Sri Lanka in UAE, 2013 December 16, 2013

Aggression becomes Sangakkara


Sixteen months ago Kumar Sangakkara refused to place himself alongside the triumvirate of batting's modern greats, when he won the Test Cricketer and Cricketer of the Year awards for his previous year's work. "Sachin, Ponting and Lara dominated attacks," he said, "and they were great to watch. I'm much more of a steady worker, and I graft for my runs." Sangakkara often makes it a point to be erudite, insightful and correct, but given what has transpired since then, this was kind of a stupid thing to say.

Sangakkara's 2013 has been all about dominating attacks and making for riveting - occasionally breathtaking - viewing, particularly in ODIs. He had missed Sri Lanka's first ODI series of the year through injury, but since then, he has hit 1033 runs in 18 innings. Among batsmen who have hit more than 350 runs in the year, Sangakkara's average of 73.78 is comfortably the highest. His strike rate has been almost as impressive, at 93.82.

Crucially, these figures have been not been amassed on surfaces that reduce bowlers to the levels of dignity that cosmetics companies accord their laboratory chimpanzees, and there have been some high-pressure innings among them. The ICC has consequently awarded Sangakkara the only big prize he missed out on last year - for ODI cricketer of the year.

Sangakkara has been the engine room of Sri Lanka's ODI innings for a decade, but although he had scored heavily in previous years, his statistics have perhaps flattered him. Mahela Jayawardene's one-day average is significantly worse, but his best innings are often versatile, free-flowing and beautifully paced; he has been the more valuable batsman by a distance. Sangakkara, meanwhile, had hit 77 half-centuries batting from no. 4 or higher, but reached triple figures only 17 times.

Like almost everything Sangakkara achieves, this year's limited-overs bounty has foremost been a triumph of the mind. Reevaluating his role in the team, he said, has unlocked a new freedom in his cricket, and has transformed his goals in limited-overs batting.

"I had a specific role in the side when I was at no. 3," Sangakkara said. "The role didn't change much over the years, it was to try and consolidate and rebuild, so the guys coming in at six and seven will then have a platform from where to finish games. Finishing games is probably something I should have done a lot more, but I think maybe there are instances where fatigue comes into play. I've kept wicket my entire career, and that's been an interesting part this year - I'm still keeping, but maybe I've accepted that my innings need to be a lot more telling, and that freed me up to take those extra risks that is allowing me to bat shorter, but score more runs.

"I've changed my approach to be more attacking. It's allowed me to explore other areas of the game that I should be improving, and that's brought me a lot more runs and a few more areas to score in than before."

Sangakkara has devised strokes that enable him to score unconventionally, and vitally, he has custom-fit the new shots to meld with his existing technique. He has made the lap-scoop, which he uniquely plays off the back foot, almost as consistent for him as his cover drive. The team has, in general, espoused innovation under coach Graham Ford, who conducts specialised net sessions in which batsmen are encouraged to experiment and develop new shots and a fresh, aggressive mindset.

"It's a bit of a change in mentality and technique. Finding new aspects to your game is a very necessary thing to do," he said. "What you viewed as risky before - you need to change that attitude and really embrace the change. Technically you have to adjust very slightly, to try and open up those areas to score in. Maybe you have to alter your stance and move around the crease a bit more and find different ways to impart touch or find another way to get power into the ball. There are various ways you can do it, but you can't suddenly open up all areas and score differently, you need to have a solid base and build an innings before you can exploit that new kind of shot-making. As a side we've embraced that philosophy under Graham, and it's been really good."

Sangakkara has only made aggression his hallmark in 2013, but there have been glimpses of his attacking ability throughout his career. The innings that lit his path into the national team, a 140-ball 156 against Zimbabwe A in 2000, was the first notable sighting of his attacking talent, but there were other knocks that affirmed him, he said.

"There have been innings all along that made me confident I can play in that way. One innings in 2002 in England, where we went out were chasing 300, which was a huge score to chase at the time. In India, 90 off 40 odd balls in Rajkot - that was another innings where I had to go out and not worry about consolidating or rebuilding, but just attack. Then, this year, there was a good innings in the Champions Trophy, and against South Africa and a few against New Zealand at home. It's just about getting [in] that right frame of mind. At the end of the day it's about the way you view your role, and the way you view yourself in the team environment, and what you're prepared to change."

In the last two years, Sangakkara has also struck up rich partnerships with Tillakaratne Dilshan, whose own ODI batting has been in resurgence. Since the start of 2012, Sangakkara and Dilshan have made 1640 runs together - 369 more than any other batting pair - and average 58.57.

"Batting with Dilshan is good because you are never under any pressure to score quickly with him - boundaries flow usually from his end. There are days when he doesn't score like that, but then the bowlers are always under pressure, because they are trying to avoid areas where he scores. That sometimes makes them forget about me and they come a little easier at me, allowing me to score in my areas. The overall pressure that Dilshan exerts on the bowlers allows the batsmen around him to score more freely. Also, Dilshan is excellent at running between wickets."

Andrew Fidel Fernando is ESPNcricinfo's Sri Lanka correspondent. He tweets here

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Shiv on December 18, 2013, 22:09 GMT

    Sangakkara in test matches is a legend. As a specialist batsman his average is over 70. His overall average in tests (including when he was wicket keeping) is over 50. He is recognized as one of the greatest test match players. And keep in mind that Sri Lanka dont get as many chances to play test cricket like the other top teams. He is recognized by the experts as an all time great

  • Dummy4 on December 18, 2013, 14:55 GMT

    today match will show who is sanga

  • Kasif on December 18, 2013, 13:51 GMT

    @spas: This sort of thinking doesn't seem to make any sense at all. How can a great player who is consistently performing for team, country, and fans of the sport worldwide be accused of being greedy by not retiring? Rather, one might call such a player greedy should he retire, as he would be depriving team, country, and fans, in pursuit of a bit of golf, time at home with the kids, a dabble in this or that, etc.

    The argument that Sangakkara is depriving youngsters of opportunity is a terrible one; there are X other spots in the playing XI, and youngsters who play with Sangakkara frequently comment on how valuable his mentorship is.

    Sangakkara might, once he retires, become a good administrator, politician, or charity director, but it is clear that he was born to play cricket, and to play it better than practically anyone else, to the delight of a great many. His secondary pursuits can wait until he can play cricket at a high level no longer.

  • Manesh on December 18, 2013, 10:27 GMT

    A batsman averages less than 35 in SA, Aus, Eng called as Legend in SL. lol. Then guess what how many legendes will be there in other teams!

  • Dru on December 18, 2013, 8:53 GMT

    I think its great to see an already great player striving to keep improving and everything I gather about Sanga, he is a true professional. Its very hard at this stage of his career to add a new dimension to what is already a fantastic technique. Aggression was something that was lacking from his game partocularly in t20 and I think it was the need to stay competitive in t20 which probably got Sanga going down this path. I just hope it doesnt get him playing too many shots in test cricket as a result and getting out. I think this is a potential risk and what caused Gambier his test spot and eventually his Indian spot.

  • Yohan on December 18, 2013, 8:27 GMT

    @ NextSana, I don't think Sanga would play till he is 40-41. He won't be that greedy. He would call it a day may be within a couple of years giving opportunity to youngsters. World cricket would then receive some valuable contribution from Sanga the perfect cricketer as a thinker, an administrator may be. And the down to earth gentlemen would be a gem not only for Sri Lanka, but for the whole world.

  • Dummy4 on December 18, 2013, 7:42 GMT

    Sangakkara is a legend not only in cricket but in general knowledge also when he won million (highest prize ever) ln the TV quiz show ''who wants to be a miillionaire'' with Mahela Jayawardane recently to be used for charity work

  • Rohan on December 18, 2013, 7:09 GMT

    Definition of LEGEND in Sri Lanka. Any batsman who has an average of 30 is a Legend of the game. LOL. Going by that definition every team in the world even ZIm and BAN has at least 5-6 LEGENDS in their team and top teams are carrying 8 LEGENDS every time they take the field. LOL.

  • Dummy4 on December 17, 2013, 16:09 GMT

    Class batsman and one of the modern all time greats

  • prasad on December 17, 2013, 13:59 GMT

    Sanga is a class act, it is unfortunate that Sri lanka doesnt play much test matches. If they do Sanga would have been best in the tests also