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

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