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Kumar Sangakkara talks about ambitions, captaincy, the roles he juggles in the team, the future of Test cricket, and what he plans to do after retirement
March 11, 2010
Harsha Bhogle: Welcome to Opening Up. Today we are talking to Kumar Sangakkara, who has played many roles in his life but is now in one of the bigger roles.
I don't know whether you have figured it out yourself. Now you are a captain, public figure, you've got to take a stand on everything, make bold statements, decisions. Has all of that changed the kind of person you are?
Kumar Sangakkara: Well, I don't think it will change the kind of person I am. It will just mean that I'll have to have few a different faces for different situations. But it's a great role to play, it's a good position to be in, and it's good to have the team that I do have with me right now. There are some good players coming through, it's an exciting time. We are in a period of transition. Some big names are now reaching the end of their careers; the younger players are starting to make a few statements and grabs for those positions. We now have to try and get the combinations right and the players right. So it's tough but it's also interesting.
HB: We are actually doing this [the interview] at the Cricket Club of India, which likes cricket, which likes players like Sangakkara, who like to play in all forms of the game. Slight romantics about Test match cricket. I am going to talk a lot about that to you. But first about captaincy - Sri Lanka has had in Arjuna Ranatunga, a towering person as captain. Slightly confrontational but a strong person. Mahela Jayawardene was a little milder, maybe, perhaps just as firm but milder. You, as I said, are liked as a person. How important is it to be liked, once you become the captain?
KS: I think all you have to do is get the respect and deserve the respect of your players. That's number one. I am not at all fussed about whether the press likes me or not.
HB: No, within your team.
KS: Within my team it's not a popularity game. I think in Sri Lanka the great thing about playing there, at home, is that we see each other every day of the week if we train together. We don't have to fly in from anywhere; everyone is in and around Colombo. We play against each other every weekend. So we know the ins and outs of, sometimes, the personal life and the cricket life. There is nothing to hide, everyone knows what everyone is about. It makes it easier to give respect and get respect, as long as you keep doing the right thing. You don't try and impose yourself and your ideas too much on others but allow people to make a contribution and have a kind of a meeting of minds on most things. But at the end of the day you carry the can, and so you make the final decision and are responsible for it.
HB: What kind of captain will you be? I talked about two names earlier. Ranatunga, being very confrontational, didn't mind wagging a finger at the umpire if they called one of his bowlers for chucking. Do you ever see yourself doing that?
KS: I don't know, but I think that kind of controversy has gone out of the game. I think the stand Arjuna took on behalf of Murali was fantastic. I think it was exactly the right thing to do. He had many critics at that time saying that you should never take your players to the edge of the field. But I think the stand he took did wonders for Sri Lankan cricket, did wonders for Murali's career, and also gave the team a huge amount of confidence.
I am not going to compare myself with Arjuna. He has won a World Cup and I haven't [laughs] as captain. Mahela has reached the final of a World Cup, and he also won quite a few Test matches in his first year and half as captain. There is a lot that I do differently, there is a lot I have learnt from them because I think both of them have been two of the best captains.
HB: Was Arjuna aspirational? ... As a captain, because you are probably a better batsman than he was.
KS: [Laughs] I think I have scored more runs than he has, but…
HB: You don't have to say, I can….
KS: I think Arjuna was one of our better batsmen. I think he was hampered by a bit of fitness.
HB: It was a different era as well.
KS: Yes, it was a different era as well. And maybe the team and the players at that time might not have had the same kind of self-confidence we do now. But I think Arjuna had great dreams for himself and for his team, and he knew exactly where he wanted the team to go and what he wanted his team to do.
Exactly why we won that World Cup was because Arjuna moulded the team in 1996 into exactly what he wanted it to be. He imposed his will on the people and made sure the selectors knew there was no way out but to give him his team. He backed all his players and had a team that probably played together for 10 years. I think that experience and grounding gave him the ability to lead the team to a World Cup win. And I think from there to 1999 the transition took place. From then to now, there have been huge changes.
HB: You mentioned the fact that if you are in Sri Lanka you meet almost every day. Is that the reason why Sri Lanka, to us, from outside, seems a more homogenous side? Is that good or bad, or you don't see it that way?
KS: No, I don't really see it that way. I think it's a good thing, the way we play our cricket. We have great individuals in the side, we respect individuality. We don't try to change anyone to fit the mould. We allow them to thrive in their own way. But at the end of the day, I think the bonding or gelling factor we have is, we take a lot of pride in playing for each other and playing for the country.
"I have become calmer, quieter, more focused"
HB: It's an interesting set of roles that you play - lead batsman at the top of the order, you've been keeping wickets for a while, and captain. Not too many people in the history of the game have done that. They said when Alec Stewart had it, he struggled with one of the three duties. Is that why you gave up wicketkeeping?
KS: Well, I was asked to give up wicketkeeping long before I took over the reins as captain. The selectors told me they thought they could get more out of me as a batsman if I stopped keeping wickets.
HB: Did you agree with that?
KS: I didn't, I protested. And I would still like to protest, but statistics tell me the decision was the right one. I averaged about 90 when I first gave up the gloves.
HB: So did you enjoy being a hare at backward point, and sending the strong returns back to the keeper?
KS: [Laughs] I did field at backward point in one-dayers when I first started but those days are long behind me. Now I just potter around at mid-off and mid-on.
HB: Generally, as someone who has kept wicket in Test matches and now is captain - do you think that is asking too much of a player, to be captain, the lead batsman and wicketkeeper?
KS: I think in Test cricket sometimes it is, without a doubt. You can do it when you are young. The older you get, the more difficult it becomes. But you take people who are doing it now. Mahendra Singh Dhoni, he has got a good team with him and he seems to be enjoying what he is doing.
I think it also depends on the intensity of the competition. Sometimes the script is written for you in the first day and half itself. But other than that the constant pressure of having to keep your keeping standards up, your batting standards up, and your level of concentration on captaincy - all of that sometimes takes its toll.
HB: Has captaincy made you a calmer person?
HB: I mean, you think of Sangakkara, and you think of this guy behind the stumps who is in the game all the time. You can see I am picking my words carefully...
KS: Yes, I know. I think I have changed. I have become calmer, quieter, more focused on doing the things I am supposed to be doing.
HB: You were always focused. It's just that you are doing two things at a time - you are talking and you are keeping.
KS: [Laughs] I know, but sometimes it's more important to just shut up and keep. I think you change with time. You get older and mellow. But I think the hunger and the pride that you take in your own performance doesn't go away. If it does, I think you should realise you've got to stop playing. It hasn't gone away from me. I think it has just increased.
I have also learnt to respect the ability of every single team member in the side, depend on them to make a difference when the time comes, and to realise that they are good enough to do whatever the side needs them to do.
HB: Do you have aspirations? Most people, when they become captain, have aspirations for the side, but you must have aspirations for yourself too.
KS: My aspirations have been the same since I started playing Test cricket. I want to score 30 hundreds and 10,000 Test runs. I have scored 20 of them. Ten to go. And two-and-a-half thousand runs to get my 10,000. That's my personal ambition and it's always been the same.
HB: Suppose someone told you that you have set the bar too low?
KS: I think if you are a good batsman, you will get 25 hundreds. But if you want to be better than good then you have to go beyond that 10,000-run mark and hopefully hit the 30-hundreds mark. You know Sunil Gavaskar [has done that], Sachin [Tendulkar] has gone beyond 40, [Ricky] Ponting will reach 40, I am sure. Mahela Jayawardene will get there, [Rahul] Dravid is chasing that, [Jacques] Kallis is there. So you get very few of those people, and they can look back at their career and say they were in the top eight or 10 to have done these things.
So those are the aspirations I have for myself, but for my side my thinking is simple. I want the guys to be the best they can be. That is the only way we are going to be a great side. And if we are going to be happy with the level we are playing now then we are kidding ourselves. I think we have got a long way to improve as individuals and as a team. It's a case of going out there, day in and day out, and being disciplined in everything that you do. If you are a fast bowler then there is no substitute for line and length. If you are a batsman, there is no substitute for basics: play yourself in, score big runs in one-day cricket, Twenty20s and Tests. Different formats don't matter. The formula is the same. It's just accelerated in the shorter format.
HB: You talked about transition, and we have seen even Australia, with a solid first-class structure behind them, struggling with the transition phase a little bit. When you thought Sri Lanka, you thought five big names - Sangakkara, who is still there; Jayawardene who is there; but you thought Jayasuriya, Murali and Vaas. Jayasuriya is finished with the longer format of the game for sure; he is hitting age-related landmarks now. Murali has already seen his best days and Vaas is finished. Do you see that as a problem? You are replacing iconic players and it's never easy.
KS: I think that's the way life in cricket goes. We live on borrowed time, every single player. You are great when you play. You reach iconic status but you cannot maintain it forever. Age catches up with you, you slow down. Sometimes you run into a bad patch of form. Any which way you want to put it, there comes a time when either someone tells you it's enough or you realise it yourself and go away.
HB: It's interesting you said that you want your players to be the best that they can be. Murali clearly was an outrageous talent. Jayasuriya could do things that a lot of people could not. But to me the person who signified most what you are saying is Chaminda Vaas. Vaas was a good player. But then he went on and on, and probably - I am not being rude or unfair - over-achieved as a cricketer.
KS: I think the great thing about Vaasy was his attitude and his hard work. He worked harder than any single person in our side, in the gym, in the nets, and on all aspects of his game. He took a lot of pride in that. If you are a newcomer in the side, you can talk to someone for as long as you want - you might talk to a great player and sometimes you might not get anything from that conversation that you can use. But if you watch them they train on the field, train off the field, how they train at the gym - if you watch those things then you can learn a lot. I think Vaasy was one guy who revolutionised the training aspect along with our physios, Alex Kountouris and others after that, and the attitude towards fitness. That made us a better side. And Vaasy bowled so many overs in the subcontinent, where fast bowlers die long before their career should be over. He has done great things for himself and for Sri Lanka. We miss him a lot even now, but we have to move on as a side.
"Test cricket should always be No. 1 without a doubt"
HB: Guess one of the most difficult things, as captain, is to take a call on players who are deeply motivated themselves, who are driven by the fire to play for their country, and then you've got to tell them that they are not playing. I remember Sourav Ganguly telling me once that the most difficult thing that he had to do as captain was to tell Anil Kumble he was not playing.
I don't know if you had to do that with someone like Sanath, but do you anticipate having to say that to the likes of Jayasuriya, Muralitharan, who probably have been your idols at some stage?
KS: These things have to be done. There is no way out of it. And I think rather than passing it on to other people to communicate, the player concerned values it if it is a face-to-face chat, a very honest and open chat. And hopefully things like this, communicated in an orderly manner, don't come as huge shock or surprise.
Especially with selectors, these are things we talk to them about at home. If they think a player is coming to the end of his career, then a fair warning should be given to him. And he should be told these are the things they are looking at in the next few years, these are the plans for the side. I think when you play for your country for as long as some people do, great players do, then they deserve that open communication and that honesty.
I don't think anyone expect, or wants to be lied to and flattered. Sometimes you have to do that to keep the players' confidence up. But I think when it comes to crunch decisions you've got to be open and call it as it is.
HB: In Asia sometimes we tend to be emotional rather than rationally driven. And so you tend to say, he has played so well for 17 years, let him play a little longer, we've got to repay the debt we owe to him. We are that kind of people and sometimes we keep people going for much longer. The Australians, on the other hand, are different. They take care of their players while they are playing but the end is brutal, almost. They just cull, goodbye, tomorrow morning you are not playing. Which school of thought do you think works better? Unless you have a third way out.
KS: I think if a player has played for a long time, then he deserves honesty and direct communication. If you think he should not be playing the next Test then you have to tell him. If you know it a week earlier then you tell him exactly at that time and say, "I am sorry you are not playing the next Test, and this is why."
I think the Australia way is not just to say, "That's it, you're gone." I think it's to tell them, "This is going to be the last series, do the best you can and walk away on a high."
HB: I meant a player cannot negotiate, and say, "Can I play one more series?"
KS: Yes, if you play one more game then you are probably playing in the place of another player who might not get another chance. We might be going into a different series, with a different make-up of the side. When the decision is made, it's got to be made rationally, with a view to the long-term improvement of your side, and also making sure the place goes to the player who deserves that particular opportunity. We can't be emotional about it and say one more, one more. It can sometimes go up to six months. So I think when the time is right, the time is right. Someone will have that conversation with me soon!
HB: Are you excited about the era that you are playing in? I mean, in terms of Sri Lankan cricket and world cricket?
KS: Excited. Sometimes a bit concerned, but more excited. There are so many opportunities for cricketers to shine now, so many different avenues to represent their country. More cricketers are given the opportunity to earn a living and display their talent on the world stage. Concerned because sometimes players might think cricket has got an easier way out, and I don't think it does. Any format of the game, whether it's Twenty20 or Tests, you have to put in the hard work.
HB: Just tell them what the old Buddhist monks say - even if they haven't said it, just pretend they have - tell them, "He who thinks there is a short cut is probably already on his way down."
KS: Yes. Some of the things that we talk about... if you are cruising then you are cruising downwards. I think there are lots of good things in cricket today, a few things we have to watch out for and maybe fine-tune and make better. But Test cricket should always be No. 1 without a doubt.
"We can't have 24-hour cricket channels and still expect people to come to the ground"
HB: Kumar, you've been like us - romantic about Test cricket. Let me ask you straight, do you think Test cricket is in peril?
KS: Everyone is talking about Test cricket dying. Maybe we are pre-empting its death and trying to kill it before its time. When it comes to players, they value playing the five-day version a lot more than they do any other version.
HB: Is it true of the younger players coming in as well? You see the 20- and 21-year-olds feeling the same way?
KS: I think we've got to change our attitudes. For Test cricket to retain its premier position, there have to be few changes made. Paying a match fee for playing a Test match that is 10% more than for a Twenty20, or a one-day game or 50% more doesn't cut it. Test cricket should be given its premium position by paying a premium amount for players who play only Test cricket sometimes. I think players must be made to understand that a good Test player or a great Test player will find it easier to adjust to the shorter formats of the game than the other way round.
I think statistics and records should show the greatness of players who have played the five-day game at the highest level. Of course you will have to fine-tune the way TV stations look at Test cricket, the way people look at Test cricket. Make Tests more family-oriented, especially with the facilities at grounds. Have iconic Test series for every country, like the Ashes for England and Australia. Have one for India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka - it draws the crowds to the grounds.
HB: It's interesting you should say that here at the Brabourne Stadium, which has seen so many great Test matches in the past, and we are all delighted that Test cricket has returned here. I agree with what you say. Sometimes you write obituaries far too quickly. I would love someone to look back at the last 10 years and say how many great Test matches have been played. And I won't be surprised if there have been more great Test matches in the last 10 years than in the 80s, for example.
KS: I am sure. I think there were two Ashes series that were absolutely brilliant. India playing Sri Lanka in Sri Lanka was a fantastic experience for me, it was the second time we have beaten them.
We want to win against Australia, we want to beat India in India. Those are the things we talk about as players, and these opportunities don't come if we don't play Test cricket. If Test cricket is going to be relegated as the third format of the game, behind Twenty20 and one-day cricket, then I think it will be a very sad day for cricket.
HB: Let me draw a parallel with a couple of other industries. Do you see Twenty20 as fast food and Test cricket being this chic, expensive speciality restaurant that classy people go to but not many people go to? Or say a top-of-the-line Mercedes or BMW, while the rest of the people are driving smaller cars. Do you see that happening? If that happens then the market will determine that you produce more fast-food chains, you produce more smaller cars.
KS: I think Test cricket is more like a food court... not a food court but rather a food mall where you have everything. You have the low end and you have the high end. I think in a side you will find both, players who are shining stars and guys who score runs quickly, who give the ball a whack. You know, that's the kind of responsibility the players should put on themselves when they go out to play Test cricket. Because if the crowds are to come, we have to accept the fact that we play because we are watched, we are entertainers - we can call ourselves gladiators. At the end of the day we entertain and we like to play in front of a crowd. To get the crowd we have to be responsible enough to play entertaining cricket.
HB: To some extent, Kumar, that is happening already. We are scoring at four runs an over, which has never happened in the history of the game.
KS: It is, and still if people are saying that Test cricket is not interesting then there might be something wrong somewhere else, other than the game itself. I think we might have to look outside the ground for that and to encourage people to come.
Maybe follow the Australian way. I always feel that we talk too much about following the Australian way. But some things they do right. Not telecasting the match to a particular city until they have an acceptable crowd at the ground. Stop overkill of cricket on television. We can't have 24-hour cricket channels and still expect people to come and watch it at the ground.
HB: That's a wonderful line from someone who makes his living from the money television rights bring in, speaking to someone who makes his money from the amount of money people watch on television. But I think you have a point [laughs].
KS: [Laughs] I know, but there can be, sometimes, too much of a good thing. And I think we've got to watch out for that. If countries are playing three Test matches a year, then it is a tragedy.
HB: That leads me to one question that I want to ask you. In India, Gautam Gambhir will be the last player who will be assessed as a Test match player. A lot of them will be looked at as... here is his one-day record, here is his Twenty20 record, and here is his Test match record. Do you wonder if someone like Thilan Samaraweera, for example, from Sri Lanka, who has got an outstanding Test record, would probably be among the last players who would be assessed as a quality Test match player in isolation almost?
KS: I think so. I hope not, but it could happen. We have a couple of other guys. Kaushal Silva, who toured India as a reserve wicketkeeper, is a fantastic little batsman. He is not your typical, attractive batsman but a guy who you just cannot get out when he doesn't want to get out. Thilina Kandamby is a great one-day player now but also a guy who can adjust very well to the Test scene. If they are told not to value Test cricket as highly as they should, I think then they themselves might lose interest. But we are trying to create a culture in our dressing rooms, in our teams, in our first-class structure, where we value the longer version of the game a lot more than we do the shorter version.
HB: So once you are done with your 30 hundreds, once you are done with your 10,000, I can tell you as someone watching the game from the other side that there is a career as a broadcaster waiting for you. I guess you have been told that before, so what's the big deal, right? So what does that mean to the lawyer in you? Are you going to spend the rest of your life as a could-have-been lawyer?
KS: Probably, I don't know.
HB: It's gone, isn't it?
KS: I think, but you never know. I might be desperate enough to go back. I might not find any work. I might have to find a real job to earn a living.
HB: Do you see Kumar Sangakkara in the High Court in Colombo, doing real-estate litigation?
KS: Not really. I think that will be quite a funny sight as well. I don't know. But I would like to spend a lot of time with my family once I finish. The finish line is approaching fast. I am 32 now, so I think four years to be realistic, five to be greedy.
HB: Four is a lot of years. But greed is not in your hand, is it? I mean, if at the end of the fourth if you are not scoring runs then it is four. If you are still scoring runs then it is six.
KS: This is the subcontinent, you know. You never know [laughs].
HB: Let me get the final word. If you want to give up Test cricket to be with your family, and you become a broadcaster then you will probably travel much more.
KS: Yes, I have noticed that. I want to spend more time with my family. I think I will have to find a real job at the end of the day. Life goes on. Real life starts for me after I retire. But, 36, if I am lucky, 37, if I am doing really well, then I think that's the time when I should say thank you very much and move on.
HB: Keep speaking, keep scoring lots of runs. And, personally speaking, I am waiting to share the commentary booth with you. Don't become too good otherwise you might take my spot.
KS: I think there is no chance of that Harsha.
HB: Thank you very much.
KS: Pleasure, it's been a pleasure.
Harsha Bhogle is a commentator, television presenter and writerFeeds: Harsha Bhogle
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