'Role model' Sangakkara remains at the top of his game
As the years roll on and time begins to erode the faculties that served batsmen in their youth, many mighty wielders of willow begin to see their numbers give way. A once-fine record that boasted at least a fifty every four innings, slowly stretches to one in five or six. What used to be an exceptional strike-rate might become merely very good. At times a single manner of dismissal, repeated intolerably often, becomes the unmistakable curtain call for the champions of yesteryear.
At 35 years and seven months, Kumar Sangakkara commands the best ODI average he has had since the first six months of his career. Once an uncertain player of spin, and a limited strokemaker, he also now has one of the most complete batting techniques in the world, and can raise a run-rate with the best. He has been Sri Lanka's batting talisman in the first two matches of the Champions Trophy, having hit 202 and been dismissed only once, and as they prepare to face Australia in a must-win encounter, he shapes as the key batsman once again. That at his age, he is still getting better, is testament to his ceaseless industry and his insatiable quest for improvement.
Perhaps more than any other cricketer in his generation, Sangakkara is not just a sportsman, he is an institution. Across town from where Sri Lanka will battle Australia for a place in the semi-finals, Sangakkara delivered the game's most memorable speech since the turn of the century. The 2011 Cowdrey Lecture was not only a colourful lesson on the history of cricket on his island, and the love for the game among his people, but an astute appreciation of the privilege of being a top-level sportsman and the responsibilities therein.
He is the most bankable public figure in Sri Lanka. He is now sought-after as a speaker, but he is also a better actor in adverts for telecommunication giants or finance companies than many of the local thespians that make their living on screen. The seafood restaurant he co-owns alongside Mahela Jayawardene is considered one of the best in the country, and before he was married, he was among the nation's favourite heartthrobs. There are still plenty who swoon over his curls and his cultured air.
Like any good firm, Sangakkara runs terrific public relations. Eager to impress at every opportunity, but equally careful never to offend, he gauges the intended audience of each interview he gives, and fiddles with each reply to suit. Many have remarked on his sharp legal mind, but in another life, he could have been the among world's smoothest politicians. Even his cover drive, whether deliberately or not, is an exercise in self-promotion. Mahela Jayawardene is a more ravishing batsman by far, but Sangakkara commands the prettiest stroke in the team, and fans and pundits project that elegance on to the rest of his game, which is largely too utilitarian to be truly beautiful.
Yet, behind the show, there is also much substance. Anyone who has played with or coached Sangakkara will uphold him as a paragon of professionalism. At training, he is tireless and intense - always seeking improvement, and never allowing effort to subside. Jayawardene once described him as a man who "bats and bats and bats and then keeps and keeps and keeps". He is not, by a distance, the most talented batsman Sri Lanka have ever produced, but in Tests at least, he is now undoubtedly the best.
"He's a complete batsman," Angelo Mathews said of Sangakkara. "To me I think he's a role model to all the youngsters like us, and I think we've got a lot to learn from him; the way he handles pressure, the way he bats and the way he trains. No. 3 is a very crucial position. That position steadies the whole ship for the team. He has been doing the job for us for such a long time."
Sangakkara has a heart that beats forcefully for Sri Lanka too, and has been active in promoting reconciliation in the post-war north. He was among the first public figures to visit schools in the war-struck areas after the conflict ended, and has also run a charity that makes education more accessible there, as infrastructure is rebuilt. After the hundred against England at The Oval, he is said to have shared his Man-of-the-Match prize with members of the support staff.
"He's got so many, countless awards, and he's not going after any trophies," Mathews said. "He just wants to do his best for the team all the time, and if he can contribute in any way to help the team win, that will be the first thing that he'll do."
Sangakkara now has few chances left to taste the glory of major tournament triumph. He has spoken candidly of the hurt of previous lost finals, and perhaps this time, he has resolved to drive the team's cause forward himself. Meticulous and indefatigable, another shot at a title is nothing less than he deserves.
Andrew Fidel Fernando is ESPNcricinfo's Sri Lanka correspondent. He tweets here