Kumar Sangakkara drives

"Batsmen have to change; they have to adapt and evolve"

© Getty Images

Talking Cricket

'One of the worst things you can do is try to copy someone else'

Kumar Sangakkara opens up about the mental side of the game: dealing with the pressure of expectations, big finals, verbals, and captaincy

Interview by Scott Oliver  |  

If mental toughness is defined as "consistently delivering your best performance irrespective of the prize, pressure or consequences", then your international record would certainly put you in that category. Did this ability to handle pressure come naturally to you?
It is overall experience and self-awareness. When you start off, you really don't think about anything else but cementing your place in the side and having a long career. Once you get into the side and start scoring runs, you try to think about how to stay ahead of the opposition's strategies, how to keep improving, and basically trying to deliver performances every day.

The more you become aware of how you work as an individual, who you are as an individual, how you are emotionally, your strengths and weaknesses when it comes to cricket, it becomes very easy to work out how to continually challenge yourself, how to have a good practice plan, and then how you trust that base when you go and try and perform on the field. The pressure, you have to understand, is a constant: it actually increases the better you perform. Once you set a benchmark, people expect you to stay there or go beyond that.

You also understand that, rather than performing every day, it's really "more often than not" - to be successful more often than not, to score runs more often than not. You have the hope that you will score runs every day, but it's never going to be like that.

How about the mental toughness involved in chases? You were almost scientific in such situations, clinically managing the run rate, and yet you've also spoken about being at your best when you were batting without a thought in your head. So how do you reconcile those two aspects: the calculation and being free of thoughts?
I think you have enough time between balls and between overs to think about what's happening in the match situation. People talk about the conscious mind and the unconscious mind, and how they process different aspects of the game, but the reality is when you are facing up, you need an empty head that just allows you to rely on muscle memory, on the training you've done, and for the execution of shots to be instinctive. That's the best way of minimising mistakes.

In between deliveries and overs, you can think about calculation, think about targeting bowlers, about which areas of the field offers you more runs, and maybe you get to a stage where you really need to think about acceleration and the premeditation of certain shots that you want to play. But it's all about staying in control of what you do in relation to the challenge that's presented to you - a run chase, setting a total, trying to score as quickly as possible, playing for time, trying to build a partnership in tough conditions.

"Rather than performing every day, it's really 'more often than not' - to be successful more often than not, to score runs more often than not"

Mental strength is also about mental skills: the ability to compartmentalise; the ability to not worry about the innings you played just before, whether it was successful or you had a failure; the ability to read the game, read situations, read the strategy of the opposition, as soon as they set a field in place and be able to understand what they might be thinking of doing. So, mental dexterity, flexibility of thought - all of this comes under this overall term of "mental strength".

But a lot of the time it's built on absolute, infallible confidence that you've prepared well, that you have absolute belief in your ability, not just as a cricketer but also ability to read the game, to be able to change the way you play according to the situation. All of that comes into play, but those are things you become aware of the longer you play, the more experienced you become, when you really understand risk and reward, that no risk is impossible in cricket - every single ball carries a risk, whether you leave, defend, attack, it doesn't matter. So to be able to calculate that in a manner that brings the advantage to you is very important.

On the subject of getting older, did you find that the game became easier, psychologically speaking, when you got into your mid-30s and had a more or less bombproof reputation?
Actually, it can work in reverse. The more successful you are, the bigger the reputation you build, sometimes you fall into the trap of trying to protect that reputation, trying to protect an average. You have to be very careful with that because consistency is an upwardly mobile benchmark.

You can't just cruise at a certain level. The opposition improves and develops different strategies and challenges for you, so if you think that because you've scored a hundred the innings before, or ten hundreds before this particular innings against that team, it's going to be all smooth sailing, then you're in trouble, because it's never going to be like that.

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The only advantage that a solid reputation and a solid history of performance gives you is a grace period where, if you do have to change the way you bat, you can have a few failures to see whether something that you've changed is going to work. If you don't have the weight of performance behind you, that's when you think, "Okay, if I do fail I might get dropped", so maybe you don't change and you stick with what you've done before. Mentally, you really have to be okay with running that risk.

I don't think a batsman should bat the same way in all conditions or have the same batting technique throughout a career. Batsmen have to change; they have to adapt and evolve, and sometimes, as you grow older, your reflexes might go one way or the other, your physique will change, your fitness will change, and all this will affect how you might bat. Then you have to take conditions into consideration, whether you're in Sri Lanka or England or Australia. Will you have the same stance? Will you have the same tap of the bat?

You changed the tap of the bat according to where you were playing?
Absolutely. When I started, the tap of the bat was the trigger that allowed everything else to flow. I found that in England it was a hindrance. So, later on, one of the reasons I had relative success in England was the fact that I actually stopped that and was a lot more upright. I changed a few other things that I needed to change, including where I stood at the stumps, shortening my back-and-across movement. All of these were adjustments I had to make in order to survive - and not just survive, but also score more runs here.

Suave Sanga: from angry young man to statesman of the game

Suave Sanga: from angry young man to statesman of the game © Getty Images

It all sounds very specific to each day, a sort of permanent change...
It is, and not just specific to each day, but to different phases of your career. Specific to each personality, really. But like I said, the more self-aware you become and the more you're in control of the way you work and your emotions, how you evaluate yourself, and the way you deal with the outside pressures of press, fans, family, social media these days - all of these can have an effect on your ability to focus on what is important in terms of performance out in the middle.

Were there any other players whose mental skills you were envious of, or who you thought you could learn from?
No, I just think it's a very personalised thing and one of the worst things you can do is look at someone else and try and copy-paste that onto your personality. The whole point is that you're an individual, a unique one. Understand how you work, then find your own method.

How about your journey from feisty, spiky youngster into something of a statesman of the game - a similar trajectory to Graeme Smith and Brendon McCullum, I guess. Was there a point at which you thought you didn't always need to be getting in the opposition's face? And did you feel you occasionally overdid all that?
When you first come on the scene, there's a huge emphasis on being able to deal with so-called psychological pressure - in terms of verbals and sledging and everything that isn't related to on-field excellence. Sometimes you get carried away as a youngster. You want to pull your own weight, I suppose. You feel pressured into reacting a certain way because that's what's expected of you - to fit into that mould and that stereotype.

As you progress, you slowly realise that that's not the key to being someone who is recognised for excellence of performance.

When you're really honest with yourself, only then can you sit down and say, "What works? What doesn't? What should I really focus on? Do I need to have a little altercation in the middle to get me going, get me into the zone, or not?" Different people have different ideas. Viv Richards said he felt even more motivated to do well and raised his game when people were trying to unsettle him verbally.

"No risk is impossible in cricket - every single ball carries a risk, whether you leave, defend, attack, it doesn't matter"

I found later on in my career that it was always better to walk off at the end of the day, still being not out and having scored the runs I needed to score, without saying a word, because, for me, that said enough. So you have to really look inwards at times to understand what it is about you that's going to contribute to you becoming a person who performs more often than not. It's not always a technical thing, it's not always about just playing a stroke - it is also about who you are.

Did you find that captaincy affected the mental side of things? Batting No. 3, sometimes keeping wicket too, is quite a workload on top of the captaincy.
Not really. Captaincy is only when you're fielding. And sometimes when you're keeping, you do have a workload in the shorter version of the game. In some ways keeping brings its own advantage for captaincy. But it's very important to differentiate your roles - when you're marshalling your troops on the field, that's when you need your captain's hat on, and when you're batting, you're a batsman. You need to bat freely and shut out the noise. There's no need to think about captain's innings and leading from the front and all of that. You bat, and if you bat well, the statement is automatically made.

You've talked about using the time between deliveries and overs to make calculations, but how about switching off - between games and between balls? Did you find that easy? Did you have a technique for it?
Not really. I would think about something completely different while the bowler went to the top of the mark, then I'd get into my stance, tell myself, "Watch the ball, be balanced" and I was back in the zone. It sometimes took a while for me to get back into the zone without having all those other thoughts in my mind, and that's the period you talk about "playing yourself in" - some days it's from ball one, some days it takes an hour, sometimes maybe a session. So you have to give yourself the time to settle in and really focus all your energy, your body and mind, to get in sync with what's happening on the day.

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Switching off between overs - unless it's a really tricky situation and you think there are certain things you need to be aware of as a partnership, then you might be talking cricket in the middle, but otherwise you'd just be completely switching off and talking about anything else.

Off the field, it's important to have interests away from the game so that when you do go back to the hotel you don't wallow in what's happened on that day. It's not healthy. I think you need to be completely switched off when you're away from the game and 100% switched on when there is work for you to do.

What do you think about sports psychology? Did you see the value in it?
Jeremy Snape worked with us at the back end of my career. We had Sandy Gordon, from the University of Western Australia, who came and worked with us in 2006. The value was largely about them being able to identify little details that you overlook as being unimportant. There's a lot of one-on-one work, where you're taken down a road of being more aware - not just of yourself but others as well: what responsibilities you have when you're playing and when you're off the field; how personalities interact in a group; and the pitfalls of being too exacting, or having too much expectation - a stiff, structured expectation for everyone. It was also about buying into strategy and about thinking where you had contributed personally and taking ownership of what's happened, both the good and the bad.

What sort of team culture did all that feed into and develop?
I think we expected a lot from each other in terms of commitment and trust and competence. Trust comes immediately with competence and discipline and responsibility. Trust is all about competence, actually. It's not about whether you like another person or whether you have dinner with another person. It's all about walking out into the middle of the field and trusting that the person next to you is the best, most skilled, most competent person to walk out there with you, to do what you have discussed, to execute a plan and to hopefully win a game.

Sri Lanka lost four ICC finals in a row in five years: the 2007 World Cup against Australia, the 2009 World T20 against Pakistan, the 2011 World Cup against India, and the 2012 World T20 against West Indies. You have said elsewhere that this was in part because you didn't speak about your fears.
Not fears as such. It's about recognising that it is a final. It's like talking about pressure and trying to ignore that pressure is there. It's real. And while in your mind you know it's always there, it's about being able to embrace the fact that it's a final, really enjoy the fact that you're playing in a final, and that, come what may, you know that there is going to be pressure there that you will face for 100 overs or 40 overs.

Rather than saying "It's just another game" and hiding away the importance of that occasion - and if you do, it will just get you at a certain point in time, when there's a bit of doubt and you think, "Oh my God, this is a final" - you say, "Well, this is a final. We've lost four and this is a fifth one. We may never get a chance again." Be realistic about it. So the fifth time, when we did play India in the 2014 [World T20] final, we were a lot more comfortable with where we were and what's gone on before. Are you desperate to win it? Yes. But it was almost like, "Well, if we don't win it, it's not much difference." Luckily for us it fell our way.

"Sometimes you get carried away as a youngster. You react a certain way because that's what's expected of you" © Getty Images

And did the culture of the dressing room - the mental resilience, the bonds you'd formed in defeat - help you overcome the trauma of those losses?
Well, the motivation is never to [just] play games. The motivation is to play for your country and go out and enjoy the contest on the field. How you motivate yourself to get back into the grind, to invest four more years to stand another chance of playing a final despite the fact that you might lose and you'd need to wait another four years, to get back into training, to get over those questions of "Oh, is it worth it?" is the most important thing.

You understand when a four-year period ends and you've lost a final and you think, "Oh my god, to get here again we need another four years", that it could really frustrate you, it could mean you're not bothered with it. But if you're strong enough, that's when you go, "Okay, what do I do the next time out there? Next day at training? Next day at gym?" And you keep going for the next four-year period, getting your performance up to a stage where you think you're better than before, more experienced, a better player and a better person than you were, so you can have another stab at the final. That's mental strength.

Scott Oliver tweets @reverse_sweeper