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Sangakkara: Above stats and beyond greatness

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Sri_Lanka_Kumar_Sangakkara_cricketIt's becoming increasingly hard to take one’s mind off the fact that one of Cricket's truly great batsman has walked into the sunset. Along with his retirement comes the point where this legend will be deluged with hundreds and thousands of tributes, saluting him and his achievements, maybe long after he himself has no recollection of who said what.

But no matter what your personal views about cricket or whatever school of thought you belong to - whether it is the new, fiery brand of T20 cricket; the competitive One Day school of worship; or the uplifting Test match arena - one thing can be said for certain. There are only a handful of players who have stamped their authority across all formats of the game in a dignified manner that commands respect.

In a world divided between the exploits of all time legends like Sir Don, W.G. Grace, Garry Sobers and Sachin Tendulkar on one hand, and by the sublime gift possessed by the likes of Brian Lara, Mark Waugh, and David Gower on the other, Kumar Sangakkara was an everyman's favorite. In many ways, he bridged the gap between the divided fans whose confrontational attitudes always enhanced their fondness for a Lara vs Sachin contest or a Kallis vs Sobers debate.

Yet, somehow the stylish left handed record breaking batsman from Kandy refused to let statistics define him. Regarded uncontroversial and solid in his approach to playing the game he excelled at, Sanga allowed his records to merely add attractive flourishes to his game's template.

The man and his approach to the game

Perhaps the greatest contribution of Kumar Sangakkara to the sport is his humility and the simple yet unwavering manner in which he played for a decade and a half.

He has retired, and whether we like it or not, he will not come back; at least not to don those remarkable keeping gloves, or to save Lanka from yet another threat, the guardian of their hopes. Sanga has played the game and left it in an uncomplicated way that quietly mocks those who look at the game as simply another personal record setting opportunity. In keeping personal glories (which he has aplenty) behind the needs of his team, Kumar has rendered a spirited contribution not just to Sri Lankan cricket, to which he added undeniable greatness, but held up and shielded the image of World Cricket – an image that had begun to collapse due to the malaise spread by opinions that hold the game to be no more than a money making opportunity.

Amidst a bevy of fans who don't wish to see their Prince leave the cricketing kingdom, bereft of the many exploits that he still has the power to deliver, Sanga has left gracefully, marrying the textbook tenets of technique, resolve and commitment to a display of great flair and substance.

In a career that began by locking horns with South Africa in the Test arena and Pakistan in the ODI format, and ended in ODIs early this year against the South Africans and in Test cricket versus India, Sanga has offered his best services to his side both as a top wicketkeeper and a batsman with an almost impregnable technique.

The numbers that inspire awe

It would be remiss to speak of Sanga's achievements sans the long list of records he has collected over his 15 year stay at the game. Known as a tough competitor, an able wicketkeeper ready to dive and aid Sri Lanka's bowling, and a star batsman who conquered almost every modern day record, save those conquered by Sachin, Kumar Sangakkara's absence is going to hurt a lot. And while watching any number of highlights that capture the man in his element is something, his records will provide some sort of solace and ensure that Sanga's memory will last, both on and off the pitch.

Some call him a cornerstone of Sri Lankan batting, sharing record partnerships with those witnessing his brilliance from the other. Even his adversaries continue to admire him as much as they despaired, for his was the one crucial wicket after Mahela's that would become the hardest to conquer. One can include earlier contestants like Donald, Warne and Kallis as well as present day stars such as Steyn, Johnson, and Anderson, to the list of those who sweated it out against Sangakkara's tough resolve.

In a memorable stint for Sri Lanka, including 134 tests, 404 ODIs and 56 T20s, Sanga compiled as many as 27000 international runs with 12400 from the test arena and the remaining over 14200 from limited overs cricket. He met with many challenges and nerve wrecking contests, and played in evenly balanced situations, many of which he turned in favor of Lanka by scoring 63 centuries in total, collecting a staggering 38 from tests and 25 from the ODIs.

He continued to display flair and courage, striking a brilliant batting average of 57.40 in tests. Since Sanga's debut back in 2000, no other batsman who has scored runs at the test level at a better average that Sanga's, save Jacques Kallis,who   stands marginally ahead at 58. As career averages go, Sanga’s is the highest among modern players.

Striking big from no.3

In any version of the game, coming in at the fall of the first wicket is difficult, whether the first wicket has fallen after a record partnership or cheaply. While some would prefer coming in lower down the order to get away from the shining, seaming thunderbolts that pacers so adore, Kumar Sangakkara never looked away.

Batting at number 3, a place that Dravid made his own by scoring over 10,400 runs from the crucial spot, Sanga went quite a few runs ahead by striking over 11,500 runs from the same position.

But his true greatness cannot be judged by his amazing number of runs alone. Rather, if you consider the situations where Kumar went in and outscored the batsmen at the other end, then you would understand why he is deservingly hailed as an all time great.

Sangakkara has struck 11 double hundreds in tests: 3 against Pakistan, Lanka's arch rivals from the subcontinent, 2 each against South Africa and Bangladesh and one against New Zealand, Zimbabwe and India. Only the Windies, England and Australia did not suffer his thunderous streak of double hundreds. Even so, his top score against Australia was 192, and would have been more had he not been given out wrongly.

He was most severe against Bangladesh, who suffered him scoring a career best 319 on their home turf. One shouldn't forget that Kumar, who is 37 today, was 36 and well beyond the peak of his youth whilst reaching that great test milestone. His four superbly constructed world cup hundreds came in the grand carnival of the ICC World Cup 2015 where, had it not been for Sanga's magnificent batting display, one is not sure how far Sri Lanka would have survived.

It is no surprise that Sanga showed one of his many displays of immense concentration while, with good friend Mahela Jayawardene, also regarded as fellow great of Sri Lanka's admirable pantheon, constructing a world record for the highest partnership scored in a test innings. During their colossal 624 run partnership against South Africa, Jayawardene scored his way to his personal best of 374, while Sanga wasn't too far behind, belting out 287. The match was theirs and they reduced a strong South Africa to cinders.

A humble man despite his achievements

Keeping wickets for Sri Lanka was a huge task. While there was always the mental challenge of moving fast enough to collect Murali's awe inspiring spin that batsmen would often fail to pick, the Vaas's, Fernando's and present day Malinga's constantly delivered bouncers that made wicket-keeping no easier. But Kumar kept wickets for both test and limited overs sides for 48 tests and 360 ODIs.

What interests one about this giant of the game is his economical verbiage in sledging. Kumar did sledge, but his little gifts to batsmen weren't cuss words or anything that would extract a needless rebuke from the willowers. They were his 2 cents, quite a way from the constant bickering one observes in today's sport. While he regarded the Australians to be the masters of it, one could note his disdain for those who have achieved the great lows of this art.

In pieces and columns that Kumar wrote regularly in both the Lankan and international press where, despite being a man of such lofty achievements, he reserved great praise for his contemporaries and past legends. Sanga has openly declared Brian Lara the best left hander he has ever seen bat. This, when Sanga's own tally of double hundreds reads 11 against Lara's 9, and his 38 test hundreds are the most scored by a leftie test batsman, 4 more than Lara's 34. He further went on to paint Dravid and Viv Richards as two of his most keenly followed players.

In a career where he came from nowhere and made a name for himself in a Lankan side that already had the likes of Sanath Jayasuriya, Chaminda Vaas, and Murali in the limelight, Kumar Sangakkara's grit, determination, poise and elegance has seen him make batting a refined art. For his ability to stay modest whilst doing all the ground work in his efforts to save Lanka from the hands of defeat many a time, Kumar Sangakkara will not only be regarded the best batsman of his era, but one who played the game the way it's supposed to be played.

With a purity, a calmness and a sense of purpose that is fast becoming a rare commodity in today's fast-paced world.



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