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