A lesson in professionalism from Sangakkara
During last weekend's contract dispute, reporters camped outside Sri Lanka Cricket's offices and needled each cricketer as they emerged from various meetings. Some sealed their lips entirely, others shoved lightly at media men who were getting too close. One even reacted with a hint of venom. Kumar Sangakkara had the longest stream of questions directed at him, but despite the difficult situation, he parried each query with poise, explaining his reticence to speak, and withdrew as soon as he could. Then, with his words, as with the bat on the first day in Galle, he was what every national cricketer should hope to be: attuned to every interest and demand in his work, thoroughly professional in service of team and country.
He had actually been the only cricketer on whom the weekend's events had had a tangible effect, having been banned from playing in a tour match that would have provided match practice after a two-month injury layoff. Waltzing straight into a Test match after only a few days in the nets is a world away from Sangakkara's definition of adequate preparation, but he made it work regardless. "It's my job, to get ready for the Test match," he said after his hundred, and if there was any rust, he hid it well. His first ball flew past gully for four. The drives lacked timing to begin with, but soon the cuts, hooks and pulls came out and there was no reticence in the manner he brandished those.
His 142 from 226 balls set his side hurtling towards an unassailable position in the Test, and in doing so, helped pull off a public relations exercise, whether he meant to or not. The lock out over contracts has irked fans, with many believing the players overpaid, but that debate will have grown quieter by the time stumps were drawn at 361 for 3. Sri Lanka's fans expect them to secure a strong position at their favourite venue against Bangladesh, and in meeting those expectations, perhaps even exceeding them, Sangakkara has helped the public focus shift back to cricket.
Sri Lanka's wider objectives for the series did not escape Sangakkara either. The selectors have handed down a mandate to develop young talent and, on the field, Sangakkara did his utmost to spur on the two young men he batted with, discussing at length mid-pitch what they can aim for, while allowing, you felt, enough space and comfort for them to do what comes naturally. Lahiru Thirimanne's batting bears strong similarities to Sangakkara's own technique, and it was fitting for the pair to put on the day's biggest partnership together. Thirimanne finished the day on 74, and there will no doubt be gentle encouragement from Sangakkara overnight to ensure he gets the maiden ton he missed by nine runs in his last Test in Sydney.
If Graham Ford and the coaching staff have not already highlighted Sangakkara's work ethic as a paragon of the genre, Sri Lanka's young players are missing a forceful lesson on the dividends of hard work. In his fitness, Sangakkara has been uncompromising, but his attitude towards batting in the nets, where he lurks to take advantage of every free slot long after his allocated time has passed, has been a vital component of his success. When he began in international cricket, his technique to spin was shaky, his stroke-range limited and his footwork imprecise. As Sohag Gazi, Mahmudullah and Elias Sunny found, he has since become one of the most complete batsmen of his generation through persistence.
"There's no secret, to what I've done," he said. "It's just working hard. When I made my debut I thought I was very lucky, but then I realised it was about doing as much work as you can, the right way. The only person you have to prove anything to is yourself. That's why you push yourself and work hard in the sun, and take runs or take wickets or win games. As professional cricketers, whether you're starting off or you've had long careers, it's about proving to yourself that you're constantly and consistently good enough over a long time."
Sangakkara also knows he is one of only two batsmen to have made more than one Test hundred in this top seven, and his calculated approach on day one not only allowed Dilshan to play as boldly as he likes, it also ensured that when Kithruwan Vithanage walks to the middle on debut, there will be no dire demand on the youngster to make his first innings a prosperous one.
On day one in Galle, it was not Sangakkara's skill or artistry that stood out, it was his enduring commitment to doing his job well. It is perhaps that quality that has helped him most in sustaining an average of 64.43 in the last six years - a run that now sees him arrive at a period in his career when records seem set to tumble. In the previous Test he played, he became the equal fastest batsman to 10,000 runs, and today, the first to make 1000 runs against Bangladesh. He also equaled Mahela Jayawardene's record tally of hundreds for a Sri Lankan batsman for the first time.
On the field and off it, there are few who embody cricketing professionalism better than Sangakkara.
Andrew Fidel Fernando is ESPNcricinfo's Sri Lanka correspondent. He tweets here