September 1, 2009

The Sangakkara edge

Sri Lanka's captain has begun to infuse his side with his own brand of competitiveness, and the results seem to already be starting to show

Two qualities, determination and perfectionism, define Kumar Sangakkara, and he is trying to get Sri Lanka to use the one to attain the other. With four wins and a draw from five Tests this year, Sangakkara's job as captain has been rather smooth and rewarding, and the cherry on the cake has been Sri Lanka's elevation to No. 2 on the ICC Test rankings - for only the second time.

As soon as Sri Lanka moved to No. 2, though, Sangakkara was quick to point out it meant they weren't No. 1. His aim is to win every time Sri Lanka take the field "in the right spirit and compete for every minute". The road ahead, to first try and hold on to second place and then take the step up, is going to be very tough, owing to their international assignments - or lack thereof. But they have the right man to lead them into a new era.

Sangakkara has clutched at every opportunity that's come his way, and his intellect and hunger to sweat it out have given him a cutthroat edge. And though he won't say as much, he has managed to some extent to transfer this drive to the team as well.

Some of the moves have been subtle, some obvious; they have been made on the field and in the back room. Under Sangakkara's leadership Chaminda Vaas was dropped from the Test side. It clearly signalled a shifting of focus. Behind Sangakkara's talk of Vaas' quality and importance to the team lay a strong message: that investment in youth was the way forward. At the same time, the youngsters were put on their toes.

Ajantha Mendis, the flavour of 2008, was dropped for the final Test against Pakistan. Mendis was taken out of his comfort zone, and Sangakkara has since turned the heat on him by saying Rangana Herath could be Sri Lanka's top spinner after Muttiah Muralitharan's retirement. Having Tillakaratne Dilshan open in Tests proved a smashing success.

During the one-day win over Pakistan recently Sangakkara sledged Younis Khan and Umar Akmal, even getting involved in a heated spat with Younis. Sangakkara tried to play it down but there was no denying the mood.

Not all of Sangakkara's on-field moves have worked. At the SSC he was too conservative in his declaration, which was clearly postponed to allow Jayawardene to reach his century. As Steve Waugh and Ricky Ponting, and even an average Test captain like Rahul Dravid will attest, personal landmarks matter not a jot in the attempt to become good Test sides. Sangakkara was unimaginative with his field placement against New Zealand on days four and five at the SSC, looking on as Jesse Ryder and Jacob Oram went aerial down the ground. He had plenty of runs to work with and could have easily put two men back. On the final day he chopped and changed his bowlers and didn't allow them to settle. Because Sri Lanka won, such instances may easily be forgotten.

Sri Lanka's bid to get to No. 1 in the Test rankings is seriously hampered by the number of matches they have scheduled. According to the ICC's Future Tours Programme, Sri Lanka are scheduled to play only six Tests between now and May 2011

Sri Lanka's next Test tour is India in December, and Sangakkara's goal is to turn his side into world-beaters. Traditionally Sri Lanka have been bullies at home but unconvincing overseas, as 18 wins from 94 away Tests indicates. They have never won a Test in India, so improving their overseas record starts with the odds stacked against them.

There are internal challenges too. Amid the recent success it has been difficult to ignore how the runs are all coming from four batsmen. Sri Lanka have managed to hide a shaky opening combination for some time due to the runs churned out by Jayawardene, Sangakkara, Dilshan and Thilan Samaraweera.

Samaraweera's last few years have been excellent but he has played 30 of his 54 Tests at home and has struggled in Australia (average 22.66), in England (4.25), and in India (10.50). Sri Lanka have also not found a reliable No. 6, while runs from Prasanna Jayawardene have not been forthcoming.

Sri Lanka's fast bowling is arguably the healthiest it has ever been but Nuwan Kulasekara and Thilan Thushara will face a big Test in India. The development of this promising new-ball pair is of paramount importance to Sri Lanka in their quest for No. 1. Six of Thushara's nine Tests have been in the subcontinent; Kulasekara was hammered in England in 2006, in conditions expected to suit him. His bowling average outside home is 223. These are a few of the worries Sangakkara faces as he attempts to lead Sri Lanka into a new era.

According to Sangakkara, Sri Lanka are just scratching the surface with their Test performances. "Test cricket is about playing tough teams and trying to win against tough oppositions. If you don't challenge yourself against the best and if you don't go out of your comfort zone, you are never going to improve as a side," he said. "If you are going to stay sheltered and protected and just going to play in conditions that suit you, I don't think that's going to do us any good."

Sri Lanka's first trip to No. 2 came under Marvan Atapattu's captaincy, and since then they've stayed in the top six. "We can't think we won anything by the performances we've shown," said Sangakkara. "We've done really well but the key is to do it consistently day in day out against every side we face. In about two or three years if we keep doing this then we can turn around and say that we are a very good side."

This brings us to Sangakkara's second massive challenge. Sri Lanka's bid to get to No. 1 in the Test rankings is seriously hampered by the number of matches they have scheduled. According to the ICC's Future Tours Programme, Sri Lanka are scheduled to play only six Tests between now and May 2011, three in India over the new year and three against West Indies at home in November-December 2010. Compare that to what top-ranked South Africa have lined up in the same time-frame: four Tests against England at home later this year, three in India in early 2010, followed by four in the West Indies, three against Pakistan, and three more when they host India in late 2010-early 2011. India, just behind Sri Lanka on the table, at third place with an equal number of points, have the home series against Sri Lanka, two Tests against Bangladesh, the three against South Africa, three when they host New Zealand in late 2010, and then the trip to South Africa.

How can Sri Lanka possibly hope to keep their spot at No. 2? "It's a shame we don't have sufficient Test matches to go up to No. 1 in the rankings," said Sangakkara, "We would like more Test matches […] if we can get it up to about eight it will be great." That, however, is unlikely, given Sri Lanka Cricket's tendency to go for limited-overs arrangements.

Jayawardene, Sangakkara's good friend, has predicted Sangakkara will make his mark on Sri Lankan cricket history as captain. Sangakkara has an acquisitive mindset, which he has attributed to the influence of his first captain, Arjuna Ranatunga. After that magnificent World Cup win in 1996, Sri Lankan cricket peaked but then nosedived, and they have failed to replicate that summit since. Times have changed, but like Ranatunga, Sangakkara has the difficult task of ensuring Sri Lanka don't rest on their laurels.

How well he imbues his side with his own sharp edge won't depend solely on his own volition, but you can trust Sangakkara to try his hardest. He just doesn't know any other way.

Jamie Alter is a senior sub-editor at Cricinfo

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Chamira on September 2, 2009, 11:07 GMT

    SL cricket are basically bankrupt. They need to play the limited over more as it generates quicker income. I remember India offering them financial aid last year. When did they last vist England? It's a shambles that there is so much money spent in trying to get the US and other countries interested in cricket and no similar effort is made to help struggling but talented and cricket interested countries to develop further.

  • Luke on September 2, 2009, 5:15 GMT

    And so we see the poison that is limited overs cricket limits Sri Lanka to 6 tests in 18 months. This is utterly rediculous. How can Sanga take his team to the next level in what is real cricket if they have so few opportunities. If this is the decision of the Sri Lanka cricket board they should be ashamed. Opting for the ease and money of coloured clothing cricket rather than the test of the 5 day game. The time is nigh for teams like Sri Lanka to be a force in international test cricket and they are not even given the chance to prove themselves. Sanga carries himself with dignity and purpose. Give him the chance to demonstrate Samaweera and co. are the real article and pit them against the world's best in TEST cricket!

  • shriram on September 2, 2009, 3:15 GMT

    SriLanka's no.2 spot is going to be temporary.But you cannot blame less no. of matches for it.Every country has atleast one year in which they don't play as much test cricket.For instance this year india have played only 3 tests so far.Also we have seen often in the past the lankans are so poor overseas.We saw what happened in their last Aus tour.Sangakara is a terific batsman no doubt but calling Sangakkara a good captain its too early.He has captained only 2 series and that too against pakistan and newzealand,two not so good test sides.If they want to become no.1 they need to have a good team which can play overseas also which i don think they possess.Except for sanga,jayawadene and murali i don think they have got enough good players.

  • Chatty on September 2, 2009, 1:17 GMT

    To Sudzz: There are no craters and dust patches in SL. In India, perhaps. But not in SL. There are very sporting wickets in SL, where there is a good contest between bat and ball. The statistics prove that.

  • Chatty on September 2, 2009, 1:09 GMT

    Jamie, I am not sure why you say that SL cricket nose dived after Ranatunge's world cup winning team. In South Africa, SL were in the Semi Finals in the WC and were beaten by the all conquering Aussies. In the West Indies, they were the beaten finalists - again lost to Aussies. In the recent T20 world cup, they were again the losing finalists - but clearly, they were the best team in the competition and were unlucky to lose the finals. Sure, their one day ranking is not good - but that is because of the useless series they play on a regular basis. Right now, I do not see any difference between SA, SL, India and Aus. They will all win at home, but lose away. SL may not win in SA, Aus or India right now. But there is no way that any of these three countries will beat SL in SL either. Likewise, they will win against India at home, and lose to India away. The bottom line is that there is no dominant team right now.

  • Asif on September 2, 2009, 0:26 GMT

    Its nice to see sri lanka in this position hopfully they will cary on as they are playing as a team

  • PABW on September 1, 2009, 22:36 GMT

    Yes I think a steely attitude is necessary with the current Sri Lankan team. As Auggie says this is not a bad thing. Some local reporters have chosen to take this personally and attack Sanga. For example, the local reporter that Auggie mentions has taken issue with Sanga growing a beard and not behaving like a Mike Brearley. I think Sanga does not have to adhere to those colonial attitudes as long as he can win with the team he is given. Putting people in line when it comes to giving their full focus is part of the Captains job. Sanga is not there to win a popularity contest and he should be applauded for taking the players who do not give it their 100% may it be Malinga, Vaas, Sanath or anyone else. Furthermore, just like its up to Khan to walk or not to walk it should be Sanga's choice as to whether he should let his displeasure be known or not (AKA sledging). I think its time Sri Lanka gives good as they receive and Sanga is the ideal man for the job.

  • kk on September 1, 2009, 21:37 GMT

    I am actually surprised that Sangakarra has proved to be worse captain than mahela. I expected him to be more aggressive, intellectual and at the same time calm, instead it has trurned out to be exactly opposite. I think Sri lanka should immediately hadn back the captaincy to some one else. Decisions like Dilshan keeping, dropping Chaminda vaas and mendis and getting into unnecessary spat with Younis khan tells me that he is not at ease in the new role. He also looks more anxious on field as compared to when he was playing as normal batsman

  • Broccoli on September 1, 2009, 19:31 GMT

    Well written Jamie, but one swallow doesn't make summer... wait until Sri Lanka tours Australia, South Africa or even NZ...

  • Sinha on September 1, 2009, 15:41 GMT

    Bollo seems to have forgotten that Dilshan and Samaraweera scored heavily in Test series in West Indies and Pakistan and that Dilly and the rest of the team took Sri Lanka in a beeline to the finals of the T20 World Cup in England. May I ask who kicked Australia out of the World T20?

  • No featured comments at the moment.