Kumar Sangakkara heads for the dressing room
© Getty Images
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Cover story

The cult of Sanga

Few Sri Lankans have been as widely adored. None has so painstakingly chiselled his way to greatness

Andrew Fidel Fernando |

When clients came to see Kshema Sangakkara in the late 1980s and early 1990s, many were made to wait. A renowned civil lawyer, Kshema would be busy in the backyard of his colonial home, which had sat proudly on a Kandy hillside for close to a century.

"Why don't you come now?" his wife Kumari used to ask. "They have been waiting here a while."

"So?" Kshema would reply. "Let them wait. They have come to see me. I can't see them until I've finished working with my son."

When Kumar thinks of his childhood, he remembers the long hours of tennis-ball throwdowns, being roused early on weekends for shadow-batting, and the evening lectures on batting technique.

He also remembers his report cards often reading "absent" during his first few years at Trinity College. "You don't have to go to school today," Kshema would say, "you can come with me on a trip." So father and son would climb into the family van and travel to eastern Ampara or north-central Anuradhapura for Kshema's next case. The bumpy rural roads of wartime Sri Lanka, made to seem worse by his father's "terrible taste in vehicles", lent a sense of peril to the adventures. "You know," says Kumar, "we even had a driver once who broke his wrist driving our van, because the transmission was so stiff."

"I was always chuffed when I could prove my father wrong. When I scored runs sometimes, I said, 'Listen, this is how I did it, and it's completely different from the way you taught me'"

Other days Kumar played outside with friends and neighbours till dusk. "He was a naughty child," older sister Saranga remembers. On one occasion, not heeding his mother's warning, he left the property and was bitten by a stray dog. Another time, while his parents hid Tamil families during the Black July riots in 1983, six-year-old Kumar asked his parents if this gathering of his friends could happen every year.

But through the years, amid the violent national crises that speckled his youth, Kumar played sports. And while he played, his father coached him. "My father's view was that if you were going to spend time playing something, you should play it correctly," Kumar says, "which is fine.

"But very quickly the coaching became a pain in the neck. All my siblings went through this. If we had a two-hour practice, we would work for maybe half an hour, and argue for the other one and a half hours. It was a tug of war and I was always chuffed when I could prove him wrong. When I scored runs sometimes, I said, 'Listen, this is how I did it, and it's completely different from the way you taught me.'

"But then the older I got, the more I understood. The more I realised, I guess, the value in what my father said."

Signed, Sanga: the bent-kneed cover drive

Signed, Sanga: the bent-kneed cover drive © Getty Images

Two days out from his third-to-last Test match, Kumar Sangakkara is hunched over a cardboard box in the backyard of his own house, his children flitting noisily about his legs. Their home is east of the capital - far enough from Colombo's rapidly advancing concrete for water monitors to sun themselves on grass banks, for cranes to wade around in rice paddies and for parrots to twitter from the palms.

This June morning had spilt over into frenzy when Sangakkara's five-year-old twins spied a grey langur in the jackfruit tree just beyond the back verandah. After skating around the house declaring to all that a monkey was in the garden, Swyree and Kavith announce to their father that they would very much like to take it captive. So, box in hand, Sangakkara is now busy making them a trap.

He sends the kids off on a string of missions: "Who can find me a rope?" "See if you can get a stick about this long." "Ask amma if we can have a banana to use for bait." Then he tries to show them how all this fits together - the stick propping the box open, the rope leading around the corner, where the children would wait in silence, then yank the box shut when the monkey comes for the fruit. He knows they will never ensnare a monkey like this, so the whole scene is mildly humorous - only, there is no decent punchline in sight. It is a dad joke. Long after the monkey has tired of the commotion and left, Sangakkara calls out: "Look, Swyree, there's the monkey." When she looks at him, he is pointing at her brother.

"I can't see what value I will be to the team if I carry on for 12 months. My taking up a place for another few months is just delaying the future for someone else"

In the midst of a Test series against Pakistan, on the heels of a big loss in Galle, these are precious, stolen moments. Soon the father has to quit goofing around and prepare for the afternoon's training session and team meetings. If it had been up to him, he would have been an ex-international cricketer, free to carry on with the backyard fooling for as long as his kids would stand him.

Sangakkara had contemplated stepping away from Tests as far back as the middle of the last year, when he got a call from Mahela Jayawardene, who had typically had the same thought. "We can't have two guys leaving at once," Sangakkara had said, and put his plans on hold. Later in the year, when he went to the board offices to announce he would not play any international cricket beyond the 2015 World Cup, the selectors and Angelo Mathews implored him to reconsider. Even now, after he has delayed his exit twice and confirmed the August series against India will be his last, many are desperate for him to stick around for another year.

"I think in Sri Lanka we have real trouble letting go," he says in the car, en route to the Taj Samudra hotel, where the team is set to assemble. "I can't see what value I will be to the team if I carry on for a few months, or 12 months. If they want the senior players to assist the team - to come and spend some time at training or in the dressing room - all that can be arranged. We are all willing to do that. But my taking up a place for another few months is just delaying the future for someone else."

Kumari and Kshema Sangakkara in their Kandy home, where Kumar grew up

Kumari and Kshema Sangakkara in their Kandy home, where Kumar grew up © Michael Roberts

In public, Sangakkara is often hawking Sri Lankan cricket's marvels; crowing about the raw ability, the free-flowing style, and fusion of resolve and finesse. But when he reflects on Sri Lanka's shortcomings at close quarters, the veil slips. He lingers long and becomes glum. "The thing about our first-class cricket when I started out was that it was much more competitive than now," he says. "There were more players of quality in the same team, whereas now it's spread very thin.

"Maybe when you leave school now, you have so many other options with what to do with your life, young boys take that other option over cricket. The country has moved forward, but our domestic structure hasn't developed from then to now. And what I don't understand is: why do we worry so much about school cricket? It's the first-class system we should be focusing on. Who's going to play in the Sri Lanka side at 18? No one. In Asia, this is the whole thing. We're always looking for the next boy wonder."

Sangakkara is more justified in his frustrations than most. From among Sri Lanka's exceptional lot, he stood to gain most from the pre-Test priming that cricketers have, say, in Australia. When he dismantles Saeed Ajmal in Galle or quells James Anderson at Lord's it is tempting to think of him as this industrial lathe that has been cutting bowlers to size since the dawn of the planet. But while greatness was written on the wall for men like Aravinda de Silva, Jayawardene and Muttiah Muralitharan, Sangakkara had to painstakingly chisel his legacy on stone.

In public, Sangakkara is often hawking Sri Lankan cricket's marvels. But when he reflects on Sri Lanka's shortcomings at close quarters, the veil slips

Take his early travails with slow bowling. The rains and the greener, quicker pitches in Kandy had fitted him with a serviceable technique against seam, but then, "I watched the guys who had grown up in Colombo - watched someone like Mahela - play spin, and I didn't really understand how to do that".

Sangakkara had been routinely fooled by variations. He was hesitant to use his feet. He found it tough to hit against the turn. Forget cutting loose, rotating the strike was a nightmare. In some Tests, his batting partners may as well have set up camp and settled in with supplies at the non-striker's end. Sangakkara scored decent enough runs in his first few series, but even against seamers he rarely looked like a player around whom the top order would pivot. No one imagined this bag of bones would one day be a statistical behemoth averaging over 68 across 84 Tests as a specialist batsman, or the proprietor of more batting records than any other Sri Lankan.

"I came into a Sri Lankan team full of World Cup winners and greats in their own right. Where I began wasn't where they began," Sangakkara says. So he ventured in a direction few Sri Lanka players consider. While prevailing wisdom taught that international success rested on leaving one's natural technique unmolested, Sangakkara chose to evolve.

A change of grip was among his early renovations. "Early in my career Aravinda de Silva came and said to me: 'If you want to drive straight, you have to change your grip.' "When I did that, suddenly, from being a player who could only hit between third man and cover on the off side, I was driving past the bowler."

Early in his international career, Sangakkara had his fair share of troubles against the slower bowlers. It took practice, focus, and a willingness to reshape his batting for him to get to where he is today

Early in his international career, Sangakkara had his fair share of troubles against the slower bowlers. It took practice, focus, and a willingness to reshape his batting for him to get to where he is today © Getty Images

Behind the scenes, nudging him perpetually towards perfection was Kshema, whose copious, often unsolicited advice his son had by now learned to sift through. "You know, it's funny thinking now - it used to infuriate me when I was younger, and my father would torture me with a particular movement for months, then come and suddenly say, 'No, forget all that. Disregard what I've been telling you - let us start on this new thing.'

"But that's one thing he has always said: 'Always be open to change. That's how you improve. Change with a plan and you'll find yourself growing.' I always thought that was his way of justifying another new-fangled theory, but maybe that was his philosophy on life. In the end, that's how I've thought about my cricket every single time."

Series to series, Sangakkara's alterations seemed minuscule. It was like a chair was adjusted here, a picture frame straightened there. But over time, the transformation has been immense. That looseness outside off stump was dealt with. Crinkles in his sweep and cut were flattened out. And when hundreds begun to organise themselves in a stack, he knew he was making it work. He had two tons in Galle to begin with, then big doubles in Lahore, Bulawayo and Colombo. In a top order featuring Sanath Jayasuriya, de Silva and Jayawardene, Sangakkara played the gritty foil. Others sailed to centuries; Sangakkara clawed and scratched and thought himself there.

While greatness was written on the wall for men like Aravinda de Silva, Mahela Jayawardene and Muttiah Muralitharan, Sangakkara had to painstakingly chisel his legacy in stone

"There were lots of innings where I was not in sync. Sometimes I fought that, but then eventually learned to allow myself to fall into a rhythm. There were times when I started really uglily and really had to fight it out, until suddenly, one ball, after two hours, gets you into perfect rhythm. Then everyone thinks: 'Where the hell has this guy been all this time?'"

This was Sangakkara through the early 2000s. He was one of the Sri Lankan batsman opposition bowlers worried least about, yet at the end of the day they would find him clinging on, 57 not out. At some point the next morning, after looking like he wouldn't survive the opening spells, Sangakkara would reinsert himself into his opponents' flesh, and continue the bloody drip, drip, drip.

In contemplating Sangakkara's career - in acknowledging the recent frequency of fifties, the seeming inevitability of his tons, and the Bradmanesque pile of double-hundreds - it is important to take stock of the beginnings. It is crucial to mark out his starting point, because in the rickety van that is Sri Lankan cricket, amid public clashes with administrators and captaincy crises, Sangakkara's journey to greatness has resembled one of those winding wartime trips to Ampara or Anuradhapura, with his father absorbed in his own work but always close by.

Schoolboy Sangakkara is said to have displayed his trademark eloquence while wooing the girl who would eventually become his wife

Schoolboy Sangakkara is said to have displayed his trademark eloquence while wooing the girl who would eventually become his wife © ICC/Getty Images

Jayawardene once said about his friend's stomach for training: "Kumar bats and he bats and he bats, and he keeps and he keeps and he keeps." And though he fiercely denies this, Sangakkara seems to once have been a schoolboy who pined and pined and pined for the girl who would eventually become his wife.

It apparently went like this: Sangakkara was smitten by Yehali, but Yehali, not so sure, dispatched friends - twin girls from her class - to reconnoitre and report back. Now, having spent almost two decades in Australia, twins Jini and Dilu Kulathungam are indistinguishable over the phone, forever interjecting to amend and augment each other's recollections.

"We went to this English Literature tuition class so we could find out a little bit more about him, and I think the first thing we noticed was that he wasn't like other boys," one of them says. "No, he was a bit of a teacher's pet. I remember him sitting right in front and answering all the questions."

He would further distinguish himself from other young men through his unabashed love for English poetry. Poetry that, when the couple's relationship warmed up, he quoted lavishly in daily love letters. Jini and Dilu lived adjacent to Sangakkara's school, so had the task of transporting the missives.

Sangakkara scored decent runs in his first few series, but rarely looked like a player around whom the top order would pivot. No one imagined this bag of bones would one day be a statistical behemoth

"I remember Yehali reading us some of the letters, and yeah, they were probably pretty sappy," Jini says. "Kumar was a romantic at heart, I think.

"But if he heard us saying this, he wouldn't like it."

No, he despises it. He straightens in a chair on his back verandah, and crinkles his nose at the first mention of this sorry backstory. So keen is Sangakkara to distance himself from it, he disavows not only the strength of his affections for Yehali at the time, but his whole supposed passion for poetry.

"Jini and Dilu have told you all rubbish," he says. "Don't believe a thing they say."

Yehali is just out of sight, watching over the children, near the rear French doors, but she reveals herself at the first sound of denial from her husband, like she had been lying in ambush the whole time.

"Really Kumar? You didn't write me letters? There were five-page letters!"

"I might have written you one letter."

"I still have them saved somewhere. What about the chocolates you used to send through Jini and Dilu?"

"Yeah, because I was worried about what they were feeding you at school."

It's a lame response. He is reeling.

"There was a book of poems as well."

"Rubbish."

Sangakkara is photographed by adoring young fans in Jaffna

Sangakkara is photographed by adoring young fans in Jaffna Thusith Wijedoru / © Murali Cup

Satisfied that her husband is on the run, Yehali returns her attention to the children. Her version of events has the weight of verbal evidence as well. Sangakkara's own childhood friend Dharshana Senarath remembers the lengths Sangakkara would go to. "The way I knew how much he really liked her was because every day he would buy one of those 100-rupee payphone cards to call her. I don't think he could call her from his house at that time. Even some time after that, when she had moved to Colombo, sometimes he would travel from Kandy to Colombo to drop off a gift for her and go back, just for that."

As Sangakkara rains down smouldering stares from billboards all over the country, it is not difficult to see why he objects so sharply to revelations about this lovesick past. Here is a man who has crafted his public image almost as carefully as he has his batting technique; who has steered clear of the political hand grenades that have devoured countless others in Sri Lankan public life.

Even when waging firefights with the board, he chose his moments prudently. During the early stages of Sri Lanka's 2014 World T20 campaign, Jayawardene had taken to Twitter to voice his displeasure at Sri Lanka Cricket's handling of the news of his and Sangakkara's T20 retirement, but it was after the team returned with the trophy that Sangakkara joined his friend in a state of righteous anger. In another spat the previous year, Sangakkara claimed the moral high ground by choosing to play for his local side over his IPL franchise at the Champions League T20, before launching a verbal mortar at SLC secretary Nishantha Ranatunga. Officials are foolish to engage Sangakkara, because while they are ever tainted in these scrapes, his armour seems to gleam a little brighter from each public skirmish.

"There were times when I started really uglily and really had to fight it out until suddenly, one ball, after two hours, gets you into perfect rhythm"

Few in Sri Lanka have managed fame as effortlessly as Sangakkara. Many of his great innings have had a wobbly beginning. Those tetchy lunges against high-quality spin still persist. But hand the man a microphone, put him in front of a crowd and he is a natural through and through.

He earns affection quickly and decisively, sometimes leading with that dashing smile, other times emitting a winning chuckle. His verbal repertoire is so vast he seems to have four answers to every question, and unfailingly chooses the reply best calibrated to present company. His speech is easy, quick and flowing. And he times the pants off his jokes. The most famous example is his recollection of novice opener Tharanga Paranavitana clutching at his bloody chest during the 2009 Lahore attack. "Oh my God," Sangakkara says of his inner monologue at that moment. "You were out first ball, run out in the next innings, and now you have been shot. What a terrible first tour."

Three days before the second Test against Pakistan in June, he is in sparkling form again in a conference room just inland of the western town of Matugama. The paint company he endorses is hosting a weekend retreat for its salespeople. Around 50 men and women are clustered around large round tables, throwing varied questions at Sangakkara, who is there to inspire and encourage.

Sanga and Maiya: has there been a better double act?

Sanga and Maiya: has there been a better double act? © Getty Images

When a young man asks if there is truth in the rumour he is planning a political career, Sangakkara scratches his chin and furrows his brow in faux reflection.

"Yes, I mean, I read I was contesting the upcoming election in the papers," he says. "Apparently I'll be needing votes from Kalawewa."

The room breaks out in laughter.

"At least if they had said I was contesting from a Kandy electorate or a Colombo electorate, it could be believable. But Kalawewa? I think I've only ever driven through there. Not an ideal start to my political career."

Before the room has quieted after another round of laughs, Sangakkara is a step ahead, seizing a teachable moment.

"But that's not to say no one should go into politics," he says. "Politicians also provide an invaluable service to the country - we need them. It's not for me, I think, but if anyone else in the room feels that that is their calling in life, that's a great thing for Sri Lanka."

Officials are foolish to engage Sangakkara, because while they are ever tainted in these scrapes, his armour seems to gleam a little brighter from each public skirmish

And on he goes, dealing in even-handed motivation, punctuating his answers with the occasional cricket story. Before long he is asked if he will live overseas in the future. "Sri Lanka is home, and it's the only place for me," he replies. The room is in raptures. The audience is besotted. Sangakkara could unbuckle his belt and moon them at this point and still they would all come away enchanted. Forget that exemplary set-up at the crease, you think. Forget his otherworldly average as a specialist batsman. This is Sangakkara's real forte. This is his superpower.

"Ever since he was a little boy - since kindergarten - he was outgoing," older sister Saranga says. "He was always very comfortable in front of crowds, whether it was with plays that we did or in playing his violin. His teachers loved that. That charm has always been part of Kumar."

It was this charm that propelled the sharp rise of his stock in the West. The 2011 speech at Lord's heightened appreciation for him at home, but its full impact was felt overseas, where he came to occupy a unique space: an Asian cricketer who is among the game's leading intellectuals. Where before his consistency had been something of a subcontinental secret, in the last four years the world has awoken to his exceptional record.

When Sangakkara speaks, the cricket world listens

When Sangakkara speaks, the cricket world listens © AFP

In an otherwise ignominious Test for his team, Sangakkara raised a standing ovation at the MCG on Boxing Day in 2012 when he became the fastest to 10,000 Test runs, alongside Sachin Tendulkar and Brian Lara. "I knew that if I had got there in any innings before that, I would have been the fastest alone," he says. "But then I reached 10,000 there, and the screen at the ground had my name on top, then Sachin and Lara. I would be an absolute liar if I said that didn't give me a lot of satisfaction. David Warner, who was fielding close by at the time, had seen that, been surprised and said something like: 'He's consistent, I'll give him that.' You know, it was something to strike even Warner." That record is actually among Sangakkara's less impressive achievements. He has been the fastest to every other 1000-run milestone from 8000 to 12,000.

As his Western legend grew, it has been tempting in the East to see Sangakkara as an Anglophile - a Sri Lankan who wishes he were otherwise. But you only need observe him for a day at home to know this is spectacularly unfair. His Sinhala is as sophisticated as his English, and unblemished by the western phrases that have invaded the modern vernacular. He makes a cheese omelette for breakfast but eats it with his fingers, mixing it with pol sambol and a dark chicken curry. His living room is lined with two levels of local art. Among the pieces he has recently had framed is a line drawing of a young boy picking at a sitar.

Better to say he is a social chameleon, who, perhaps subconsciously, affects mannerisms and adjusts his inflection out of a desire to be liked wherever he goes.

His verbal repertoire is so vast he seems to have four answers to every question, and unfailingly chooses the reply best calibrated to present company

Sri Lankan cricket fans resent being likened to their counterparts elsewhere in the subcontinent. The island is passionate about cricket, they like to think, but capable of turning off when the going is poor. "Fickle" may be a better description than "balanced". The party following Sri Lanka's World T20 victory was enormous and euphoric. In contrast, when their team was knocked out of the ODI World Cup this year, Sri Lankan fans not only overcame disappointment, they briskly moved on to supporting, then feeling upset, for New Zealand. Cricket is just for fun, Sri Lankans feel, so why get bent out of shape over it?

In recent years, no cricketer has frayed this relative composure as much as Sangakkara. The snowballing of runs since 2010, combined with his speeches, good looks and humility have given the cult of Kumar a fanatical edge. These devotees trawl social media and message boards, flaming those who so much as under-celebrate a Sangakkara milestone. When Sangakkara had tweeted about encountering a "rude" immigration officer at Heathrow airport, a small sortie from this Sanga Bala Sena demonstrated outside the British High Commission in Colombo.

While Sangakkara's supporters have grown, however, a dissenting group has also become equally vocal. These are the Maheliacs - essentially the hipster movement in Sri Lankan fandom - who feel that though Sangakkara's numbers are excellent, Jayawardene's contribution has been greater, through intangibles like strategy and aesthetics.

Sri Lanka cricket fans rarely let their passions spill over; the same can't be said of Sangakkara fans - a group of whom are seen here demonstrating in Colombo in April 2011, demanding Sangakkara be reappointed captain</i>

Sri Lanka cricket fans rarely let their passions spill over; the same can't be said of Sangakkara fans - a group of whom are seen here demonstrating in Colombo in April 2011, demanding Sangakkara be reappointed captain © AFP

The Sanga-love that took hold following the World T20 win typified Maheliac gripes. Jayawardene had top-scored for Sri Lanka during the campaign, and, perhaps more crucially, been the team's tactical heartbeat following Dinesh Chandimal's mid-tournament ouster as captain. The defence of 119 in the sudden-death group match against New Zealand, for instance, bore all the Jayawardene hallmarks: the early introduction of spin, the yapping wolves around the bat, the inspired fine-tuning from slip. Sangakkara, meanwhile, skidded through the tournament on scores of 14, 0, 4 and 1 until his unbeaten 52 in the final seized the narrative, even from the bowlers who were most instrumental to that win.

Of course this rivalry exists only in bars, at bus halts and three-wheeler stands, because there has not been a hint of dissent between the two, let alone resentment. "I don't think our relationship has ever been based on trying to outdo each other," Jayawardene says. "We've definitely helped each other along by sharing our knowledge, or telling each other if something isn't quite right with their game, but it's never been a competition. Nothing like that." One of their more grievous quibbles had come in 2007, when captain Jayawardene had set his mind on dropping himself from the ODI side following a slim run of scores. Sangakkara, just as trenchantly, persuaded him in the end that this was folly. Even their fights are cute to the point of being pathetic.

The 2011 speech at Lord's heightened appreciation for him at home, but its full impact was felt overseas, where he came to occupy a unique space: an Asian cricketer among the game's intellectuals

Their only rivalry has been played out in latter-day interviews, awash in complimentary one-upmanship. For example, Sangakkara would often let fly with: "There's never been any doubt in my mind that Maiya's always been the better batsman." Then Jayawardene would counter: "Kumar would say I am the best, but if you look at the numbers, it's quite clear who was." Betrayed by his own statistics but never short of words, Sangakkara reaches for a more nuanced homage: "Mahela reverses pressure so well, and makes it easy for anyone to bat with him." And on and on it goes, in a great big bum-patting merry-go-round, until everyone but the pair is nauseous.

The irony in this is that anyone who likes Jayawardene more would actually agree with Sangakkara, and those who prefer Sangakkara would parrot Jayawardene's praises. But although this Sanga v Maiya split of loyalties is among the most well-defined rifts in Sri Lanka's cricket fandom, few would claim the two have not made each other greater than they would have been individually. Their dovetailing, Sri Lankans feel, has been unique. Other teams might have greater batsmen, but who has had a better double act?

Beyond records and runs, they have been an exquisite union of contrasts at the crease. Sangakkara, the ceaseless refiner, is all straight lines and optimum angles. The pull shot is mechanical. The cut is swift and severe. Even the bent-kneed cover drive - Sangakkara's shop-window stroke - is pretty but clean, like it came vacuum-packed from a lab. He drills a single into the deep and watches his friend, the artist, transition from classical to surreal, sometimes within an innings, other times inside an over, however the mood strikes.

Advertiser's choice: three Sangakkaras on one hoarding

Advertiser's choice: three Sangakkaras on one hoarding © AFP

It is a duality that has held the nation captive. Jayawardene's cricket was free-spirited, innovative, and above all joyful - in his innings the island saw its reflection. Sangakkara, polished, even-handed, perpetually improving, and admired across the world, is what post-war Sri Lanka aspires to become. Over the past decade, as Sri Lanka sought global recognition while striving to keep a grip on its identity, a Jayawardene-Sangakkara stand has been a model confluence. One present, one future, they are the best of both worlds.

Once on a free day during an IPL season with Deccan Chargers, Sangakkara briefly forgot himself. Tired of the team hotel, he, Yehali, the twins and a friend set out to do some shopping in Hyderabad.

"In Sri Lanka, you're used to not really thinking about this sort of thing," says his long-time friend and agent Charlie Austin. "Coming into the mall and going up the lifts Kumar got a few looks. I don't think we made much of that. So anyway we ended up in a Mothercare store, where Yehali bought some stuff for the kids, but when we turned around to come out, there was just this huge wall of people holding up cellphones. I think we tried to make our way out at first, but with all the pushing and the photos and the autographs, it was all a bit hardcore." In the end, only the team's security personnel could extract the group from the mob.

Over the past decade a Jayawardene-Sangakkara stand has been a model confluence. One present, one future, they are the best of both worlds

In Sri Lanka, Sangakkara has been mobbed twice in his life. In the first instance, hundreds descended upon a working-class eatery in northern Colombo, where he was having lunch with Muralitharan, among others. This was a time when Murali's gravitational pull would have comfortably eclipsed his own, but Sangakkara remembers feeling somewhat responsible. "The police came in finally, but before that the crowd basically packed into this tiny place. People were standing on chairs and tables and kitchen equipment to get a look. The poor owners - our bill would have been maybe a couple of thousand rupees, but they would have faced probably 15,000 in damages."

In recent years, as Murali has retreated into happy retirement and Jayasuriya's star has entered freefall, King Kumar has ruled the land, with Jayawardene for a sidekick. Advertisers, under whose purview comes a rough-and-ready gauging of the national mood, have sought both men for their brands. If the budget doesn't quite allow for two cricketers, Sangakkara has generally been preferred, failing which Jayawardene will do. Mathews leads the peloton behind them, but even he is a long way back. Often, companies say: "It's Sanga, Mahela or no one."

It is not difficult to wrap one's head around Sangakkara's popularity in the south, where he has played so much of his cricket and identifies strongly with the culture. Support for him in the Tamil-speaking north, however, is both intriguing and instructive. In late 2013, Sangakkara stepped out of his car at an Under-19 tournament in Jaffna, and in the second of his Sri Lankan mobbings, was effectively devoured for an hour. Young men began the scrimmage, at first snatching pressed-cheek selfies with a whirl of elbows and upturned chairs for a background. Soon virtually everyone at the St Patrick's College ground had enclosed Sangakkara. Bats, balls, jerseys, caps, notepads, and even cash was pressed into hands that autographed each item furiously. Had the school's headmaster not intervened after some time, you felt people would soon be trucking in fridges and TVs from around the city for Sangakkara to inscribe.

Lord's, 2014: neither the weight of occasion nor the sniping from the slips could shake his <i>nidanam</i>

Lord's, 2014: neither the weight of occasion nor the sniping from the slips could shake his nidanam © Getty Images

"Yeah, that was crazy," Sangakkara recalls, chuckling. "I don't think I quite expected that. But you know, it just shows how much people all around the country, whichever corner you are from, love cricket. It's more than just a sport for us. We might not be as outwardly crazy about it as some others, but it's a passion that runs deep, across all our communities. That potential for finding common ground and unity within that, I think, is extraordinary."

Perhaps he knows it, maybe it's unwitting - but he is the personification of this unity now, because although there have been great Sri Lankan cricketers who spoke the northern tongue, Sangakkara has had their pulse. Jaffna's delight in him is visceral at first look, but typically for the city, it is anchored in the cerebral.

What Sangakkara possesses, according to many in these parts, is nidanam. In simple Tamil, it means focus. In the milieu of Jaffna batsmanship, it is charged with much more. Nidanam is immunity from distraction, and tranquility through duress. It is not quite the vaunted "clear head" of modern cricket - more a burning, single-minded purpose. There was nidanam in Sangakkara's innings at Lord's last year, when he made a raid for that coveted ton and let no weight of occasion, nor the sniping from the slips, shake him from his purpose. There was nidanam in the Basin Reserve double-ton in January, when he systematically subdued Trent Boult - his tormentor from the previous Test. Even through those scratchy early years, Sangakkara had a way of finding the boundary that eased him into rhythm, and had him tumbling into a reverie.

Although there have been great Sri Lankan cricketers who spoke the northern tongue, Sangakkara has had their pulse. Jaffna's delight in him is visceral at first look, but anchored in the cerebral

It is this state of mind that, as he enters his final series, has left him only one double-hundred short of Don Bradman's 12. He says he would "love to equal" the man his father has forever urged him to match, but there is no doubt that after being compelled to stay for longer than he intended, Sangakkara's flame has burned a little less bright.

"I've been told if I play another year or two years, I could score another 1000 runs, or I might be the second-highest Test run scorer," he says. "But if you really think about it, if that's the only reason you want to prolong your career - then it is really time to say, 'Thank you very much.'"

How sure is he of his future?

"When you've done one thing - played cricket - for such a long time, I guess you never know what you'll be good at afterwards.

"It will be a big change," he says, "but you don't have to be afraid of that. Change is not bad. Change is good."

Andrew Fidel Fernando is ESPNcricinfo's Sri Lanka correspondent. @andrewffernando

 

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  • POSTED BY Rohit on | August 31, 2015, 12:31 GMT

    I totally agree to all comments about how great player he was for cricket BUT when it comes about true sportsman... Sorry guys I am against all of you. Remember 2011 WC final Toss episode when Sanga behaved as if he lost the game itself on losing the toss and was about to fight with all present. Lets move some 12-13 years back when he was a serious sledger and known for getting into banters which was initiated by HIM, remember Suraj Ranadiv bowled a No Ball stop VIRU getting a hundred he was there at field. I still have a lot of respect for him as a player only but not as true cricketer. Also the people who are comparing him with Dravid please do not as Dravid was a class apart.

  • POSTED BY piyush on | August 12, 2015, 17:53 GMT

    Andrew Fidel, you have won my heart hands down! Such a brilliant memoir of the journey of one of the most hard working cricketers of the modern era, after reading this article, I feel like sitting at Sangakkara's home watching him talk to you and his children playing around and the Langaroos. Thankyou for this master piece Andrew.

  • POSTED BY Simon on | August 11, 2015, 0:27 GMT

    Sanga is one of the most under-rated cricketers ever, although it appears over the last few years the cricket watching public are gaining more of an appreciation of his great skill & ability. He is one of my favourite all time players. His record partnership with his great mate of 624 against a very good South African attack will probably never be beaten. All the best Kumar. From an Aussie.

  • POSTED BY aditya on | August 10, 2015, 8:02 GMT

    @MAN_FROM_MOUNTAINS ON: If numbers are the only indicators, yes Sachin Tendulkar can not beaten by any one in this world. Be it Rahul, Sanga, Maiya, Kallis, Lara or Ponting. The list is long for the number 2 spot after Sachin. Unlike finance, sports is not all about number game or avg or strikerate. Its about about gamesmanship, perfection and display of ability! When you put it that way, all the players I mentioned belonged to one class. They are just the best of what they did and they will be revered for their contributions to this sport, no matter which country you are from! Lets not get into the mire of who is best! Lets take a moment to enjoy the best of this great hero and give him a grand Good Bye he deserves!

  • POSTED BY Shamalka on | August 6, 2015, 7:31 GMT

    A glorious article about a glorious Cricketer! I don't think even Sanga's shadow could recollect his story as Andrew has done here in this article. I'm sad and mad about the fact that Sanga picks and chooses matches from the last 2 test tournaments he has agreed to play. However who am I to be critical about this all time great? I hope and pray that we get more opportunities see him around Colombo following his retirement. Unarguably the best left handed batsman ever to play the game of Cricket!

  • POSTED BY Salman on | August 5, 2015, 14:06 GMT

    A modern Maestro Batsman, A man who alone defines his whole team, whole nation. Unquestionably he is one of the all time legend of cricket. We are lucky to have him in action in our time.

  • POSTED BY Sunil on | August 5, 2015, 14:00 GMT

    @man_from_mountains: You got almost every stat right, but in Eng, Sanga averages 41 in 22 innings, compared to Tendulkar's 54 from 30 innings. If you're quoting stats, make sure you get the numbers right. @poholiyadda: Let's not even go there, every batsman has a litany of horrendous decisions they've received. So don't use that as an excuse. Besides, for every bad, decision there is also a life from a dropped catch, a missed stumping, etc. Let's just celebrate Sanga as a modern great who was the master at maximing the returns on his talent and hardwork, and leave it at that.

  • POSTED BY Shehan on | August 5, 2015, 10:19 GMT

    @MAN_FROM_MOUNTAINS :fyi, Sanga scored test 38 centuries up to now, which includes 3 in NZ, 2 in Eng and 1 each in SA and Aus. (in fact, he almost scored his first test century in South Africa as he was dismissed for a brilliant 98 due to a poor LBW decision during his first tour). And in the recently concluded CWC he scored 4 consc. centuries in Australia, the only asian batsman to do so in out side Asia.

  • POSTED BY Manesh on | August 5, 2015, 9:16 GMT

    Once he retire, he can think why he wasn't able to score runs in India which has a similar conditions to home. Forget about SA or WI where you need to be a perfect batsman to score runs. But he did good with his limited ability in England. Barring 1 big score, there is nothing to show in Australia too.

  • POSTED BY Khem on | August 5, 2015, 6:39 GMT

    Now taking a brief look in other countries, West Indies : Sangakkara's average of 34(7 innings) vs sachin's average of 47(14 innings). Pakistan: Sangakkara's average of 86 in 9 innings vs sachin's average of 40 in 13 innings. New Zealand : Sangakkara's average of 66 in 7 innings vs sachin's average of 49 in 18 innings. Bangladesh: Sangakkara averages 91 in 20 innings(1552 runs,6 centuries & 7 half-centuries) Sachin averages 136 in 9 innings(820 runs,5 centuries & 0 half-centuries).Stats in Asia: Sangakkara averages 62 in 148 innings(28 centuries & 32 half-centuries) and Sachin averages 56 in 194 innings(33 centuries. Conclusion : Sangakkara has been highly consistent batsman in Asia with 28 out of his 34 test centuries coming in these conditions which would make him the best batsman in Asian pitches but an average batsman out of Asia where he has only 6 test centuries. Overall conclusion is that Sachin has been the most consistent batsman in all countries.

  • POSTED BY Khem on | August 5, 2015, 6:30 GMT

    Who is the best test batsmen between Sangakara & Sachin based on this complete analysis? Statistics in different countries: Australia : Sangakara averages 60(scored 543 runs,1 century,5 half-centuries in 10 innings) Sachin averages 53(scored 1809 runs,11 centuries & 16 half-centuries in 38 innings). Sachin is easily the best batsman having played many more matches than Sangakara & dominated the Australian bowlers like no other batsman has ever done. South Africa : Sangakara averages 35 in 16 innings (1 century & 3 half-centuries) Sachin averages 46 in 28 innings (5 centuries & 3 half-centuries). England: Sangakara averages 30 in 18 innings(1 century & 2 half-centuries) Sachin averages 54 in 30 innings(4 centuries & 8 half-centuries). Sachin is way ahead of Sanga here. India: Sangakara averages 36 in 10 innings(1 century , no half-century) Sachin averages 52 in 153 innings(22 centuries, 32 half- centuries). Sanga has totally failed in India and his team never won a test match in India.

  • POSTED BY bira on | August 5, 2015, 4:52 GMT

    Sanga's greatness lies not in his genius, because he is not. But he is great despite of it. His story for me reminds me of the animated movie 'Ratatouile' where the saying goes "Anyone can cook". It seems that anyone can become a great batsman if you follow the Sanga method of Training hard, Keeping your focus and not be afraid to change. This is why he is an inspiration and why he is regarded as a great. To me he is "Batman" to Mahela's "Superman".

  • POSTED BY Sheethal on | August 5, 2015, 3:57 GMT

    @SATYARAD @YOBRO You are dead right...Sanga hasn't been tested in Australian conditions(never played in Perth & Brisbane which are considered as the fastest pitches in Aus & has played ONLY 5 matches) & his avg of 60 in Aus would drop to 54 if you take 27* @ MCG as OUT as he couldn't face hostile bowling from Aussie & forced to retired hurt...He has only 1 good innings(192) in Aus & that's not enough to put him in the league of SRT & LARA!!!

  • POSTED BY Chatty on | August 5, 2015, 2:54 GMT

    Sanga is right. There is no point in hanging about. It is time for Sanga to go. Not because he is not good enough, but it just is time. It is quite understandable. But the attitude of others, including Mathews is concerning. It seems that they don't have the confidence to play without Sanga. That is not a good sign. Regarding first class cricket. We have been talking about the poor quality of first class cricket for more than 10 years now. Nothing has happened. It is a simple equation. You either have quality or quantity. Right now, we have the latter. Reduce the number of teams and we will have quality. The solution is obvious. It is such a shame that nobody can get it done. It is pathetic, really.

  • POSTED BY Sunil on | August 4, 2015, 21:26 GMT

    @ Balajipost, @Cricthink, @RangaBAH: Indeed, and we should all appreciate the genius of Sangakkara and the joy he brings to everyone when he is on song at the crease. But the problem is when some delirious fans start making blanket statements about 'all time greatness' and dragg other legends of the game into it claiming quite ridiculously that he eclipses them all, without qualifying it. Once they do that, it is the responsibility of others to ensure such slander isn't left unchallenged. Appreciate him as a modern great and leave it at that.

  • POSTED BY Balaji on | August 4, 2015, 15:55 GMT

    This article is about the journey of one of the greats of modern times. So, in my mind any comment comparing Sanga to other players is out of place. It is very heart warming to know the story behind making of such a great player. Very well written article by the author. The article flowed so smoothly that it seemed a very quick read for its length. Sanga's story would inspire anyone to work hard to achieve their goals. His is a story of devotion and hard work creating amazing results. It is sad to see him leave the game, but he would have left the game with a great legacy. Hats off - a fan from India.

  • POSTED BY Edwin on | August 4, 2015, 12:26 GMT

    Great Article on a Great Cricketer. Often not recognized for what he had achieved. Here is a man who was a Wicket Keeper Batsman - majority of his innings were played after keeping wickets. Since playing as a pure bat his average stands tall, how much more Sanga would have achieved, if he had to play all his innings as a batsman.

    There were critics pointing out that Sanga was only good in the Sub continent and he had proved it wrong by scoring freely in rest of the world. Recently I read David Govers Top 50 Cricketers where , correct me if I am wrong Sanga was 41. Honestly he should be rated in Top 10 along with Murali, who was again rated at 30. I always felt Sri lanka never got it's recognition for all what it has achieved as a Cricketing nation + individual performances. If you look at the World Cups as a bench mark we have been among the Top 4 finishers in most of them. We will miss Sanga -take a long time to find another , I wish he gets a Double Hundred to match Don!

  • POSTED BY purushottam on | August 4, 2015, 11:48 GMT

    A Great Article on a Great Deserving Legend of Cricket..SANGA!!!..You beauty Sanga are truly an Ambassador of International Cricket...You ll be missed...

  • POSTED BY Imosh Dewapura on | August 4, 2015, 9:52 GMT

    To be honest, this was like an English literature lesson for me. Well, in order to describe an individual like sanga you need those words. Like always top notch article from Andrew. Learns something from your articles every time i read one.

  • POSTED BY Cricinfouser on | August 4, 2015, 8:10 GMT

    Unlike the other posters before me, I'm not going to focus on the relative merits of Sanga versus the other greats of the recent past, because I know that's a futile exercise.

    I'd instead focus on the superb quality of this article which has been written in a well-balanced manner. It adequately conveys Sanga's rise as a person, his upbringing, his personal and professional life so far as well as his commendable oratory skills and charm.

    Kudos to Andrew for a brilliant article. Thoroughly enjoyed reading it.

  • POSTED BY David on | August 4, 2015, 7:37 GMT

    It appears all of the people commenting below have forgotten or chosen to ignore the fact that for many of his test matches, not only did Sanga bat top 3 but he was also the wicket keeper (according to stats guru 90 innings). This is not insignificant. To finish his career as one of the top 5 run scorers of all time (and with a better average than any of the other top 20 or so), is a great achievement. Congratulations on a wonderful career and good luck for the future (not that he'll need it). An Australian cricket fan.

  • POSTED BY Sunil on | August 4, 2015, 4:36 GMT

    @bored_iam: Maybe good enough for you, but still not good enough for me. You pointed out that Tendulkar averaged just over 40 in Pak. Well, that's because he played that first tour when he was 16, and had to face Akram, Waqar, and Imran. In fact when you take out that tour his average is almost 45. There is no doubt that Tendulkar/Lara having debuted at similar times, played a lot more of the all time great bowlers (more so the former, since his own side had no good bowlers) at their peak (and some legends on their wane, but still on top of their game skillwise like Hadlee, Imran) on pitches that were lot more conducive to bowling - Wasim, Waqar, Warne, McDermott, Merv Hughes, Bruce Reid, McGrath, Ambrose, Walsh, Bishop, Donald. He even played the fresh crop and scored plenty against the likes of Steyn (146, 3rd innings of Cape Town 2011 comes to mind), Lee, Johnson, and co.

    Sorry, but 3 major Test playing nations with mid 30s when you debut in 2000s just doesn't cut it for me.

  • POSTED BY john on | August 3, 2015, 23:14 GMT

    Kumar can now be recognized as better than Tendulkar, Kallis, lara. Sangakarra is no flat track bully. He averages over 60 in Australia, and a bad decision in 2007 could have meant his score of 192 would have chased down 500 odd. Farewell to one of Asia's finest batsmen and Asia's best sledger!

  • POSTED BY Bored on | August 3, 2015, 19:07 GMT

    @yobro: an avg of 87 in pak. an avg of 60+ in Oz, NZ. An avg of 40+ in eng. An avg of 36 in SA against arguably the best bowling attack of the 2000s. All fantastic stats! I do not belittle sachin, Lara or printing. But not considering Sanga in the league of extraordinary batsmen is hugely disappointing. Sachin averages just over 40 in Pak. Lara was never really known for consistent brilliance. And the less said about ponting vs spin in India the better. But that's just how it is: everybody has weaknesses! Vis-a-vis his shortfalls, Sanga's achievements shine bright!

  • POSTED BY Ammarhit on | August 3, 2015, 18:13 GMT

    @satyarad Sanga still averages over 60 in Australia, which isn't half bad at all. Tendulkar only averages 40 in Zimbabwe, does that mean he is not an all time great? No. But still, you are in the minority as most people would consider Sanga and Murali all time greats. Also, Murali averages just over 19 in England, which is better than Warne and spun SL to their first win in England, match haul 16 wickets. Check it out.

  • POSTED BY kt on | August 3, 2015, 18:10 GMT

    @ satyarad on Mate get your facts right and don't belittle Great Murali and Great Sanga. We all know how Warne was powerless on Indian dead flat pitches. Murali was always given tests at toughest pitches for spinners in Australia. Sanga averages 60+ in Australia & NZ. Few months ago he scored a double against NZ on the greenest pitch I've ever-seen (It was literally green carpet of a pitch) and New Zealand had one of the all time best swing bowling duo Bault and Southee. Here is the cricinfo article: http://www.espncricinfo.com/new-zealand-v-sri-lanka-2014-15/content/story/816185.html#all. His 192 at Hobart against a world class pace attack including Brett Lee, Mitchel Johnson and Stuart Clark, here is the cricinfo article: http://www.espncricinfo.com/magazine/content/story/596629.html. His first double against Pakistan in 2002 at Gaddafi Stadium, Lahore, on a green top & the red cherry was moving. Pacers were Waqar, Akthar & Sami http://www.espncricinfo.com/ci/engine/match/63948.html

  • POSTED BY Sunil on | August 3, 2015, 18:05 GMT

    @bored_iam: You are wrong about the facts. The stats are out there - so go look it up before asserting otherwise. @satyarad: There is no denying that he averages mid-30s in Ind, SA, and WI (having played 7 innings in WI, 10 innings in Ind, and 16 innings in SA) and that he is a product of the 2000s, but you can't take away from his class, and the fact that he is a "modern great". But IMHO, he is nowhere near an all time great however - someone like Tendulkar, who debuted during a bowling peak, and still averages 40+ in every major Test playing nation (counting away matches only). I wouldn't even consider him in the league of the lesser mortals like Ponting, Lara, Kallis, etc, none of whom fit pass 40+ away average criterion. To be fair to Sanga though, I think he improved a lot as an overseas batsman in the latter half of his career. So he probably had a chance to correct some of those numbers.

  • POSTED BY Bored on | August 3, 2015, 17:39 GMT

    @satyarad: I honestly believe you are being EXTREMELY uncharitable to Sanga here. Barring India, he has an excellent record every where. He's scored runs in Eng, Aus, NZ, SA. That consistency all-round makes him like Sachin. When on song, his knack of the big scores is something we talk of when we talk of Lara. And he's probably the biggest wicket for the opposition a la Ponting in his prime. Where he beats these great men is his average (sheer consistency), his improvement as a player (arguably, the other three were all fantastic to begin with) and his record )second only to the don in 200+ scores! You HAVE to give credit where it's due!

  • POSTED BY Vishal on | August 3, 2015, 17:32 GMT

    Sanga is a SL legend but really no one in SL cricket comes close to the class of Aravinda De Silva - he was the only batsman from SL who could be put alongside the likes of Sachin, Lara, Ponting etc..

  • POSTED BY asokan on | August 3, 2015, 17:05 GMT

    I thank the author for the wonderful article. Sanga is a intellectual cricketer. I heard that he's a ferocious reader i think his habit of reading has served him well in his day to day life has a cricketer. If reading maketh a ready man then Sanga is the best example of it. He is a gentleman cricketer to the core. He may not be the stylish left hander to have graced the game but his ability to score big hundreds consistently and lead from the front has brought him immense accolade from all over the world. One can't deny that Mahela is a graceful cricketer to watch but Sanga brought stability to the Sri Lankan batting. He has superseded almost all the contemporary cricketers with his hard work. It will be hard for cricket lovers to bid adieu to a knowledgeable, intellectual ,and a level headed cricketer like Sanga. He's a rare breed of cricketers who appears once in a blue moon.

  • POSTED BY srinivas on | August 3, 2015, 13:35 GMT

    Sanga is not the greatest batsman simply because he did not dominate the bowling attacks out side of Asia. He scored lot of hundreds against mediocre attacks that too in the sub continent. Even Murali falls into this category. His bowling average in Australia is above 75 and he did not win many matches for his team outside of Asia and Zimbabwe So, Sri lankans should stop boasting about these guys as the greatest and stop compare them to all time greats like Lara, Ponting, Sachin, Kallis and Warne. May be when compared to other cricketers from SL they fared better and it ends there.

  • POSTED BY Chris on | August 3, 2015, 9:03 GMT

    There are several phrases in the book which are insufficient to be written about my ever loving Sanga.. The honest, loyal, intelligent, sporty wise young man is a great specimen to the entire world of sports. I have seen a very few cricketers and Sanga is in that golden basket of crystal cricket. I wish him all the success.

  • POSTED BY Unni on | August 3, 2015, 8:55 GMT

    This is such an awesome article of an awesome man who was eloquent, elegant and such a fine human being. I can only equate Sachin to Sanga in terms of elegance and such a humble man.

    My favorite Sanga knock is the one @ Hobart where he almost single handedly took Sri Lankan to victory against AUS @ Hobart chasing some 500 till he was given out caught off the ricochet of shoulders. He would have easily won the test.

    An Indian fan