The 2017 Dmitris – Number 2 is Kumar Sangakkara

This was a post that had been on the stocks for a little while, but then Christmas and Tests got in the way.  So here we go with Dmitri’s introduction:

“I might have had Kumar down for a Dmitri on HDWLIA in 2014, but I can rewrite my own rules, because no-one takes this that seriously anyway, and nor should they. I’m a  Surrey fan, and it’s been a slim old time the last decade or so. But every so often there is a shining star. This year, more than ever, it was Kumar Sangakkara. There seemed a need for me to recognise just what the great man brought to the County Championship this summer.

For the early part of the century I had the good fortune to watch the best county championship batsman of his generation, Mark Ramprakash, make hundred after hundred for Surrey. This year, on the two occasions I saw him in the flesh, Kumar batted out the tea session of the opening day, and had a rare failure at Guidlford. I missed all of his hundreds, and his double hundred, and yet I felt satisfied just to have seen him in his final season. Eight centuries, 1491 runs, 106.5 average. Speaks for itself. Brilliance.

But instead of me waxing lyrical on the Sri Lankan genius, I thought I’d hand it over to The Leg Glance himself to do the man justice. Call it a love letter, an homage, call it what you want, but Kumar pressed the buttons, and we have a massive fan to see him out….”

June 14th 2014 was a fairly special day for me.  It wasn’t that I was at Lords, for that is hardly uncommon, and my love-hate relationship with the place (on the one hand all the history, on the other all the snobbishness) doesn’t make going there for a Test match anything that special.   But it is usually a pleasant enough day, even if the early Test series of the summer rarely offers up anything exceptional.  England had racked up 575-9, with Joe Root scoring a double hundred, but the hammering in Australia (oh, the irony) and the fall out with the ECB deriding those “Outside Cricket” was still fresh in the memory.  For the first time in my cricket going life, going to watch England didn’t mean hoping to watch England win – I simply didn’t care.

But on the Friday evening for the end of day two there was another, and definitely meaningful consideration.  Sri Lanka had replied well to England’s score with Silva and Sangakkara at the crease in the final session. Now, Sangakkara had always been one of my favourites – possibly because I am both a left handed batsman and a wicketkeeper (similarities end around about there), and even as long ago as Nasser Hussain’s tour of Sri Lanka in 2001, he was a player I watched with interest, and with a deep liking for how he played the game (lippy for a start, mostly with Hussain, who subsequently expressed how much he enjoyed their sparring) and especially how he batted.

This was to be almost certainly his final Test at Lords, a place where he had a peculiarly poor record, as indeed he had in England generally.  That Friday evening as he began his innings was one of those fraught occasions where watching on television is to desperately hope he doesn’t get out, and is still at the crease for when you arrive in the morning.  The close of play with his wicket intact was a moment of quiet celebration – I’d finally see him bat in the flesh, and on a good batting strip to boot.  Setting off that morning it was the principal, perhaps even the sole motivation for wanting to be there.

Towards the end of his career Sangakkara was just starting to get the praise his career deserved.  He’d always been somewhat overlooked – in an era of Tendulkar, Dravid, Kallis and Lara, he was the one whose record matched anyone but was rarely mentioned in the same company.  A fine record as wicketkeeper/batsman had moved into the stratospheric once he gave up the gloves, and still few would talk about him as being of the highest calibre.  The raw figures bear this out; his overall Test batting average was 57.40, a number to bear comparison with anyone not called Bradman, but without the gloves – as he was for most of his career – that rose to an extraordinary 66.78, with 31 of his 38 Test hundreds coming as a pure batsman.  He did it almost everywhere too, and if it was better at home than away, it was only by a small margin, and his away record remained phenomenal.

Stat-mining is a dangerous game – it can be used to ignore those elements that don’t suit a narrative, but identifying a difference between him as all rounder and as pure batsman, given the substantial volume of data for both, is perhaps not an unreasonable way of highlighting just how good at the crease he really was.  There are some qualifications of course – his keeping period came when he was a younger player, and perhaps it might be that the biggest difference was an improvement with experience rather than the demands of the gloves, but the difference remains startling.

Even with such a record, some innings of his stand out, his 192 in Hobart when chasing an impossible 507 to win in 5 sessions perhaps most of all, because the eventual 97 run defeat might have been different had he not been wrongly given out by a subsequently contrite and apologetic Rudi Koertzen.  It’s a rare feeling to have that you’re watching someone play an entire team on his own, but that day it was the one many had – it was extraordinary.  And above all else, he did it with style.  Left handers are often generalised as being elegant, but for every Sangakkara or Gower there is a Graeme Smith or Gary Ballance, but his was a cover drive to match any who had ever played the game, a shot of exquisite beauty and timing, year in, year out.

Of all the top ten leading run scorers in Test cricket, Sangakkara has the highest average.  Such a statistic may not be the be all and end all, but nor is it something that should be ignored.  Indeed, it is not until going down the list to Sir Garfield Sobers that you find anyone with a better one, an indication of just how great a player Sobers was as much as anything.

At Lords, as Sangakkara passed 50, then 60, then 70, a curious feeling came over me.  It was nervousness.  Here was a player I had watched for years, had got into arguments over every time he was ignored when discussing the greatest batsmen in the game, and now I was being teased mercilessly by friends well aware of how much I wanted to see him get that hundred, how much I’d berated them for failing to fully appreciate this most special of players.

His team mate and friend Mahela Jayawardene said afterwards that he had rarely seen him so nervous as he was when in the nineties, and perhaps in the smallest way, the way only a fan can have, I shared in that, for rarely have I wanted a player to reach a landmark quite as much as I did then.  And if I’m honest, not for altruistic reasons.  I wanted to be present when the great Kumar Sangakkara scored a Lords’ hundred.

Of course he did so, and received as warm a reception from the crowd as anyone could hope for.  Except me.  A few people stayed in their seats, and more than anything I wanted to go around the ground and drag every single one of them to their feet, to scream in their faces that they have been particularly privileged on this day to see a player so good they should be telling their grandchildren about him.  That standing ovation (mostly) should have gone on for at least another minute, genius should be fully appreciated.

He was out finally for 147 – when I was out at the bar, rather wonderfully – but he’d done it, he’d “ticked the box” as he put it, and I was lucky enough to be there.   Cricket is a collection of memories, and that was one to file away in the Very Special mental drawer.

Maybe that day was the final piece in the jigsaw in England for recognition, for it seemed to be from then on that he was placed in the great category in this country more widely than he had been before.  Certainly fewer people needed to be convinced by the army of statistics I had memorised by then to show how badly he’d been under-appreciated.  His extraordinary “Spirit of Cricket” speech at Lords three years earlier had certainly gained attention and praise, so perhaps that made the most difference.  And for those few cricket fans who haven’t seen it, here it is – put an hour aside and watch it:

The gift to cricket fans was his last couple of seasons in English county cricket, a run of form that was scarcely credible, but which offered up the opportunity to drink in the chance of seeing a modern great, no, not modern, an all time great.

It’s been said by a few that Test cricket could do a lot worse than put Michael Holding, Rahul Dravid and Kumar Sangakkara in charge of the game.  Watching all three play was a privilege, but this is Sanga’s piece, so this is for him.  Sri Lanka’s greatest batsman, who ultimately belonged to the world.  What he does from here is up to him, but if he does it with the grace of his batting and the class of his oratory, there’s little doubt it will be truly special.