Over a span of five days, the two Ovals (P. Sara in Colombo, The Oval in England) will host two momentous test matches.
Kumar Sangakkara, with two months to go for his 38th birthday, will retire from test cricket after the second test against India in Colombo. He has 38 centuries, behind only Tendulkar (51), Kallis (45) and Ponting (41). He has 12,350 runs and looks good to add a few more in his final test. He averages the highest among all batsmen with more than 10,000 test runs, close to 58, and has been the most prolific scorer across all formats since 2009. Sangakkara, among the most well-spoken cricketers in the world, also has 11 double centuries to his name, one short of Don Bradman. He has been a part of two ODI World Cup finals and three T20 World Cup finals. In the 2015 World Cup, he scored 4 ODI centuries on the trot – the first ever batsman to do so. He is 37, and still at his peak, and still, by far, the best batsman in his team. He is the best batsman Sri Lanka has ever produced. It was never only about the numbers with him – he remained one of the only Lankan batsmen to perform well around the globe – something the islanders were never known for. He was also one of the few batting stars in the world that had a far more prolific second career half. The Sangakkara we saw between 2009 and 2015 was virtually unrecognizable as the confused wicketkeeper-batsman we remembered from his first decade in the team.
On the other side of the globe, in circumstances a little different, 34-year old Michael Clarke – the captain of Australia – will play his final test at the same time. It will be the fifth and final Ashes test match in England – a series Australia has lost again, 1-3 down, and Clarke’s third Ashes series loss as captain. As difficult as it is to believe, Clarke has only 8628 test runs, and has played 20 tests less than Sangakkara. Not too long back, Clarke was the most prolific test batsman in the world. In 2012 alone, he scored 4 double centuries – including one triple century. He hit a purple patch that was second to none in modern cricket. But for the first time in years, Clarke’s average fell below 50 in the current Ashes series. He has averaged less than 25 over the last year. He is said to be going out on his own terms, but in reality, he wasn’t going to last too long. Clarke, though, has 29 test centuries. I still remember his debut test in 2004, against India in Bangalore, on a turning pitch. A 150 on debut meant that he was immediately hailed as the next Aussie batting hope. He lived up to this hope, and didn’t. The jury has almost always been split on Clarke, but nobody can take away his greatest moment – winning the cricket World Cup at home just a few months after the death of his best friend Philip Hughes.
Few will disagree that Kumar Sangakkara and Michael Clarke were the final two analogue telephones in the cellphone era, the final remnants of an efficient dial-up connection in the wi-fi age, the last two film reels in the digital age.
Kallis retired more than a year ago, Ponting more than two years ago, Tendulkar two years ago, and Chanderpaul was dropped for the Australia series a few months ago. These were the most remarkable batsmen of more than one generation – Clarke was supposed to represent the post-Tendulkar and Ponting era, but he ended up being a contemporary to the two older batting stars.
However, there is still one man standing. Younis Khan, who seems to be turning into something of a test legend for the Pakistanis, is stronger than ever. Misbah, who started his career late, is also standing. Very soon, Alastair Cook will be looked at as a veteran too – and when the two Pakistanis hang up their boots, Cook will perhaps be the senior-most batsman of his generation.
Next-gen is Joe Root, Steve Smith, Kane Williamson and Virat Kohli. Hashim Amla is somewhere between Cook and Root, and is piling on the runs. AB De Villiers has the experience of Cook, but has never quite dominated an era the way Clarke, Sangakkara, Tendulkar or Lara did.
When India finishes the second test against Sri Lanka, and England lift the urn against Australia, modern cricket will lose two of their most influential batsmen. Irrespective of the result, and irrespective of how elegant or ugly they were at the crease, celebrations are in order. It’s time to take a breather, sit back and enjoy their final moments on the cricket field. Sometimes, in the battle for survival everyday, we forget to savor the defining points of a sporting generation. By Monday, you’ll have witnessed this moment. Twice.