A run-machine that just won't stop
Talent is a beguiling concept. Almost anyone feels they can spot it, given enough knowledge. Sometimes, those marked out for special ability go on to achieve extraordinary things.
Blaise Pascal had a theorem to his name by 16, and would become a mathematical giant. Rabindranath Tagore wrote his first poem at eight, then had his first major collection published at 17. Current chess world No.1 Magnus Carlsen was a grandmaster at 13.
But for every Tagore and Pascal, there are plenty of young talents who have lost their way, or misused their gifts. Ted Kazynski was accepted into Harvard at 16, but is now more famous for killing three people and injuring 23 others as the "unabomber". The music and film industries are awash with prodigies gone awry. Fans of almost every sport know this archetype: the young star that comes into the top team on a cloud of hype, then frustrates repeatedly until he is cut off, often forever.
Kumar Sangakkara has seen talent in all shapes and sizes in his cricket career. He was the toast of Trinity College in the mid-nineties, but there were plenty more famous schoolboy names. Mahela Jayawardene and Thilan Smaraweera are two that converted their perceived ability into international success. Avishka Gunawardene was famed for his big hitting, but shone only briefly the top level. Others like the opener Pradeep Hewage could not break free of the first-class grind.
Sangakkara was not among those publicly anointed as a future Test star at 15, but at 37, he has surpassed every Test batsman Sri Lanka has produced, and sits eye-to-eye with the modern greats of the game. Although he may not have naturally had the eye of a Sachin Tendulkar, or the quick feet and hands of Brian Lara, it might be a mistake to claim he has less ability.
Few cricketers have squeezed so many runs out of such limited talent for hitting a cricket ball, but Sangakkara has innate talent in spades, in other respects. His great success has been to direct that ability so fluently towards his sport. Everything Sangakkara does, from his businesses, to his speeches, to every cover-drive and sweep he gets to the fence, is foremost a triumph of the mind.
If this is a revision of how the word "talent" is used, perhaps it is an overdue change. Cricket is among the most cerebral sports, testing not only strategy and mental agility, but in Test cricket, also mental endurance. Add to that the hours of work that must go in, in between matches; the quest for sustained excellence and continued improvement is a function of the mind as well.
And it is here, that Sangakkara sets himself completely apart. There is no better "run machine" in cricket at the moment, and that is exactly how he views his game: as a machine with many parts, both mental and physical, which lock and grind together for the purpose of absorbing pressure and making runs.
There are mechanics in the form of coaches and his own father, who knows the man and his technique inside out, but Sangakkara himself is the chief engineer of his success. He decides on the parts of his cricket that need improving, so he dismantles one section, without detriment to the whole, and makes fresh additions, like a CPU continually incorporating the most advanced chipsets.
It is the reason he is one of the most heavily transformed players since youth. To watch a Sangakkara from the early 2000s is to watch almost a different batsman, with a looser style, and a perceptibly worse understanding of the game.
Now, when Sangakkara comes to the middle to play cricket, he has already played a game of chess in his head. "I just look at the ball, I look at the bowler, I look at the situation of the game and think, "Ok, this is what I'm going to do, this is how I'm going to play," he said of his mental process, after Saturday's double-ton.
After his worst series against Pakistan, where he averaged 33.20 in three Tests early this year, Sangakkara put a magnifying glass to his cricket and worked out what was wrong.
He bounced back emphatically by hitting more than 400 runs in a single match against Bangladesh, in February, and had this to say afterwards: "I have been taking the wrong option at times and just losing concentration at an important time. It was just a case of getting that in mind, leaving really well, knowing where my off stump is, and then pacing my innings really well. Rather than being too tense and trying to concentrate all the time, I tried to switch on and off at the right time, and keep my mind fresh to score runs. That was really the difference for me."
Jayawardene's instinctive style allows him to play all sorts of innings, each different, memorable and unique, but so many of Sangakkara's top innings have been just like the last big one. After more than a decade of cricket at the top level, he has perfected an all-weather base for his game, in which every molecule is geared toward run-making. There are minor tweaks to the technique, depending on the pitch and the opposition. The body kit might be a different from series to series, but the chassis and the engine remain the same.
That he averages over 70 as a specialist batsman - a role he has now filled in 79 Tests - is now well known, but since 2013, his form has been monstrous. He averages 87.66 over 22 innings in Tests; and 55.61 with a strike rate of 91.66 from 38 ODIs. Typically, the reason for the improvement is a shift in the mind.
"Sometimes you drive yourself too hard and load yourself up with expectations," he said. "I've just been a lot freer recently. Once I thought taking responsibility for the side is well and good, but at the end of the day the way you try and achieve the runs that you need to score is by being a lot freer and by expressing yourself a bit more.
"That's true in one-day cricket, and in Test cricket - whichever form of the game you play. I've been a lot more relaxed. I've made a few technical changes as well as I've gone along, and it's just worked. Acceptance of the fact that you're fallible, and you're allowed to make mistakes at any time of your career, has freed me up a bit."
Few cricketers have such cutting insight into their own cricket. Fewer still can endure the relentlessness of their own training. Sangakkara hits more balls than any batsman in his team, runs as many kilometres as anyone else, and yet, clears his thoughts completely when the ball leaves the bowler's hand.
Sangakkara is often thought of as wearing two hats; an intellectual, despite being an exceptional sportsman. Really though, the first follows the second. Sangakkara wins battles with bowlers because he has already beaten them in the mind. That, for him, has been much more of a talent than sharp eyes and brisk reflexes.
Andrew Fidel Fernando is ESPNcricinfo's Sri Lanka correspondent. @andrewffernando