent to Sangakkara’s school, so had the task of transporting the missives.

Sangakkara scored decent runs in his first few series, but rarely looked like a player around whom the top order would pivot. No one imagined this bag of bones would one day be a statistical behemoth

“I remember Yehali reading us some of the letters, and yeah, they were probably pretty sappy,” Jini says. “Kumar was a romantic at heart, I think.

“But if he heard us saying this, he wouldn’t like it.”

No, he despises it. He straightens in a chair on his back verandah, and crinkles his nose at the first mention of this sorry backstory. So keen is Sangakkara to distance himself from it, he disavows not only the strength of his affections for Yehali at the time, but his whole supposed passion for poetry.

“Jini and Dilu have told you all rubbish,” he says. “Don’t believe a thing they say.”

Yehali is just out of sight, watching over the children, near the rear French doors, but she reveals herself at the first sound of denial from her husband, like she had been lying in ambush the whole time.

“Really Kumar? You didn’t write me letters? There were five-page letters!”

“I might have written you one letter.”

“I still have them saved somewhere. What about the chocolates you used to send through Jini and Dilu?”

“Yeah, because I was worried about what they were feeding you at school.”

It’s a lame response. He is reeling.

“There was a book of poems as well.”

“Rubbish.”

Sangakkara is photographed by adoring young fans in JaffnaSangakkara is photographed by adoring young fans in Jaffna © Murali Cup

Satisfied that her husband is on the run, Yehali returns her attention to the children. Her version of events has the weight of verbal evidence as well. Sangakkara’s own childhood friend Dharshana Senarath remembers the lengths Sangakkara would go to. “The way I knew how much he really liked her was because every day he would buy one of those 100-rupee payphone cards to call her. I don’t think he could call her from his house at that time. Even some time after that, when she had moved to Colombo, sometimes he would travel from Kandy to Colombo to drop off a gift for her and go back, just for that.”

As Sangakkara rains down smouldering stares from billboards all over the country, it is not difficult to see why he objects so sharply to revelations about this lovesick past. Here is a man who has crafted his public image almost as carefully as he has his batting technique; who has steered clear of the political hand grenades that have devoured countless others in Sri Lankan public life.

Even when waging firefights with the board, he chose his moments prudently. During the early stages of Sri Lanka’s 2014 World T20 campaign, Jayawardene had taken to Twitter to voice his displeasure at Sri Lanka Cricket’s handling of the news of his and Sangakkara’s T20 retirement, but it was after the team returned with the trophy that Sangakkara joined his friend in a state of righteous anger. In another spat the previous year, Sangakkara claimed the moral high ground by choosing to play for his local side over his IPL franchise at the Champions League T20, before launching a verbal mortar at SLC secretary Nishantha Ranatunga. Officials are foolish to engage Sangakkara, because while they are ever tainted in these scrapes, his armour seems to gleam a little brighter from each public skirmish.

“There were times when I started really uglily and really had to fight it out until suddenly, one ball, after two hours, gets you into perfect rhythm”

Few in Sri Lanka have managed fame as effortlessly as Sangakkara. Many of his great innings have had a wobbly beginning. Those tetchy lunges against high-quality spin still persist. But hand the man a microphone, put him in front of a crowd and he is a natural through and through.

He earns affection quickly and decisively, sometimes leading with that dashing smile, other times emitting a winning chuckle. His verbal repertoire is so vast he seems to have four answers to every question, and unfailingly chooses the reply best calibrated to present company. His speech is easy, quick and flowing. And he times the pants off his jokes. The most famous example is his recollection of novice opener Tharanga Paranavitana clutching at his bloody chest during the 2009 Lahore attack. “Oh my God,” Sangakkara says of his inner monologue at that moment. “You were out first ball, run out in the next innings, and now you have been shot. What a terrible first tour.”

Three days before the second Test against Pakistan in June, he is in sparkling form again in a conference room just inland of the western town of Matugama. The paint company he endorses is hosting a weekend retreat for its salespeople. Around 50 men and women are clustered around large round tables, throwing varied questions at Sangakkara, who is there to inspire and encourage.

Sanga and Maiya: has there been a better double act?Sanga and Maiya: has there been a better double act? © Getty Images

The irony in this is that anyone who likes Jayawardene more would actually agree with Sangakkara, and those who prefer Sangakkara would parrot Jayawardene’s praises. But although this Sanga v Maiya split of loyalties is among the most well-defined rifts in Sri Lanka’s cricket fandom, few would claim the two have not made each other greater than they would have been individually. Their dovetailing, Sri Lankans feel, has been unique. Other teams might have greater batsmen, but who has had a better double act?

Beyond records and runs, they have been an exquisite union of contrasts at the crease. Sangakkara, the ceaseless refiner, is all straight lines and optimum angles. The pull shot is mechanical. The cut is swift and severe. Even the bent-kneed cover drive – Sangakkara’s shop-window stroke – is pretty but clean, like it came vacuum-packed from a lab. He drills a single into the deep and watches his friend, the artist, transition from classical to surreal, sometimes within an innings, other times inside an over, however the mood strikes.

Advertiser's choice: three Sangakkaras on one hoardingAdvertiser’s choice: three Sangakkaras on one hoarding © AFP

It is a duality that has held the nation captive. Jayawardene’s cricket was free-spirited, innovative, and above all joyful – in his innings the island saw its reflection. Sangakkara, polished, even-handed, perpetually improving, and admired across the world, is what post-war Sri Lanka aspires to become. Over the past decade, as Sri Lanka sought global recognition while striving to keep a grip on its identity, a Jayawardene-Sangakkara stand has been a model confluence. One present, one future, they are the best of both worlds.

Once on a free day during an IPL season with Deccan Chargers, Sangakkara briefly forgot himself. Tired of the team hotel, he, Yehali, the twins and a friend set out to do some shopping in Hyderabad.

“In Sri Lanka, you’re used to not really thinking about this sort of thing,” says his long-time friend and agent Charlie Austin. “Coming into the mall and going up the lifts Kumar got a few looks. I don’t think we made much of that. So anyway we ended up in a Mothercare store, where Yehali bought some stuff for the kids, but when we turned around to come out, there was just this huge wall of people holding up cellphones. I think we tried to make our way out at first, but with all the pushing and the photos and the autographs, it was all a bit hardcore.” In the end, only the team’s security personnel could extract the group from the mob.

Over the past decade a Jayawardene-Sangakkara stand has been a model confluence. One present, one future, they are the best of both worlds

In Sri Lanka, Sangakkara has been mobbed twice in his life. In the first instance, hundreds descended upon a working-class eatery in northern Colombo, where he was having lunch with Muralitharan, among others. This was a time when Murali’s gravitational pull would have comfortably eclipsed his own, but Sangakkara remembers feeling somewhat responsible. “The police came in finally, but before that the crowd basically packed into this tiny place. People were standing on chairs and tables and kitchen equipment to get a look. The poor owners – our bill would have been maybe a couple of thousand rupees, but they would have faced probably 15,000 in damages.”

In recent years, as Murali has retreated into happy retirement and Jayasuriya’s star has entered freefall, King Kumar has ruled the land, with Jayawardene for a sidekick. Advertisers, under whose purview comes a rough-and-ready gauging of the national mood, have sought both men for their brands. If the budget doesn’t quite allow for two cricketers, Sangakkara has generally been preferred, failing which Jayawardene will do. Mathews leads the peloton behind them, but even he is a long way back. Often, companies say: “It’s Sanga, Mahela or no one.”

It is not difficult to wrap one’s head around Sangakkara’s popularity in the south, where he has played so much of his cricket and identifies strongly with the culture. Support for him in the Tamil-speaking north, however, is both intriguing and instructive. In late 2013, Sangakkara stepped out of his car at an Under-19 tournament in Jaffna, and in the second of his Sri Lankan mobbings, was effectively devoured for an hour. Young men began the scrimmage, at first snatching pressed-cheek selfies with a whirl of elbows and upturned chairs for a background. Soon virtually everyone at the St Patrick’s College ground had enclosed Sangakkara. Bats, balls, jerseys, caps, notepads, and even cash was pressed into hands that autographed each item furiously. Had the school’s headmaster not intervened after some time, you felt people would soon be trucking in fridges and TVs from around the city for Sangakkara to inscribe.

Lord's, 2014: neither the weight of occasion nor the sniping from the slips could shake his <i>nidanam</i>Lord’s, 2014: neither the weight of occasion nor the sniping from the slips could shake his nidanam © Getty Images

“Yeah, that was crazy,” Sangakkara recalls, chuckling. “I don’t think I quite expected that. But you know, it just shows how much people all around the country, whichever corner you are from, love cricket. It’s more than just a sport for us. We might not be as outwardly crazy about it as some others, but it’s a passion that runs deep, across all our communities. That potential for finding common ground and unity within that, I think, is extraordinary.”

Perhaps he knows it, maybe it’s unwitting – but he is the personification of this unity now, because although there have been great Sri Lankan cricketers who spoke the northern tongue, Sangakkara has had their pulse. Jaffna’s delight in him is visceral at first look, but typically for the city, it is anchored in the cerebral.

What Sangakkara possesses, according to many in these parts, is nidanam. In simple Tamil, it means focus. In the milieu of Jaffna batsmanship, it is charged with much more. Nidanam is immunity from distraction, and tranquility through duress. It is not quite the vaunted “clear head” of modern cricket – more a burning, single-minded purpose. There was nidanam in Sangakkara’s innings at Lord’s last year, when he made a raid for that coveted ton and let no weight of occasion, nor the sniping from the slips, shake him from his purpose. There was nidanam in the Basin Reserve double-ton in January, when he systematically subdued Trent Boult – his tormentor from the previous Test. Even through those scratchy early years, Sangakkara had a way of finding the boundary that eased him into rhythm, and had him tumbling into a reverie.

Although there have been great Sri Lankan cricketers who spoke the northern tongue, Sangakkara has had their pulse. Jaffna’s delight in him is visceral at first look, but anchored in the cerebral

It is this state of mind that, as he enters his final series, has left him only one double-hundred short of Don Bradman’s 12. He says he would “love to equal” the man his father has forever urged him to match, but there is no doubt that after being compelled to stay for longer than he intended, Sangakkara’s flame has burned a little less bright.

“I’ve been told if I play another year or two years, I could score another 1000 runs, or I might be the second-highest Test run scorer,” he says. “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.'”

How sure is he of his future?

“When you’ve done one thing – played cricket – for such a long time, I guess you never know what you’ll be good at afterwards.

“It will be a big change,” he says, “but you don’t have to be afraid of that. Change is not bad. Change is good.”

sanga stairs

Andrew Fidel Fernando is ESPNcricinfo’s Sri Lanka correspondent. @andrewffernando

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One comment

  1. Kumar compares with Sanath and Malinga for greatness but contrasts with them as representing the cultur upper middle class Sri Lankan as against the new non kultur cricketing elite about whom it will be almost impossible to write a paper like Andrew Fidel Fernando’s paper about Kumar. This paper tries to search for the secret of Kumar’s success in cricket and sees the answer in his skill and character as well as his family and implicitly his class. Of course class was the basis of SL cricket greatness as in the big Colombo school rivalries.
    When the JVP insurrection of 1971 provoked a lot of thought Tissa Fernando, an academic in sociology in the University of Ceylon compared the political system at that time to the Royal Thomian
    match. There was the ruling class consisting of landowners and professionals who played on either side as team members, batting and bowling, out there, the real players.
    Then there were the lawyers, doctors and other middle class persons who had seats in the pavilion who cheered either side and identified with what went on out there on the green. This was not the powerful ruling elite, who were the players themselves but who supported and belonged to the ruling class and played a role in it.
    THen there was the large crowd in the stands, who were vociferous in their responses to what went happened on the ground but who did not care as to whether Royal won or St THomas’ won but who cheered regardless and enjoyed the show. Where would you place Sangakkara, Sanatha and Malinga in this scene?. .



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