ICC Cricket World Cup 2011 / Features
New Zealand v Sri Lanka, Group A, World Cup 2011, Mumbai
Sangakkara takes command
At the Wankhede, Kumar Sangakkara scored his first one-day century since 2008, but more importantly, it was an innings of control, one under pressure; one that shows he is ready to take responsibility for his team's fortunes
Nagraj Gollapudi at the Wankhede Stadium
March 18, 2011
It was a simple punch. He did not finish the shot, just left the bat hanging mid-air briefly. The power behind the stroke was enough to carry the ball past the ropes on the straight boundary. Hamish Bennett had not done much wrong, except pitching on a length with a straighter delivery on the offstump. But Kumar Sangakkara had moved in quickly to time the ball sweetly. He did not need to add the flourish by finishing the follow-through. It was a stroke of authority.
Sangakkara played many such elegant strokes on Friday at the Wankhede Stadium, both along the ground and lofted drives, but with every stroke he strengthened his and Sri Lanka's grip over the match. On Friday, he played an innings as much of belief as of desire.
Sri Lanka had a disastrous start, losing both openers inside the first half hour. The onus was on Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene to remain solid considering the fact that the rest of the middle-order batsmen had not clocked enough time in the middle in the previous matches. Sri Lanka had to win this match in order to strengthen their chances of playing the quarter-finals and the semi-finals in front of a home crowd.
Twenty-three thousand fans turned up at the Wankhede, which has a capacity of about 33,000, and most cheers were reserved for the Sri Lankans. Still New Zealand's bowlers did not make the job easier for the Lankan duo. Backed by supremely athletic fielding, New Zealand cramped their opponents. After 10 overs, Sri Lanka were 43 for 2. Five overs later, at the end of the bowling Powerplay, only 17 had been added. With 20 overs left, Sri Lanka were 124 for 2.
Even Jayawardene, a fluent player on any surface, was finding it hard to dominate. It was the most vital phase in the match. If Sri Lanka threw caution to the wind but failed in the gamble, then New Zealand would take the upperhand. But if Sangakkara and Jaywardene continued steadfastly, there would come a time when they could break free with the knowledge that the likes of Angelo Mathews was yet to come. Unfortunately Jayawardene was defeated by a Waqar Younis (reverse-swinging toe crusher) from Tim Southee on the very first ball of the batting Powerplay.
Days like these bring a different set of challenges to even a batsman like Sangakkara, who became the fourth Sri Lanka batsman to breach the 9000-run mark in one-dayers. It is on days like these that a batsman analyses his game completely, works out every stroke he is going to play in his mind before playing it, understands the field inside out, calculates the best bowler(s) to target, does a quick reconnaissance of the field before each over to identify gaps he could take advantage of. It is not that these measures are not taken by a batsman in every match, but most times there is a larger freedom for the batsman to take liberties, which was not readily available on Friday.
A good example of Sangakkara's improvisation came two overs into the batting Powerplay. Tim Southee had pitched it short and wide outside off stump and had been duly slapped for a four and six. To escape further punishment, Southee ran in to bowl the next delivery from around the stumps. The idea was to bowl from wide off the crease, keep it short and bowl into the body of Sangakkara. Southee had covered his bases cleverly by keeping the third man and the fine leg on the boundary, just as insurance. So what does Sangakkara do to counter the challenge? He moves outside the leg stump, lines up parallel to the delivery, before cutting it in front of square and over point for a handsome six.
The amazing thing about the stroke was Sangakkara did not upper cut it. He used the pace of the ball to place it perfectly. In the first two overs of the batting Powerplay only eight runs came; in the following two 32 runs were smacked. Like he had said on the eve of the match, Sangakkara was not going to lose his head when the field was up. The idea was to play the field to his advantage. Importantly, the platform had been laid for the lower order to bolster the innings further.
This is the third World Cup for Sangakkara and this was his maiden century in the event, and also his first one-day hundred in three years. In the 63 innings between the last hundred and Friday's century, Sangakkara has got 19 fifties. It is not that he does not like getting hundreds. He is a tenacious character. It is just that he read the match situation perfectly on Friday.
"Understanding when to accelerate and when to consolidate in your innings is the key," he said after the match. "When that kind of self-realisation comes through it makes it easier to score runs. I have got close a few times and probably I concentrated less on getting a hundred, and probably more on doing what was needed to be done at that moment."
In the ICC's Test batsmen rankings, Sangakkara is just one point behind Sachin Tendulkar and Jacques Kallis. In the longer versions he has shower more grit than in the one-dayers. It might be a mental thing. He is seventh on the ODI rankings. Ahead of him are men like Hashim Amla, AB de Villiers, Michael Hussey and MS Dhoni - men who have created more impact on their team's results more consistently. If Sangakkara wants an example of how to influence one's team, he need look no further than fellow Sri Lankan Aravinda de Silva, another batsman who played according to the situation during Sri Lanka's victorious campaign in 1996. de Silva's contrasting knocks in the semi-finals and the final are part of cricket's folklore.
So far this tournament, Sangakkara has stressed on the fact that the real test lies in the knockout stages. Whatever has happened so far will, and does, not matter. The do-or-die match is where the heroes will be remembered. He could do well to listen to those words.
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