He walks briskly up to the wicket and meticulously prepares for the first ball. He gathers his thoughts and takes his guard. But before looking up to face the bowler, he takes one slight glance at his stumps. The glance is akin to that of a zealot looking at the gates of his temple, willing to guard the holy pillars come what may. And so with that one simple glance Kumar Sangakkara, without facing a delivery, can make any young child watching at home and casually flicking through the channels fall in love with Tests.
They say left-handed batsmen are blessed with more natural flair than right-handers but this child would not know that he is looking at the last of a long line of left-handed greats.
Nor would he know that the man in front of him is one of the greatest batsmen to ever wear the whites, if not the greatest this side of Don Bradman. After all, if the Don is removed from the picture then Sangakkara boasts the best match-to-runs ratio of batsmen who have played 25 or more Tests with an average 93.2 runs per Test.
Add to that an average of 58.04 — the best of batsmen with more than 7,500 runs — the most double-centuries (11), the fourth-highest number of centuries (38), the fifth most runs ever in Tests (12,305) and the argument seems settled.
The child would not have known that this was the greatest left-hander to grace the game. The man with the second-best average of any left-hander after Graeme Pollock, who played just 23 Tests — more than a hundred less than Sangakkara’s tally.
The only southpaw who comes near to challenging Sanga is Brian Lara but the Sri Lankan has scored more runs, has a better average, more centuries, more half-centuries and fewer ducks than the West Indian legend. Lara was revered for his importance to West Indies and his happy knack of single-handedly winning or saving matches for his side but Sanga can match the Trinidad man almost blow-for-blow over both categories as well.
The child, so mesmerised, may also be looking unbeknownst in young wonder at the greatest Test batsman of our times. Better even than the immortal Sachin Tendulkar. Had the former wicketkeeper played Tendulkar’s 200 Tests, he would have dwarfed the Indian’s logic-defying run-tally of 15,921 with a shade over 18,500 runs. In fact, Sanga would have bettered Tendulkar in all departments but the centuries one — where Sachin has a mindboggling 51.
Indeed that child would have fallen in love without any rhyme or reason. He would not have been looking at the most elegant player in Sangakkara’s side — that would be Mahela Jayawardene. Nor at the most worshipped or celebrated player of his generation — that would be Tendulkar and Lara. Not even at the most stylish left-hander around — that would be Saeed Anwar or again Lara — or the most explosive or dangerous left-hander of his time — Adam Gilchrist and Mathew Hayden respectively.
But in Sangakkara’s dignified and meticulous preparation, the child would see epitomised the very nature and spirit of Test cricket. A stance honed to perfection so that all chinks are polished out of it. A stance borne out of countless hours in the nets, obsessing over minute details that others would overlook or ignore.
In Sangakkara the child would have seen a glimpse of cricket’s past, of a bygone time when bowlers were fearsome and respected, when a wicket mattered for something and the Test format was the best the sport had to offer, not its worst.
He would have seen a stubborn traditionalist clinging on to the cricket of old. While batsmen such as AB de Villiers and Glenn Maxwell give little importance to the stumps behind them, relying on an inhuman hand-eye coordination and sheer power, Sangakkara still practices ghost forward-defensives while standing at the non-striker’s end after 15 years at the top.
Sangakkara has seen cricket change in front of his very eyes and in the midst of it all, he has remained firm to his own style. Test cricket was always his own but he adapted to the increased pace of ODIs and adopted the alien T20 format on his own terms.
It is a shame then that he was dismissed for a golden duck against Pakistan, the team he enjoyed playing the most, in the same Test in which he announced his retirement. For so long it had seemed like he would always be there, but now he is gone. Perhaps it was the retirement of his greatest partner in crime and friend Mahela Jayawardene that finally made his decision for him but he claims the decision had been weighing on his mind for a while now. And like with everything else, once his mind was made up, there was no turning back, even despite captain Angelo Mathews dropping on his knees to beg him to stay.
Neither does the prospect of breaking yet more records appeal to the man. “I’ve been told if I play another year or two, I could score another 1,000 runs. I might be the second highest run-scorer, or I might be able to break the Don’s double-century record,” said Sangakkara. “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’.”
Thank you very much indeed, for playing the game it was meant to be played, for taking alike in your stride cricket’s best and worst, and above all, for 15 glorious years.
With Sangakkara’s farewell, cricket has lost the last of its great left-handers. It has lost its greatest advertisement of Test cricket. It has lost its final connection with its heyday, when it produced batsmen and bowlers great in equal measure.
But perhaps most importantly, it has lost the man who could make the child casually flicking through the channels instantly fall in love with Test cricket.
Published in The Express Tribune, June 30th, 2015.
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