Amongst all the cricket news and build up to the Ashes over the last few days, Kumar Sangakkara quietly announced that he’d be retiring from international cricket in August, after the second Test against India.
He’d said at the end of the World Cup that it was the start of the long goodbye, but it’s still sad news that such a player should depart the stage, especially one who seems to be getting better by the year rather than deteriorating, although I suppose a Test average over the last year of a shade over 50 might be considered lower than normal. The relatively muted response to it is in keeping with how Sangakkara has been considered through most of his career; rarely has he received the kind of accolades that should be his due.
Certainly the raw figures are astonishing. 12,305 Test runs at an average of over 58, 14,234 ODI runs at an average a shade under 42, and even 1,382 runs in international T20, at a still decent average of 31.40, with a strike rate around 120 – Sanga has demonstrated mastery of all formats of cricket. But it is Tests that make the legacy, and that record in particular bears closer examination.
No player in the last half century with any kind of career longevity has exceeded Sangakkara’s Test average. In the all time list, with a 50 innings minimum, he’s in fifth place. And yet it goes further than that. Sangakkara started his career as a wicketkeeper/batsman, and a became a very fine one. But the wicketkeeping depresses the batting average quite significantly in his case, 48 matches in his career were played as the designated keeper, and in those he averaged a still healthy 40.48. But in the 84 matches (not an inconsiderable number) where he wasn’t the wicketkeeper, that batting average rises to a truly astounding 68.05. There is no player apart from Bradman who has figures like that. None.
He did it almost everywhere. South Africa was his least happy hunting ground, and perhaps surprisingly to some extent England wasn’t an opponent he did especially well against. But an average of over 60 in Australia is a good indicator of the level at which he operated.
I was fortunate enough to be at Lords last year. Given the circumstances, the chance to watch Sangakkara one last time in a Test was the main motivation behind going, and the evening before as he came into bat was one of those anxious watches, hoping against hope he wouldn’t get out. In all truth, I bored my fellow travellers to the Test rigid with talk about this player, how I really hoped he would go on to get a score, and how fantastic a player, and how undervalued a player, he really was. It was therefore nothing but a privilege to watch him bat, and to see him score a Lords century.
It’s hard to understand quite why it is that Sangakkara doesn’t get the plaudits that such a career should generate. Perhaps his understated manner is the reason, but he’s anything but an ugly player – that cover drive having been a thing of beauty throughout his career. Yet understated he may be, he was anything but an angel on the field. At the start of his career he collided rather memorably with Nasser Hussain, the spiky pair exchanging constant pleasantries on the field. In the days when Sky would dare to ask awkward questions of the England captain, they were perhaps surprised by Hussain’s smile in response, and statement that he thought the young man was great.
And yet he’s always been about more than just the game itself. In 2011 he was invited to give the annual Spirit of Cricket lecture by the MCC. His impassioned, erudite and powerful speech concerning the history of cricket in Sri Lanka, interwoven with what the game meant to him on a wider basis, rightly made headlines all over the world. Here was a great player, who was also intelligent, exceptionally articulate and above all, deeply caring of the game of cricket.
For anyone who hasn’t watched it yet, put an hour of your time aside, and do so.
As he reaches the end of his career, it’s perhaps time to make the claims for him that few others have. Sangakkara is the best batsman of the last 75 years. He’s possibly second only to Don Bradman in the history of the game. His record is genuinely astonishing, and he played with a grace and fluidity relatively unusual for such a high achiever. And given that he was in a side who routinely struggled everywhere away from their own jewel of an island, that record looks all the better.
It’s been a rare treat to have been able to watch a genuine, bona fide, all time great of the game of cricket. Perhaps like so often, it’s only when he’s no longer playing that a proper appreciation of his merits will be forthcoming. But in 50 years time, when an eight year old boy somewhere in the world looks up the records, they’ll be asking their dad who this one was, and why they haven’t heard of him before.