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.
I really have felt a slight sense of unreality every time I’ve seen Sanga in CC. That in this era, a batsman this good was there to be seen… just unexpected and very special. So much so it overrode my natural antipathy to Surrey for just a bit…
Would probably be met with a bathetic, rage-inducing “but he bats on Asian roads and he doesn’t face the new ball, unlike [redacted]” at the Guardian BTL these days however.
Sanga has been my long term favourite batsman since I can’t remember when. He’s beautiful to watch. I still listen to his Lord’s lecture from time to time. It was a wonderful learning experience. I travel to Sri Lanka often and I always think on all that he said about the times in which he grew up. The internal political situation as well as the way the cricket initially took place. It’s a privilege to listen to him. I hope his lecture remains on tbe Web for a very long time.
Now THERE’S a player worth eulogising. With the game changing so profoundly and so rapidly I fear he’s one of the last of a certain breed. Cricket is going to be a much impoverished thing without men like Sanga on the field.
Ah, Kumar. If only England had someone with half of your talent and half of your humanity. Not just in the cricket team, but anywhere in a position of influence. I suppose it is enough that you exist in the World at least.
Happy New Year everyone. Haven’t been around for a few days thanks to various issues – moving my ex and our daughter to a new city then coming back here to find my computer had been hacked and I had apparently ordered 230 of the same thing from Amazon! But all has returned to calm now.
Lets all hope 2018 is a much better year than the one just gone. Wishing you all the very best and looking forward to many more excoriations of the cricket establishment on this, the only cricket website worth the name.
Really enjoyed that. And in one sentence you captured it all for me: “And above all else, he did it with style.” He’ll be missed….
You know master is at work when there are multitudes of fielders to block a particular shot and the batsman still threads it through. I recall Gavaskar during his 220 in 1979?,against Brearley’s England threading an on-drive through 2 short legs, mid-on and a very straight mid-wicket. Tony Lewis called it a masterpiece of a shot. Greg Chappell did it against Underwood in a wonderful 112? at Old Trafford in 1977, when Derek was round the wicket into rough outside leg stump. Again it was masterful. Mark Butcher was square-driving the Saffers to distraction, with 2 gullies and 3 cover points in 2003, until Trescothick took the umpires’ offer of bad light and England lost momentum. Steve Smith worked it a few times at Melbourne when they tried to cramp the leg-side.
Sangakkara was just as good when he played the extra cover drive. Maybe the closest modern equivalent of Hammond.
Writing from impression so I apologise for not checking the refs. The pedants will fill in the gaps, errors or tell me of incipient senility
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I remember that Gavaskar game as it was the first test match I actually attended (yes, 1979 at the Oval – I was 12). My Dad took me to watch the play on Friday on the basis that we’d likely see both teams bat and bowl and it turned out to be exactly the case. It’s the day that really got me excited about cricket and it’s never ended.
I’d seen the first day on TV and it was wonderful to see the players in real life the next day. What’s vivid in my mind, for some reason, is that we were down near the main scoreboard and Willis came down after bowling an over and was abused by many Indian fans seated around us, and he just gave them the V-sign. Because I was so young, I thought he did it at me!
I watched the rest of the game on TV and remember Gavaskar’s innings on the last day, and even almost panicing Brealey at the end as he came close to winning it. It was at that time I realised there were really good players from other places in the world, and that England weren’t always the best. It was a good age to learn that lesson.
This nails it for me, MIAB.
Apologies for copying from a comment I made in September after going to the Oval to watch Surrey-Yorkshire, but it fits here:
‘Sangakkara played two shots off Tim Bresnan that made the whole day worthwhile – one an effortless straight six into the top deck of the pavilion. The second almost defied belief. Yorkshire had stationed two men catching at short extra cover, literally three yards apart, only for Kumar to thread a perfect cover drive all along the ground for four exactly between the two. It took poor old Tim about 30 seconds to stop staring at the end of his follow through and drag himself back to his mark. He (Kumar not Tim) has to be as good a player as I have seen live. Incredible to watch.’
I also remember the noise the ball made off his bat was extraordinary and completely different to the other mortals:
And HNY to everyone here.
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Thank you for writing that. Just lovely. Thank you.
I’d also like to join the Sangakkara love queue. Probably my my favourite non-Australian player along with Dravid.
In some ways it is unfortunate that he came from Sri Lanka and not one of the bigger nations. As a result his achievements didn’t get the recognition they deserve, and he often didn’t get the proper stage to perform on either. He only played a four tests in Australia, and three of them were at tiny venues – Bellerive, and the failed experimental northern tests in Darwin and Cairns. So you can feel especially lucky that you got to enjoy a season of him dominating county credit – I never got to see him play live (in whites at least)!
I’ve been lucky enough to watch Sanga in his own country as I went to the SSC in 2007 and Galle in 2012, he succeeded in the former and not the latter. I’ve also had the pleasure of watching him a bit of him over the last 2 years with some trips to the Oval. Even if he might have been past his peak career ability and that much of the bowling was at least a step down and more from what he used to face in test matches he just had so much time to play what he was up against.
I agree with Oreston.
On a similar note, Bull in Guardian: “The Don’s standing is, and always will be, unsurpassed. Not because of his statistical brilliance, but because of the context of his career”
Not sure of the Argument, but I liked the last paragraph: …”When Mandela visited Australia in 2000 he explained “in the 30s and 40s, at least in our country, we regarded Sir Donald as one of the divinities, so great was he and such an impact he made”. Bradman, like Babe Ruth, George Best, Muhammad Ali, was bigger than his game. ..”
I imagine Zuma being a big Cook fan… the time they are a’changing…
I dont agree with that comment from Bull……..I think he has got it round the wrong way.
It’s Bradman’s statistics that stand head and shoulders above everyone else. They are what gives him his gravitas? When I was growing up if you averaged over 40-45 in Test match cricket you were seen as a very good player. If you averaged over 45 towards 50 you were seen as in the superstar bracket. Bradman averaged double that.
As far as context is concerned his critics always point out that he only ever played in Aus and England. He never played in India or Pakistan. We will never know what he may have done in those conditions. We will also never know what he would have done against the WI quicks in the 70s and 80s. We can all have an opinion, but it is only guess work.
What gives him his “standing” is his statistics. Because they are so off the scale of anyone else.
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A rather good article taking on exactly that point:
Bradman averaged 50 against the Bodyline attack. With restrictions on the field and the number of bouncers, I can imagine him averaging 70 or so. He was just phenomenal. At the age of 50, he gave Cowdrey a stiff workout at real tennis, after a mere 20 minutes of learning the rules
74.5 against Constantine, Hylton and Martindale. 56.57 against Larwood, Voce. With no restrictions on leg-side catchers. Even aged 70, I think he would have coped with Holding and Croft etc, without a helmet