My friend stopped running today

The world’s finest batsman leaves the crease

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Kumar Sangakkara, by TonyPatterson on Flickr — licensed under Creative Commons CC BY 2.0)

As I started to write this, the world’s finest batsman was out at the crease about six miles away, at The Oval, where he was salvaging Surrey’s match against Somerset (and the club’s First Class season) in the fourth innings. Today, September 28, 2017, he retires from all forms of the game at the end of Surrey’s loss to Lancashire at Old Trafford.

Kumar Sangakkara retired from international cricket at what seemed to be the height of his powers two years ago in Colombo. This week he drew the final curtain on a monumental cricketing career, at the age of nearly 40. He’s been playing for Surrey for a few years now, but this season has been truly remarkable: nearly 1,500 first class runs, with centuries against every club he played (he missed playing Hampshire because he was playing in the Caribbean Premier League when we met them this season). Sangakkara’s extraordinary season is best summed up by this superb appraisal by Cricinfo’s Tim Wigmore.

He ended his test career fifth on the all-time list of run-scorers, behind Tendulkar, Ponting, Kallis and Dravid. Had he made just 1,000 more (it sounds absurd now, but the form he was in when he retired meant it was not a particularly hard target) he would have finished second, behind only Tendulkar.

His international career was long by modern standards at 15 years, although it seemed longer. A few years ago I had to look it up to confirm that he had not played in the 1996 world cup win with which Sri Lankan cricket finally announced that it had arrived on the global stage.

It is worth noting the efficiency with which he scored those runs: he took 134 matches and 233 innings to make it to his 12,400 test runs. Ponting, Kallis and Dravid took 168, 166 and 164 matches respectively, and Tendulkar took 200 matches to compile his 15,921 runs.

Still, the joy of cricket is not (all) to be found in the numbers but in the innings themselves. Sri Lanka followed the world cup win with an even sweeter prize — the all-time test team record for an innings, of 952/6d against India in Colombo in August 1997. That match ended in a draw. My favourite of Sangakkara’s innings came nine years later, again in Colombo, when South Africa toured and the home side, having reduced the visitors to 169 all out in the first test (they were saved by a painstaking 65 from AB de Villiers), posted what turned out to be the sixth-highest innings total of all time, 756/5d. This time it did make for a victory. Sangakkara batted for 675 minutes and 457 balls to score a stunning 287 runs. His partner Mahela Jayawardene, scored 374 to make a partnership of 624 runs. I listened to it at home in south-west London, but it was every bit as exhilarating.

Mahela’s not only Sangakkara’s partner in batting. The two of them own a brilliant crab restaurant in Colombo, called Ministry of Crab. You should go, really — as long as you’re happy to eat what is always a messy but rewarding food.

And it’s Sangakkara’s off-the-field life that really sealed him as a hero for me at a time (I’m nearly his age) when I thought I wouldn’t have any more heroes. Sri Lankan cricket, like cricket in many non-Western countries, can be politically very complicated. There have been scandals involving government interference in teams, and when the team is one of the few high profile success stories the government can point to, everything can become quite difficult.

That didn’t stop Sangakkara from speaking his mind about his political beliefs and what he thought was right and wrong. In July 2011, having recently resigned the national team captaincy, he delivered the MCC Cowdrey Spirit of Cricket lecture at Lord’s. For obvious reasons, while always interesting, the Cowdrey lecture tends not to produce many headlines outside the sport section. This year was different.

You can watch the first part above, and read about it on the MCC website or see a full transcript at Cricinfo. The speech was heartfelt, and beautifully delivered, and utterly unflinching. This could have jeopardised his career — for a while it looked like it would — while he was still playing for a living.

He talked about how “We have to aspire to better” — in this sentence he was talking about cricket administration but it was clear from the rest of his speech that this applied as much to general principles of government as it did to sport.

I could quote it at length but I will leave you with a few paragraphs. It is well worth reading or watching the whole one-hour speech. It makes unmistakable the remarkable character of a man who managed to be more than just the best batsman of the 21st century so far.

Over four hundred years of colonization by the Portuguese, the Dutch and the British has failed to crush or temper our indomitable spirit. And yet in this context the influence upon our recent history and society by the introduced sport of cricket is surprising and noteworthy.

The 1983 riots:

The terrible race riots of 1983 and a bloody communist insurgency amongst the youth was to darken my memories of my childhood and the lives of all Sri Lankans. I recollect now the race riots of 1983 now with horror, but for the simple imagination of a child not yet six it was a time of extended play and fun. I do not say this lightly as about 35 of our closest friends, all Tamils, took shelter in our home. They needed sanctuary from vicious politically-motivated goon squads and my father, like many other brave Sri Lankans from different ethnic backgrounds, opened his houses at great personal risk.

On ‘style’:

Even after gaining Test Status in 1981, Sri Lanka’s cricket suffered from an identity crisis and there was far too little “Sri Lankan” in the way we played our cricket. Although there were exceptions, one being the much-talked about Sathasivam, who was a flamboyant and colourful cricketer, both on and off the field. He was cricketer in whose hand they say the bat was like a magic wand. Another unique batsman was Duleep Mendis, now our chief selector, who batted with swashbuckling bravado. Generally, though, we played cricket by the book, copying the orthodox and conservative styles of the traditional cricketing powerhouses. There was none of the live-for-the moment and happy-go-lucky attitudes that underpin our own identity. We had a competitive team, with able players, but we were timid, soft and did not yet fully believe in our own worth as individual players or as a team.

After 1996:

We were no longer timid or soft or minnows. We had played and beaten the best in the world. We had done that without pretence or shame in a manner that highlighted and celebrated our national values, our collective cultures and habits. It was a brand of cricket we were proud to call our own, a style with local spirit and flair embodying all that was good in our heritage. The World Cup win gave us a new strength to understand our place in our society as cricketers. In the World Cup a country found a new beginning; a new inspiration upon which to build their dreams of a better future for Sri Lanka. Here were 15 individuals from different backgrounds, races, and religions, each fiercely proud of his own individuality and yet they united not just a team but a family. Fighting for a common national cause representing the entirety of our society, providing a shining example to every Sri Lankan showing them with obvious clarity what it was to be truly Sri Lankan.

After the 2004 tsunami:

We visited shelter camps run by the Army and the LTTE and even some administered in partnership between them. Two bitter warring factions brought together to help people in a time of need. In each camp we saw the effects of the tragedy written upon the faces of the young and old. Vacant and empty eyes filled with a sorrow and longing for homes and loved ones and
livelihoods lost to the terrible waves. Yet for us, their cricketers, they managed a smile. In the Kinniya Camp just south of Trincomalee, the first response of the people who had lost so much was to ask us if our families were okay. They had heard that Sanath and Upul Chandana’s mothers were injured and they inquired about their health. They did not exaggerate their own plight nor did they wallow in it. Their concern was equal for all those around them.

On being shot at:

Tharanga Paranvithana, on his debut tour, is also next to me. He stands up, bullets flying all around him, shouting “I have been hit” as he holds his blood-soaked chest. He collapsed onto his seat, apparently unconscious. I see him and I think: “Oh my God, you were out first ball, run out the next innings and now you have been shot. What a terrible first tour.” It is strange how clear your thinking is. I did not see my life flash by. There was no insane panic. There was absolute clarity and awareness of what was happening at that moment.

On governance:

After 1996 the cricket board has been controlled and administered by a handful of well-meaning individuals either personally or by proxy rotated in and out depending on appointment or election. Unfortunately to consolidate and perpetuate their power they opened the door of the administration to partisan cronies that would lead to corruption and wanton waste of cricket board finances and resources.

Loyalty:

My loyalty will be to the ordinary Sri Lankan fan, their 20 million hearts beating collectively as one to our island rhythm and filled with an undying and ever-loyal love for this our game. Fans of different races, castes, ethnicities and religions who together celebrate their diversity by uniting for a common national cause. They are my foundation, they are my family.I will play my cricket for them. Their spirit is the true spirit of cricket. With me are all my people. I am Tamil, Sinhalese, Muslim and Burgher. I am a Buddhist, a Hindu, a follower of Islam and Christianity. I am today, and always, proudly Sri Lankan.

I used to be a journalist. Now I’m a product manager.

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