There are perhaps no two cricketers in World Cricket that have suffered as many heartbreaks on the field as Kumara Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene. They do have a T20 World Cup victory to their names, but it could have been so much more-2007 World Cup Final, 2009 World T20 Final, 2012 World T20 Final, 2011 World Cup Final and a few Asia Cup Finals. It hasn’t been easy, in particular, on the more outspoken and accomplished of the two-Sangakkara.
But the more his heart broke, the more he seemed to be spurred on to become Sri Lanka’s greatest batsman. He may not be their most iconic cricketer-De Silva and Ranatunga or Jayasuriya stake claims for that title-but Sangakkara has been their most influential, their most charismatic, and their most eloquent, as demonstrated by his timeless Spirit-of-cricket speech at Lords.
He hit his serious straps after the age of 30, till when he was mostly a chatty and promising upcoming keeper-batsman. Sangakkara scored a majority of his ODI runs, more than 8000, after the year of 2008-which is when major heroes like Tendulkar, Ponting, Kallis were nearing the end of their careers. He piled them on like nobody else-the highest scorer over all formats since then-and even made a strictly average Lankan team look good very often. Along with the ‘artist’ Jayawardene, who relied more on his talent, touch and big-match temperament, Sangakkara made sure that Sri Lanka always remained dangerous contenders. Other than this World Cup, where they failed to reach the semifinal for the first time since 1999, you’d be hard-pressed to remember any other ICC event where Sri Lanka haven’t reached the knockouts. Sangakkara allowed the likes of Vaas, Murali and Jayasuriya to retire without any aftershocks, and guided the likes of Dilshan, Malinga, Mathews, Chandimal and Kulasekara into a setup where they felt confident, and conscious of the fact that they were playing to keep up with him. His test and ODI form since 2008 has been nothing short of astounding, but what must have pleased him most is also his crucial T20 final half-century and his consistent ability to perform while chasing down huge targets. His knocks have gone under the radar because of the elevated batting levels across cricket over the last few years, but under pressure, and as a sheer master of his own craft, there is perhaps nobody as solid and reliable as Kumara Sangakkara. AB de Villiers is probably more talented and audacious, a magician of sorts, but he still has a long way to go to prove himself under pressure, and more importantly, as a leader.
Sangakkara was a stellar leader before he decided to hand reigns over to Jayawardene, before they both handed over things to Mathews. He instilled a sense of professionalism, fitness and belief into a young bunch of players desperately in need of a mentor, and a figure to impress. You felt that they all stepped onto the field to gain his approval eventually, to hear him chirp praises from behind the stumps-none of which they merited very often. Except Malinga and Mathews, it has been a case of two few and far between, but Sangakkara pulled this team over till the 2015 World Cup-where he took the tournament by storm with his 4 consecutive centuries.
That he could be remembered remotely for his final and painful innings against South Africa will be unfair. His team fell around him, but for once, he couldn’t get going either. Almost the last man standing, but standing for the longest-as he did throughout his career, both figuratively and literally behind the stumps.
The greatest Sri Lankan cricketer of all time? Maybe. In my opinion, definitely. The greatest cricketer of all time? Perhaps. In my opinion, maybe. More importantly, he is the last of the golden era of Tendulkar, Lara, Kallis and Ponting. And he is going out on a high.
Test cricket, without frills, awaits him. He has another series in him. At the very least. But he will, in all likelihood, become a retiree when 2016 comes around.
Sri Lankan cricket will take a while to rise again. There might never be a greater wicketkeeper-batsman again, and certainly not one who showed the way till the ripe young age of 38.