He's a tough-talking, sharp-thinking, ball-bashing man with a plan. CHARLIE AUSTIN talks to Kumar Sangakkara, a cricketer who does things his way.
Kumar Sangakkara is an allrounder in the fullest sense. Not only is he Sri Lanka's stylish No. 3 and increasingly slick wicketkeeper, he's also a key strategist and a clever sledger. He's the television producer's first choice for post-match soundbites and is fast becoming the public face of the team. Off the field he's a trainee lawyer, a lucid writer, a shrewd investor, and a happy husband. While Marvan Atapattu has impressed since he took over the captaincy, Sangakkara's leadership credentials are so strong that his destiny appears clear. Opponents hope the wait will be long but one day he will skipper a Sri Lanka side that can be expected to be shrewd and fearless under his charge.
But while Sangakkara is ambitious, both on and off the field, his focus now is upon working alongside Atapattu and vice-captain Mahela Jayawardene, his close buddy, to help build a team for the future. In any case the burden upon his shoulders is already heavy, and four years on since his debut he's become a pivotal member of the team in both ODIs and Tests. A gladiatorial streak makes him the ideal No. 3, a man undaunted by pressure, who can steal the initiative away from opposition bowlers. Behind the stumps, like all good wicketkeepers, he glues together the team, encouraging the bowlers and unsettling the batsmen with his barbed heckles.
It is this spunky edge that sets Sangakkara apart, and it explains his rapid elevation and his precious importance. To overburden him now would be dangerous. For the time being, he is better driving the team forward without official title, allowing his natural and instinctive combativeness to rub off on his younger colleagues, and getting under the skin of his opponents - a skill that is invaluable even if it does cost the team the occasional fine as Sangakkara is dragged up to the match referee's office. Indeed it is this facet of Sangakkara's cricket that is most revealing, for while he is an abrasive agitator, his aggression is calculated and intelligent.
Sangakkara's sledging has become legendary; an art that has received grudging respect worldwide. His speciality is apparently innocuous one-liners that scratch deep into a batsman's composure. When Harbhajan Singh walked to the middle at a crucial juncture in a recent Asia Cup match, Sangakkara merely verbalised an observation, noting that Harbhajan preferred three-quarter length, elbow-covering sleeves when bowling but not while batting. In 2002 Sangakkara whipped the normally implacable Jacques Kallis into a fury at Centurion with references to Don Bradman, digging at a misquoted line from Kallis that had been jumped upon by the media for betraying great arrogance. Sangakkara has the gall to sledge while batting. After Gareth Batty's offspin came into the attack in the Kandy Test last year, Sangakkara asked quizzically: "Where's Robert Croft, England's best offspinner?"
Sangakkara refers to sledging as "psychological aggression" and, unlike many players, is quite willing to speak openly about it: "The public perception of sledging is to go out there and abuse someone in obscene language, questioning their parentage or sexual preferences. That kind of abuse does not belong on the field of play. Sledging, as coined and pioneered by the Australians, is a measured comment designed to get a reaction out of a player. It could be any reaction: a bit of anger, a show of arrogance, a comment, a shake of the head, or a slump of the shoulders. They could be saying something as simple as: `Let's leave a big gap there because he can't score through there.' Even if you are mentally strong and understand they are baiting you, it can still work in the mind. You might be keen to hit the ball through the gap; you might be keen to avoid it. Either way a seed has been sown.
"You can sense with different players what you should comment on. Sometimes they are players, like Sachin [Tendulkar], who don't change their approach, and it is better to concentrate on doing your job. New Zealand have a good strategy based upon in-depth knowledge of the players they play against. They do their homework very well, gathering useful career information, like past confrontations or dismissals, which is brought out in a comment designed to transport that player back in time to an awkward mental situation. Sri Lankans, Indians and Pakistanis, on the other hand, have always been very passive with regard to any kind of verbal aggression on the field. As a result of that we have at times been at the receiving end of a virtual running commentary of personal and abusive sledging designed to make us feel like inferior cricketers coming from inferior countries."
Not surprisingly, Sangakkara is an admirer of the way Arjuna Ranatunga confronted the issue. "Arjuna understood what kind of counterattack should be launched when these kind of comments got out of hand. He encouraged his team to not take everything lying down. If you were challenged, he encouraged you to challenge them back. We don't discuss it in the dressing room, saying we are going to go out there and sledge, but there are some situations where you have to put your foot down and say, `Look, we think it has now gone too far; either you stop or we will do the same to you.' It was surprising to see the reaction at times. For example, against South Africa on our 2002 tour, we fought back after a torrent of abuse and we rattled them more than they had ever rattled us."
Sangakkara's keen interest in the mental side of the game has also been crucial to the increasing consistency in his batting - during the last 12 months he has averaged 50.80 in Test cricket and 54.50 in ODIs. "There is a lot of emphasis on mental toughness - being tough enough to last out difficult periods, being tough enough to overcome physical fatigue - but there should also be emphasis on mental skills. This refers to how you read and adapt to situations. I am always thinking about what situation I am in now and what situations I am getting into. Another area that I am looking at is my mental consistency. No matter who I am playing, my approach is the same. I don't take Bangladesh lightly and I don't give extra emphasis to Australia. I respect whoever is bowling to me."
This, he hopes, will pave the way for even greater consistency in the future. "Standards have been raised very high in modern-day cricket, especially in the last four to five years. Nowadays it is no longer possible for you to sit back and relax after a hundred. Right now the top batsmen are getting a hundred every other game. Guys are also starting to convert more and more 40s and 60s into big hundreds. Consistency had been one of my aims when I started in cricket, but for it to hit home took a while longer than it should have. Right now, every time I go out into the middle I am trying to somehow make a crucial contribution."
But Sangakkara's determination to be consistent has not curbed a natural inclination to attack. On the contrary, he believes it is important for batsmen to "project an image of dynamism, confidence and, sometimes, arrogance" and to focus all your attention inward on what you should be doing". He revels in the competition between bowler and batsman.
"There are certain things that you can do to let the bowler know that he is in for a challenge. Different players do it in different ways. Take Sachin: when he is at the crease you are not physically intimidated by him. The bowlers become intimidated when he gets into his stride because you know you can bowl the best ball in your career and he can still hit you for four. Matthew Hayden is physically intimidating. Ricky Ponting gets on top through dominance. My strength, which has also been my downfall in the past, is that I am always looking for runs and boundaries.
"Every time you go out to bat, a good captain will challenge you. As soon as he knows you are in a comfort zone, he will put up a new challenge. That could be placing fielders in different places, putting on bowlers you haven't seen, getting fast bowlers to bowl a series of short-pitched deliveries. Every challenge you negotiate is a psychological and tactical victory. You then have the advantage and they have to issue another challenge. Sometimes as a batsman you also have to issue a challenge to the fielding side. Pick out one bowler and say, `Right, this guy I am going to dominate.' And you make sure he knows that he has been dominated."
It's unlikely to be mere coincidence that his purple form has also coincided with a new chapter in his life: marriage to his school sweetheart Yehali last year. While attractive single women mourned the loss of one of the most sought-after bachelors in the country, Sangakkara started what he describes as a "crash course in responsibility". The pair had dated for over eight years since their schooldays in Kandy, their hometown in the hill-country, and formed a partnership strong enough to cope with the peculiar demands of international cricket.
"Marriage gives you an instant focus. Your life is not about yourself anymore. It also gives you a very good support base. You know that whatever happens on the field - whether you win or lose - you have a place to go, and a person to be with, who will not criticise or judge you. They will be there and will support you whatever happens and keep you grounded. It is very easy to get lost in what you do now, especially where cricket is going, with money and fame and all the trappings that come with that. In my case, with Yehali, it keeps me grounded and gives me a base where I can think my life out, refocus and renew energies for the next day."
Indeed, Sangakkara thinks about life more often than most cricketers. For many, their existence is dominated by the merry-go-round of training, matches, travel and hotel-room television. But Sangakkara is determined to maintain a balance; to be, as he says, "defined by something else other than cricket". That is why he is struggling his way through a law degree, squeezing in study between tours, and why he reads ravenously - Yehali knows only too well that his morning bathroom routine can last as long as a chapter of Oscar Wilde, his favourite author.
"Cricket, like any international sport nowadays, requires an immense amount of time. Not just on the field, in the nets and in the gymnasium, but also off the field, doing your homework and computer analysis on your own game and your opponent. I also think that valuable time can be spent reading up on the game, its culture, and personal opinions from great players and tacticians, to give you deeper insights. That has to be balanced against your family life, your personal life. Off-field non-cricketing interests and activities that define you as a person rather than as a cricketer, become very hard. It is impossible to strike a perfect balance, but some sort of balance, where you have a life that you can distinguish from being a cricketer, is important."
The degree in law will, he believes, give him the independence required to build a life away from cricket. "I would like to be in a position, at some point, to walk away from the game at a time of my choosing - when I realise that the contributions I can make to the team have reached their peak. I don't want a selector deciding when my time is up. Cricketers come into the game on their terms, and they should also leave on their own terms."
Sangakkara's strong individualism is also displayed in his approach to endorsements. Unlike many cricketers he's uncomfortable with his image being plastered upon billboards to promote a never-ending list of consumer goods. "I have an idea as to how I want to live my life. I have received many offers for endorsements in the last four years but have refused all of them so far apart from the ones I need for my bat and equipment. I simply did not see myself in the particular role that I had been asked to do. I believe the endorsements were simply not me. That is not to say I won't agree to any endorsements or advertising deals. It is just that I have not found something yet that I want to do. I have received a good grounding since I was a small kid in what my priorities should be: it is not about taking all your opportunities to make money, but to pick and choose and do the things that can enhance your life, not just financially but also in other ways."
The irony is that Sangakkara's unusually selective approach will ultimately lead to a premium being attached to his image by the leading brands. By eschewing the cash-and-grab norm, Sangakkara is set to earn far more from a select band of endorsements. It's a clever approach, one designed not by an agent but by a player himself. It highlights the qualities that set Sangakkara apart, as a man and a cricketer. Sri Lanka are fortunate to have unearthed a true allrounder.
This article first appeared in the December 2004 issue of Wisden Asia Cricket. Click here for further details.