Sangakkara rises above the sting of battle
Kumar Sangakkara's tenure as Sri Lanka captain is just seven Twenty20 matches old, but has already contained a lifetime's worth of heartache and drama.
Since arriving in England three weeks ago, Sangakkara has taken it upon himself to serve as the team's unofficial Lahore spokesperson, sparing team-mates the angst-ridden task of regaling the media with recollections of the March terror attack, all the while risking reopening his own barely-healed emotional wounds. It has been a job that required the tact of a politician, the valour of a general, the sensitivity of a counsellor and the patience of a saint. On all counts, Sangakkara passed with distinction.
Sunday's World Twenty20 final presented him with another stage to display leadership qualities and carry team-mates. Summoned to the crease with Sri Lanka in freefall at 2 for 2 in the second over, Sangakkara was called upon to save the innings and bring smiles to a nation still recovering from the ravages of civil war. This was not so much pressure, as batting with the bends.
A difficult task proved even more so after Sanath Jayasuriya and Mahela Jayawardene fell to Abdul Razzaq inside six overs, and the tournament's best one-two punch, Umar Gul and Shahid Afridi, accounted for Chamara Silva and Isuru Udana with the Sri Lankan total at a modest 70. A dispiritingly one-sided contest loomed. Only inspired intervention would do.
Sangakkara has produced more dominant and aesthetically pleasing innings, but perhaps few so completely in-sync with the biorhythms of a match and the needs of a team. A pair of early boundaries off the excedingly impressive Mohammad Aamer served as a warning to Pakistan that he would not be dictated to, and his attritional attitude over the ensuing eight overs - scoring steadily, but without crossing the ropes - screamed defiance and obstinance.
The storm weathered, Sangakkara resumed his assault square of the wicket. His half-century was raised (from 44 deliveries) with a crisp clip passed the mid-wicket boundary and, fortified by the redoubtable presence of Angelo Mathews (35 not out from 24 balls) at the other end, Sangakkara accelerated through the death overs.
By the innings' conclusion, Sangakkara stood unbeaten on 64 and satisfied in the knowledge he had steered his side from the potential ignominy of a double-digit total to a competitive 138. It was, given the capitulation of the top order, an innings destined to be more William Wallace than Alexander the Great, but one that spoke volumes for his powers of resolve and leadership.
"We tried our best with the total we had, but if you don't get wickets in the first six overs it's always an uphill task," he said after the match. "We've had a great tournament. I'm very proud with the way the team has responded, the way they've played and the attitude they've shown. There are a lot of things to take from here but it's heartbreaking when you lose a final."
After the winning runs ricocheted off Afridi's pads, Sangakkara summoned his players to the centre and embraced them all. Few outside the Sri Lankan dressing room can appreciate the emotion, resilience and spells of trepidation experienced by the team throughout this first international assignment post-Lahore, and Sangakkara's paternal pride was evident for all to see.
Ever the patriot, Sangakkara swelled the chests of a war-weary nation when, as part of the internationally telecast presentation ceremony, he thanked the Sri Lankan people in a speech delivered in Sinhalese. To hundreds of millions around the world, the oration was indecipherable. To 20 million Sri Lankans, it was inspirational - a private message delivered on cricket's grandest stage for their ears only.
And, so, Sangakkara - warrior, statesman - left the stage to be received by a galvanised team, an appreciative nation and a reverent cricketing world. Leaders might spend entire careers in pursuit of such universal appeal, and yet Sangakkara has managed it just three weeks as Sri Lankan captain. His team, one feels, are in good hands.
"I think we've done brilliantly," Sangakkara said. "Even if Lahore had never happened I think this is a brilliant achievement. Lahore was the furthest thing from our mind coming here preparing for the game today and playing in the final. The team has done a really great job mentally getting over all of those things.
"I just wanted them to make sure they understood what a great effort they'd put in during this tournament, what a great achievement it is to get into a World Cup final and to learn from the disappointment that we've faced in 2007 and now, being bridesmaids twice. You've got to be proud, no matter how disappointed, but proud of what they achieved.
"We felt love as a touring side, and back home I know everyone was on edge once we got into the final. Sri Lankans love their cricket and they love the fact we've come so far. Thank you for your support and we hope we have made you proud."
Alex Brown is deputy editor of Cricinfo