Sangakkara's measures help him conquer again
Every hero needs a villain. Protagonists require conflict. The bad times put the good ones in context, and achievement gleams brighter in light of failure.
At times in 2014, Kumar Sangakkara was sailing clear in the sun, wind behind him, no choppy waters in sight, no eddies to avoid. His father, who has lit Sangakkara's path to excellence, scolds that if Sangakkara was a good batsman, only he would ever get himself out. As he amassed more international runs than anyone ever has in a calendar year, his son appeared to be living this maxim out.
He pulled and slog-swept spinners during his 319 in Chittagong in February, then with the same ease, was scorching James Anderson and Stuart Broad through the covers at Lord's. He was flitting to off to whip to leg during the World T20 final in April, then picking doosras out of the hand and back-cutting Saeed Ajmal against the turn in his August double-ton.
Through 1493 Test runs, no Lex Luthor blocked Sangakkara's way. No Joker threw his world into chaos. By year's end, his hundreds had almost become passé: indistinguishable from one to the next, because they all followed that flawless Sangakkara formula. Here was a man who had taken cricket, dissected it under a microscope, and purpose-built a technique for all conditions, and any match situation. Many of his 2014 straight drives could have come shrink-wrapped, straight from a lab.
If there was one common dismissal in the year, it was hitting rank half-trackers or dozy full-tosses, straight to legside fielders. But what kind of crappy kryptonite is that? That is not real struggle. It is like an iPod battery dying in the last ten-minutes of a drive. Like a coffee shop running out of your favourite roast for the day.
But in New Zealand, Sangakkara has had real problems, because the opposition have a bowler who had finally flummoxed him. Who after two years, found the means to dismiss him for less than fifty in both innings. In Christchurch, Trent Boult fired two in, zooming down the line, darting away in the air, then off the seam. Sangakkara moved to drive then edged in both outings, collecting a match-aggregate of seven - 110 runs fewer than his average suggests he should get. In the first innings he left the field swiping the air, terse at himself. Next time it happened, he strode off briskly, and moments later, was sitting on a step outside the dressing room, hands to his head, shell-shocked.
Though he is contemplating retirement, he speaks of undiminished desire, and in the moments when his rehearsed public disposition is disturbed that you see how intensely the fire still burns. Those dismissals triggered a chain of new measures. The string of extra net sessions was the most obvious response. Angelo Mathews described Sangakkara as a coach's nightmare, when he fails, so long do the support staff spend throwing balls at him in this mood. There was introspection too. And dissection of his own movements, and of the opposition.
"In the first innings in Christchurch, I found that maybe my foot movement was not the best," Sangakkara said. "I tweaked it a bit for the second innings, but the foot movement was very similar: it didn't go anywhere. So I spent the next three days trying to understand what I should do with my body and my setup to try and get my feet moving a bit better, and my bat going in the direction of the swing, especially to Boult, because to me he was the biggest threat that I was facing. I tweaked and tweaked, and kept hitting balls with the fielding coach throwing at me, and I felt pretty comfortable that it was working well, to a left armer. It ended up working well."
The specialised preparation clearly helped, and though he had a new formula, his hands would still get dirty at the Basin Reserve. Third ball he faced from Boult, the ball swerved just enough to miss his nervy, defensive prod - so nearly a duck to follow scores of 6 and 1. Throughout the first half of his innings, he would flirt scandalously with that perfect Boult line, then other times, overcompensate for the swing, getting huge inside edges that whistled past the stumps, or brought him runs in the midwicket region.
The cover drives on bended knee were eventually plentiful, but so much of the filler was dirt-ugly. The drop singles into the infield almost had him run out more than once. Somewhere in his seventies, he would pick up a couple when he inadvertently hit a ball through his legs. Wearing deliveries in the groin, swatting at the ball when it rebounded towards his stumps, this was vintage Sangakkara. The fighter from the early years, until he crossed 100, and then the genius re-emerged. Towards the end of the innings, he veered toward the prosaic once again, crashing quicks over cover, launching the spinner into the sightscreen, cutting straight balls past point. No worthy foes. Unstoppable. Inhuman.
There are theories that Sangakkara is not a high-impact player. That though the runs flow like rivers, he doesn't gain enough ground for his team. He perhaps does not counterattack as often, or alter games as quickly as Sachin Tendulkar, Brian Lara and Ricky Ponting did, but the Sri Lanka victories off his bat are many. At the Basin Reserve, he had 57% of his team's runs. Brendon McCullum, one of the most attacking captains in cricket, had all his men on the fence for Sangakkara in the 100th over - all hopes of dismissing him abandoned. Is there a more emphatic sign of domination? A more complete token of opposition surrender?
In the evening session, there was an over that sealed this battle for Sangakkara. Two balls that completed the reversal from Christchurch. Boult ran in and sent the penultimate ball of the 92nd over wide and full, hoping Sangakkara would make no contact, so a team-mate could bowl at the tailender at the other end. That ball would be called a wide. The next - a bouncer - would be uppercut for six. Right then, you knew it was over. Sangakkara had conquered.
Andrew Fidel Fernando is ESPNcricinfo's Sri Lanka correspondent. @andrewffernando