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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

Jamie Alter

September 1, 2009

Comments: 19 | Text size: A | A

Kumar Sangakkara pours water on himself to cool down, Sri Lanka v New Zealand, 2nd Test, SSC, Colombo, 4th day, August 29, 2009
Little saps Sangakkara's determination to succeed © Associated Press

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."

Thilan Samaraweera kisses his helmet after reaching his hundred, Sri Lanka v New Zealand, 2nd Test, SSC, Colombo, 2nd day, August 27, 2009
Thilan Samaraweera has been in the form of his life, but the acid test will come away from home © Associated Press

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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Posted by chamira on (September 2, 2009, 12:07 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.

Posted by Woody111 on (September 2, 2009, 6:15 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!

Posted by fanofteamindia on (September 2, 2009, 4:15 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.

Posted by KingOwl on (September 2, 2009, 2:17 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.

Posted by KingOwl on (September 2, 2009, 2:09 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.

Posted by MOHAMMAD-AHMAD on (September 2, 2009, 1:26 GMT)

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

Posted by norace on (September 1, 2009, 23:36 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.

Posted by Akshay_Gupta on (September 1, 2009, 22:37 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

Posted by vangogh on (September 1, 2009, 20:31 GMT)

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

Posted by Sinhabahu on (September 1, 2009, 16:41 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?

Posted by VishyKnight on (September 1, 2009, 15:56 GMT)

Nice article Jamie! It was interesting to read the description of Rahul Dravid as an 'average Test captain' :-) For the record, under Rahul Dravid India won test series in the West Indies and England (after more than 20 years in each case) and also did quite well in ODIs, other than the 2007 world cup. It is another matter that the duration of his captaincy was mired by the Ganguly-Chappell controversy. Ponting on the other hand has struggled, when the going has been tough, as can be seen in recent times. He probably owes his captaincy record to the greats who were there in his team rather than rather than to his captaincy skills.

The Srilankan middle order looks quite impressive now. Their spin bowling attack is also extremely good. But they have to really work on their opening combination and their fast bowling attack. I don't know why the team management is not encouraging Dilhara Fernando. When he is at his fastest, he really makes the best batsmen hop!

Posted by thilana on (September 1, 2009, 15:53 GMT)

Why SL are not get more test matches, this year 8 (Fortunately) next year will be 6 matches, this is not fair compair to other top sides. ICC should see this issue other wise this will be always one side story...

Posted by Ellis on (September 1, 2009, 15:12 GMT)

Whichever way you cut it, Sri Lankan cricket well deserves it's No. 2 ranking. A poor country with slender resources is now No. 2 in the Test rankings, together with the No. 1 and No. 4 batsmen, and, the No. 2 bowler. Not too shabby! There will be ebbs and flows largely compounded by selectorial perversions and politics, more than player failures. Sangakkara is an intelligent, articulate cricketer of the highest class. What if he has steel and a hard nosed attitude? Those qualities are not the sole prerogative of Australians. He plays the game in line with it's spirit, laws and traditions. That is what matters. More power to him and cricket in Sri Lanka.

Posted by Bollo on (September 1, 2009, 14:04 GMT)

The real test has always been to beat the best in their own backyard - Aussies/Windies '95, SAF/Aussies '08/'09 (the reverse in the return series notwithstanding) signified a changing of the guard. SAF a deserved NO 1 at the moment, but losing at home to Aussies (who were undefeated at home for 17 years) suggests the "reign" has not begun. Sub-continental sides (or perhaps their boards) need to appreciate this, and give them a chance to prove themselves. NO.2 in the world rankings means nothing if you can't beat SAf/Australia away...or at home for that matter.

re.ODI. Australia have won 3 world cups in a row, the last couple in a canter. So much crap 50 over cricket played at the mo - the next few months for example - the only one that matters is that tournament. Win it, or shutup.

Dave (Aus)

ps; Sanga a superstar, the rest of the Sri Lankan bats merely v.good at home.

Posted by auggie on (September 1, 2009, 10:59 GMT)

Sound article by Jamie Alter who seems who writes knowingly on SL cricket matters. Sangakarra's sledging and agressiveness is not necessarily a bad thing. The last SL captain who stamped his authority and steamrolled his way over everyone was a certain Anura Rantaunga who brought home a world cup in the process. However having said that Sangakarra can be very harsh on his own team members as was demonstrated when he was displeased with Mailinga in the ODI's,(reported very strongly by a a local reporter in the SL press) his sidelining of Vaas, and some of his grimaces at the teams fielding lapses. In addition his treatment of the Pakistan captain Khan was terrible. Khan is a very diplomatic and correct man and did not deserve Sanga's tirrade for not 'walking'. If Sanga does not walk that his style but some people actually wait for the umpires decision which is only right. I hope Sanga does not kick out Jayasuriya, that great pioneer & entertainer....

Posted by ROLAYH on (September 1, 2009, 10:37 GMT)

Too early in your praises man. All SRL achieved so far is two series wins at home. This result was also likely under the captaincy of Jayawardene. Real task will be against opposition of the stature of India, SAF, AUS....

Posted by vishy1979 on (September 1, 2009, 9:04 GMT)

It is really funny that you have to put down dravid as a poor test captain. I am pretty sure that the statement was a result of perception than facts or observation. As much as I agree with Sangakkara being a sensible cricketer, I cannot believe you can write such an article after just 5 of his tests as captain at the expense of calling dravd a poor captain after some of India's best victories outside the subcontinent. If captaincy is all about records then Ponting and steve waugh are better than a Mark taylor which is bull crap. I wish you could add more sense to your article than bombastic words.

Posted by SRT_Jammy_Dada_VVS_and_Anil_legends on (September 1, 2009, 7:26 GMT)

Excuse me? Rahul Dravid was NOT a poor Test captain, sure not as good as Ganguly BUT he led India to away series wins in the West Indies (1st tiem in 35 years) and in England (1st time in 21 years), as well as our 1st ever Test victory in South Africa. Totally misleading and inappropriate comment. If anything, Ricky Ponting, mentioned so glowingly, IS a POOR Test captain, having miserably failed in 2 successive Ashes series in England. Get the facts right Cricinfo, I expect better from you.

Posted by Sudzz on (September 1, 2009, 7:11 GMT)

There are some traits of a columnist and some traits of a reporter the two are distinct and different.

This article starts off as a report on Sangakkara's captaincy and meanders into a treatise on the art and science of captaincy where in the writer has added his opinion about other captains. This is not called for and in fact makes this article downright derogatory.

Now coming to the central theme of this article, well lets see how Sanga and gang shape up on bouncier wickets in SAF/Aus, how do they travel and what do these wonder players like Thilan, Dilshan etc do once they are out of SL and craters of grounds and dust patches of pitches etc...

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Jamie AlterClose
Jamie Alter Senior sub-editor While teachers in high school droned on about Fukuyama and communism, young Jamie's mind tended to wander to Old Trafford and the MCG. Subsequently, having spent six years in the States - studying Political Science, then working for an insurance company - and having failed miserably at winning any cricket converts, he moved back to India. No such problem in Bangalore, where he can endlessly pontificate on a chinaman who turned it around with a flipper, and why Ricky Ponting is such a good hooker. These days he divides his time between playing office cricket and constant replenishments at one of the city's many pubs.

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