Reluctant Sangakkara admits captaincy headache
If his two-year stint as Sri Lanka's captain was anything like as stressful as it appears from the outside to have been, Kumar Sangakkara is currently 33 going on 40. "Captaining Sri Lanka is a job that ages you very quickly," he admitted at the Rose Bowl on the eve of the third Test against England, as he prepared to step back into a role he relinquished, with evident relief, at the end of the World Cup final in Mumbai two months ago.
Following on from the loss of their captain, Tillakaratne Dilshan, to a broken right thumb, it always seemed likely that Sangakkara would return to lead his country for the 15th and final time in his 97-Test career. However, his reluctance was clear from the moment he handed the reins to Thilan Samaraweera for last week's three-day warm-up against Essex, and as he admitted to the media ahead of practice at a soggy Rose Bowl, he needed time to weigh up his options as the poisoned chalice was passed once again in his direction.
"When I was first approached to captain the side I wasn't ready to take it on, because the fact was I had given it up, with a view of having finished my role as captain after two successful years," said Sangakkara. "Unfortunately there was no vice-captain appointed for this Test series, so the side was left in a bit of a problem with no-one to step in to captain.
"So with a lot of deep thought and considering the needs of the side and the country, I decided to say yes to captaining Sri Lanka again for a final time in this Test."
The situation was reminiscent of Michael Atherton's reluctant resumption of his captaincy duties at Lord's in 2001, when Nasser Hussain's broken finger had required a change of leadership after a solitary Test of that summer's Ashes. The difference, of course, was that the break between stints could be measured in years rather than months in Atherton's case. Sangakkara has barely had time to adjust to life back in the ranks, and now he is back in charge once again.
"I actually made my decision to resign a month or two before the World Cup," he said. "Looking from the outside in, it's sometimes difficult to fathom why a decision like that could be made, but once you're in the team, and in that environment, you realise that captaining Sri Lanka is a job that ages you very quickly. But that's a challenge of the job as well. You say yes to the job knowing full well the challenges you will face.
"It's rarely a job you will last long in," he added. "Mahela Jayawardene was a fantastic captain for us for two years, and he also resigned. I also had a two-year stint, and I enjoyed it at times, certainly on the field where our results showed we were one of the top two sides in the world for one-and-a-half years, especially in the shorter form of the game. We reached three World Cup finals in a four-year period, two in 50-overs, one in the Twenty20 format, and we beat Australia in Australia after 26 years.
"The achievements are huge. On the field, Sri Lankan cricket has been one of the most positive advertisements of our country for a very long time. We have produced world-class players, world-class teams, and World Cup-winning teams. I think the health of Sri Lanka cricket is very good and cricket itself is very strong. But when I stepped down from the captaincy, I thought I was done with it, but I was clearly wrong! I'm back for one last time."
Regardless of the team's recent success, it is a particularly tricky time for Sangakkara to resume his role. The political interference in selection has reached spectacular levels in recent months, starting with four eyebrow-raising changes to a settled and confident team ahead of the World Cup final against India, and culminating in the recall of Sanath Jayasuriya for the forthcoming one-day series, after more than a year on the sidelines.
"That's a question for the selectors," was Sangakkara's diplomatic response to the Jayasuriya issue, as he spelt out the convoluted hierarchy in Sri Lankan cricket, which extends from the sports ministry, down through the cricket board, and ultimately out to the players. "Sanath is a legend of the game," he added. "One of few batsmen in Sri Lanka who has managed to win games consistently on his own for the country."
However, in the event that Dilshan's thumb injury keeps him on the sidelines for longer than expected, Sangakkara was adamant that he will not be persuaded to extend his captaincy stint beyond this one-off game. "Realistically the selectors have stated they are looking at different options to lead the side, and to groom another captain under Dilshan," he said. "They will appoint a vice-captain very soon, so that a situation like this does not arise again."
For now, however, all the doubts and off-field stresses need to be put to one side, as Sangakkara seeks to extend his team's proud recent record against England. A victory at the Rose Bowl would square the series and leave England without a Test series win over Sri Lanka since 2002, and that prospect is set to guide their strategy in the coming days.
"The real opportunity is to tie the Test series, so the way we play has to reflect that," he said. "Whether you lose 1-0 or 2-0 you've still lost a series, but if we scrap and perform the way we can, we have the opportunity to tie the series. We need to show no fear and be as positive as we can, but at the same time execute all we've spoken about properly on the field, to try and help us win a Test match."
But the major obstacle to that objective, as Sangakkara conceded, is the loss of Sri Lanka's leading batsman in the series to date. Dilshan's absence as captain has thrown up a whole host of issues within the squad, but as a batsman who scored 193 at Lord's in spite of a broken thumb, he will be badly missed.
"It is a significant loss in both capacities," said Sangakkara. "He's been the one batsman who's stood out among us, even in the tour games, and it would have been great for him to be available to captain the third Test and finish the series on a high. Unfortunately he's not available, and we have to fill the void."
Andrew Miller is UK editor of ESPNcricinfo