Sangakkara senses greatness in his grasp
There have been two concurrent Test matches taking place at Kandy this week. The first has been a struggle for batsmen on both sides, with the wicket providing assistance for the seamers and bite for Muttiah Muralitharan. The second has been a batting soliloquy from Kumar Sangakkara, who has treated England's attack as if they were the 15-year-old classmates he used to flog across the Asgiriya during his days as a pupil at Trinity College. Without him in Sri Lanka's ranks, England would be sizing up a shot at a fifth-day victory. Instead they are braced to begin their second great escape in consecutive visits.
There are no plaudits rich enough for Sangakkara's current form. Records have dripped off his bat like sweat off his opponents' brows, and the manner in which he chastised himself for giving his innings away on 152 was proof of a furious inner drive. In the 17 months since he relinquished the wicketkeeping duties, he has amassed seven centuries in 14 Test innings - four of them unbeaten, six in excess of 150. His average in the 22 Tests he has played solely as a batsman sits at an incredible 96.40.
For Sangakkara, however, there is no great secret to success. A keen intellect has compelled him to seize every opportunity he's been given, and an appetite for the hard yards in training has ensured he's sustained that extra competitive edge. "It hasn't been a sudden change," he said. "My whole game hinges on how well I prepare. I'm very comfortable mentally that I've done everything I possibly can, and it all seems to be falling into place right now. I've just got to keep finetuning it."
Sangakkara turned 30 at the end of October, and he's only too well aware that now is the pomp of his career. One day history will look back and judge his standing in the game, and he's determined to use the next few years to ensure a favourable mention. "To be recognised as a great batsman," he said, "you've got to get a minimum of 20 hundreds, and if you get 30, you're probably a bit better than good." His tally currently sits at 16 from 68 Tests, with the promise of many, many more.
"I think if you ask any batsman, they want to be the best that they can be," said Sangakkara. "But it's only at the end of a career that you can look back and say what you've achieved and what you have done. You're only as good as your last innings, it's got to be something you really want if you want to get better. Everything is provided for us as professional cricketers, so that takes away the excuses. You've got no option but to get better."
England will need to get better as well, because they simply had no idea how to bowl to him today. His driving was exquisite, even on a track where the ball was no longer coming onto the bat, and his leg-side play was as clipped and perfunctory as a conversational put-down. Ryan Sidebottom induced a solitary error, when on 98 Sangakkara showed that even the greatest players suffer from nerves, but Ian Bell muffed the chance at slip, possibly through astonishment rather than anything else. Sidebottom's reaction was apoplectic. He knew there'd be no second opportunity.
"I was already walking when I edged to Belly, and I was pretty happy to see him drop it," said Sangakkara. "But it doesn't matter how many hundreds you score. This was my first against England and that kept working on my mind. It just goes to show, you're learning something every day. Until you get that one behind you, you do get a bit nervous."
Sangakkara had extra reason to allow his mind to wander, because he remembered full well the last time he had been in this situation against England at Kandy. It was during that tempestuous encounter in the 2000-01 series, when he was a mere rookie of 23. He was battling to build a defendable lead for his side when, with a maiden Test century in his sights, he bounded down the pitch to Robert Croft and was stumped for 95. "Not getting to my hundred put paid to our chances of winning the game," he recalled. "Those are the lessons you learn along the way." Well, some batsmen learn those lessons along the way. Not everyone heeds them so well as Sangakkara.
He attributes that avaricious mindset to his first captain, Arjuna Ranatunga. "When I started my Test career [in 2000] I didn't have a great series at home against South Africa, but my second series was in South Africa and that was when I started getting scores. Arjuna always told me that when you get to a fifty, you must always make sure you get a hundred. You must have a goal, so that by the end of your career you're not just another cricketer who's come and gone. It's a massive privilege to play for your country. You've got to walk away with something behind you."
How, though, does he keep such phenomenal form coming? "It's a lot to do with mental comfort," said Sangakkara. "It's easy to look at this and say I'm batting pretty well, but you never know what the ball will do in the air or off the track. You have to make sure at training you've got your bases covered. When I go into bat I'm as ready as I can be."
England will examine his mindset overnight, and aim to emulate it in their bid for survival on the final day, but it's not going to be as easy as Sangakkara made batting look today. "It's a good track in the sense that if you stay in control you can see out a session or two," he said, "but the wicket's breaking up and there's a bit of unpredictability - plus we've got Murali, the best spinner in the world. Then there's Jayasuriya and Chamara Silva, guys who can turn the ball on this track. If our pace attack can support Murali by chipping in with early wickets, we're well on our way to winning."
Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo