Sangakkara scotches retirement fears
It was just one raise of the blade. One turn, a smile, and a wave. But all across the country, its ripples were being felt. Kumar Sangakkara has become an increasingly reticent celebrator of his hundreds. At times he seems bored by his own success. A 200 in Galle brought little more than a fist pump.
But here he was, acknowledging applause after being cut down for a half-century. Already overdosing on emotion, the SSC crowd felt a further disturbance in the force. "Sangakkara, raising his bat for a 58? Err... does he know that score drags his average down?"
Both he and Mahela Jayawardene had repeated they will play at least ODIs until the World Cup, but with a wave of Sangakkara's bat, worst-case scenarios were being arrived at. Some thought he would stay for the Tests in New Zealand at the end of the year, surely? The pessimists were chief scaremongers as usual, in the ground, and on social media. "Looks like Sanga might announce his retirement right after this Test," went the gist several dozen tweets and Facebook updates.
In the world of the frightened fan, a sudden Sangakkara retirement almost made sense. Jayawardene has always been a man of the people, through and through. Mahela is a common name in the country, yet it is all people refer to him by - either that or just 'Maiya'. The farewell in Galle and the SSC will have meant as much to the player as much as to his fans, and the emotion has at times been writ plain across his face.
Sangakkara appreciates the support he gets too, but he's always been that little more aloof. Cricket is his job, and he is a consummate professional. Maybe he would not mind bowing out without all the fanfare. He has spoken about "leaving the game while you're on top" since he was still years away from retirement, so what better time to leave than after a series in which he has been the top scorer, with his team probably going to end up winning 2-0.
Thankfully for Sri Lanka's fans, Sangakkara eased their worries after play when he said he had no immediate plans to leave Tests. "We won't be playing Test cricket in Sri Lanka for a long time from now until probably June," he said. "Waving the bat was just…. I didn't have anything in mind. There are two one-day series in Sri Lanka and the World Cup in Australia and New Zealand. After the World Cup I will take a decision about my future, after speaking to the national selectors."
Though fears have been allayed for now, the day-long rumour Sangakkara caused with a minor, spontaneous action revealed something of the Sri Lanka fan's mentality. On Saturday, the SSC match had not been particularly well attended when Jayawardene came to the crease for the final time. When the audience had arrived in force on Sunday morning, all they got was nine more runs from Sri Lanka's most celebrated pair.
The crowd stayed the whole day, and even swelled in the afternoon, as they cheered the two Jayawardene slip catches more enthusiastically than the other five wickets. Still, many cursed themselves for missing the bulk of that final innings. Sri Lankans have developed a global reputation for being perpetually late, and many in Colombo had woken up to Jayawardene's departure a day late. As some in the stands spent the day in wistful regret, a wave of the bat from Sangakkara was enough to incite panic.
The sense of panic had been intensified maybe by what has happened north of the Palk Strait, and currently in England, since India's beloved old guard stepped down. Aside from Angelo Mathews, the young men lining up to replace the old stars have not been convincing yet.
Even beyond that, could any young players ever mean to Sri Lanka what "Sanga" and "Mahela" have been? It is one thing to be good at cricket - even great at it - but few people, in any walk of life, have captured the imagination of a country as completely as Jayawardene and Sangakkara. They are not so much celebrities as old, familiar friends. Every time they exchange their soul-brother handshake mid-pitch an entire nation feels a little better.
Maybe the loss fans feel when they have both stepped aside will not be complete until Sri Lanka eventually take the field without either of them. Sri Lankan goodbyes are so often long and drawn out. Perhaps the saddest moments will be when the door is finally closed, and fans confront the haunting quiet of cricket without them. It may be the same for the team itself, Sangakkara said.
"It's hard to say what it's like, what it will be like the next time you play a Test match without Mahela," he said. "I think it will really sink in in our next Tests in New Zealand. Right now I think the guys are just coming to terms with the fact that Mahela is going to retire, but I think that all the emotions will all come out when we next take the field without him in the ranks. That's when you can really explain what you feel and you can really take stock of what the team is like and the dressing-room atmosphere is like without Mahela in it."
On day four, even with the joy of nearing a 2-0 victory over Pakistan, the Sri Lanka public were forced to begin contemplating a new reality. They will support their team through everything, as they always have, but a future without both the country's top-order darlings will take some getting used to, whenever that arrives.
Andrew Fidel Fernando is ESPNcricinfo's Sri Lanka correspondent. @andrewffernando