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Interviews

Kumar Sangakkara: The Elegant Activist

Ahead of the ICC Champions Trophy, Vithushan Ehantharajah spoke to Sri Lanka’s suave and sophisticated run-machine Kumar Sangakkara.

It’s the eve of another world tournament, and in among the usual big hitters and headline makers, one man and his enigmatic team lurk on the outside of the in-crowd. Kumar’s boys will be there, doing it their own way, punching above their weight and yet somehow, for all their talent, coming up a touch short. If that sounds harsh on a team that played its first Test as recently as 1982, a single global title for a cricketing culture of evidently limitless flair and unorthodoxy represents a slim return.

Intriguingly, Sri Lanka’s sole ICC tournament win in 1996 came against the run of play; a bunch of amateurs on a jolly, fuelled by a combination of forfeits (by Australia and the West Indies) and a ‘why not?’ attitude that revolutionised short- form batting. In seeing off the Australians in a magical stars-aligning final, they became the first team to win the World Cup batting second and united a debt-ridden nation divided by gross civil unrest.

The win spawned marketable heroes, while a wave of new money washed in some less than savoury characters into high-level positions in Sri Lankan cricket. The ripple effect of the miracle of ’96 had dissipated by the time the World Cup came to England in 1999, as Sri Lanka crashed out in the first round. But two rain-affected defeats in the 2003 World Cup semi-final and the 2007 final, both to an imperious Australian side, were all the more impressive given the continued off-field problems that festered back home – a recurring theme with this Sri Lanka side, as they reached a third World Cup final four years later despite on-going domestic issues regarding player payment.

In between, Sri Lanka performed admirably in the 2009 ICC World Twenty20 in England, before falling short yet again in the final. In the immediate moments after their eight-wicket defeat to Pakistan, the then Sri Lanka captain Kumar Sangakkara took to the hallowed Lord’s turf for his post-match speech.

Upon praising Pakistan, he urged Sri Lankans both across the world and at home – where civil war had come to a bloody crescendo – to believe that more peaceful times would come. That after 25 years of troubles, Sri Lankan life would return to its exuberant self. It proved to be a taster for his MCC Cowdrey Lecture two years later, at the same venue.

As 2010 drew to a close, he confided in those close to him that he wanted to relinquish the captaincy, despite having held the job for only a year. He was fed up with the extra duties associated with the role – some more mentally exhausting than any five days of toil. Off the field he was involved negotiating individual player contracts with the board, while also sorting out team practices and other team-related activities; a tough situation made tougher by the team’s Australian coach Trevor Bayliss preferring a hands-off approach, not least because of his own struggles with the powers that be.

Perhaps the pair rallied together through a mutual appreciation of the issues they faced. Maybe they just got on with it. But together, they made another World Cup final in 2011. Yet again it ended in defeat, as India and Mahendra Singh Dhoni took their moment at the Wankhede Stadium. Hindsight suggests the pair came together to deliver success – success that Sangakkara is still waiting for. But why do Sri Lanka keep losing finals?

“I don’t think it’s pressure,” says Sangakkara, nipping that one in the bud: “Obviously finals are hotly contested affairs and sometimes the weight of them can affect a player’s performance, no matter how experienced they are. Against India in 2011 we came close but they put in a great performance. Sometimes you can’t dwell too much on your own performance; I thought on the whole we played some exceptional cricket in the last World Cup. It was just a shame we didn’t recreate it in the final.”

When you strip aWay the layers to Kumar ‘The Cricketer’, he impresses like few others. With more than 20,000 runs in all forms of international cricket, he is the joint fastest man to 10,000 Test runs, alongside Sachin Tendulkar and Brian Lara. His batting carries an elegant class; a cover drive that acts as an extension of himself – immaculate in appearance and sweet as a nut.

Even the adoption of a bicycle-helmet modelled lid didn’t put the purists off his swagger. In fact, he’s made it his own – and Sangakkara is a purist, even if the intentions of his board suggest otherwise as they look to allay debts by focusing predominantly on Twenty20 and one- day cricket – a big money spinner in the subcontinent.

Tensions are never far away. A long- standing dispute over player payment came to breaking point in March of this year when the board threatened to ban 23 players from the two-Test series against Bangladesh if they refused to sign the contracts put before them.

An unsavoury standoff but with notable presences on one side; Test captain Angelo Mathews and Twenty20 skipper Dinesh Chandimal – new to the roles of leadership and responsibilities that come with captaining in Sri Lankan cricket – were joined, vociferously, by Sangakkara and his comrade-in-arms Mahela Jayawardene. Compromise followed, negotiations quickened by the presence of two of the country’s most noble stalwarts.

All in a day’s work for Sangakkara. He possesses a cricket conscience – a sense of responsibility that, he believes, “comes naturally to every player who has played the game for a long time.” His MCC Cowdrey Lecture in 2011 shed light on the administrative strife that has affected his career and put it into context with the humanitarian tragedies that have underscored his life.

Discussing the Sri Lanka race riots of 1983, when Tamils were targeted by what Sangakkara described as “goon squads”, he recounted the joy he’d felt as a child, sharing his home with so many of his Tamil friends – “we’d play sport for hours in the backyard” – while blissfully unaware that his father was offering them shelter. Had they been discovered they would have been killed, and who knows what punishment these “goons” would have inflicted upon his own family?

That almost compulsive passion shown by his father is evident in Kumar. He’s not afraid to speak his mind, and when he does, his rhetoric borders on the poetic. He offers to AOC that there are still ways cricket can improve and outlines his desire to effect change. But why him? “I have a responsibility to,” he replies. “You understand how privileged you’ve been and how much the game of cricket has given you. That gives you that feeling of responsibility for the game. It’s something you can’t shirk because your opinion and the way you conduct yourself carries so much weight.”

For now, his focus With Sri Lanka is one-day cricket – this tournament presenting their latest attempt to relinquish their tag of nearly men. Sangakkara is a devotee of the format – of course he is; some of his greatest knocks have come in 50-over blue. But his conscientiousness extends to how the game is being treated.

“We need to let [one-day cricket] breathe – let it settle. Look at the 2011 World Cup, it was a successful event – obviously helped by being in India – yet now there are some rule changes that have made it a different game. One-day cricket struggles to maintain its identity when there is change after change after change. Change for the sake of change is not necessary or useful.”

The two new balls, coupled with the extra man in the ring, will undoubtedly affect Sri Lanka’s spin heavy attack more than most. Sangakkara admits to a selfish disdain for it. But he does fear for the arts. “It’ll affect the way spinners bowl and whether teams play specialist spinners. It also takes reverse-swing out of the game, which is truly a great art. More thought has to be put into these rule changes before they’re made.”

Discussing his team’s chances, he’s optimistic and for good reason. “We’re still evolving as a side. We’ve lost some great players like Murali, [Chaminda] Vaas and Sanath [Jayasuriya], but we’re also gaining some exciting young talent as well. When you look at big tournaments, we’ve always been able to hold our own and compete very well against all opposition. The one thing about our young talent coming through is that they are ready to bear the mantle of playing for Sri Lanka.”

That is perhaps Sri Lanka’s greatest example of their unorthodoxy; despite the small size of this tear-drop island, the rate that they find not just talented players, but leaders, is staggering. Lasith Malinga, Ajantha Mendis and new mystery spinner on the block Akila Dananjaya paint the picture of flourishing provincial back-waters but it’s the production of these hard-nosed leaders of men – the latest being Mathews and Chandimal – that should be championed. What gives?

“It’s probably our dressing room culture,” says Sangakkara with great pride. “A culture where people come in and look to improve as well as challenge themselves. I think it’s one of the things we’ve done as a side that we can really be proud of. It’s a dressing room that empowers players. It started with [’96 World Cup-winning skipper] Arjuna Ranatunga and it’s been carried through.”

Sangakkara lists this cultivation of empowerment as one of his biggest achievements in the game. We reel off his stats – 47 international centuries and counting; a Test average in the high 50s. The awards – the 2012 ICC Test Player of the Year and Sir Garfield Sobers Cricketer of the Year, not to mention becoming the first man to be named simultaneously as Wisden’s leading cricketer in the world and one of its five cricketers of the year. He stops us in our tracks.

“I know I’ve scored a lot of runs but the key factor is to look back and see if I’ve influenced the younger players; the way they think, play and approach the game. If I’ve managed to influence them in a positive way and improved the players who have come into the side when I was captain or a senior member of the side, then that would be satisfying.

“To know that I’ve contributed that to my team and my country would be great. Improving the standing of your country’s cricket is good, but what you really want to do is improve personnel. Only time will tell whether I’ve been successful in that aspect, but I’m definitely excited by the young group of players that have come through.”

Perhaps it’s the level of comfort we feel – he does that to you, he can’t help it – but AOC puts it bluntly. The defeats in finals must have taken their toll, personally. “I’ve lost five.” He’s exact – the freshest wound being Sri Lanka’s loss to the West Indies in last year’s World Twenty20, at home, too. “I just want to win one.”

Cautiously, AOC offers to let him have the 2002 ICC Champions Trophy where Sri Lanka were joint victors with India after the final and reserve date fell victim to the rain. He sighs. “I’ve missed a few opportunities; every time you play in a big tournament you want to win it and having failed in four finals is tough.” He takes a breath. “Is one too much to ask for?”

Click here for more information and tickets for ICC Champions Trophy.

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