Andrew Fidel Fernando is ESPNcricinfo's Sri Lanka correspondent. He tweets here
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Cricketers are sometimes labeled 'great students of the game'. Often these students are men who distinguish themselves from the peloton of cricket's sporty jocks by a yearning to learn more about the history and the nuances of the pursuit that consumes their lives.
When he first began playing for Lancashire, Muttiah Muralitharan was said to have had a more thorough knowledge of the team's previous season than many of the cricketers who had played in those matches. Part of why Michael Hussey's 'Mr. Cricket' moniker endured was because he would speak for hours on end about the game, in what seemed like laborious detail to his teammates. In his years as Australia captain, Ricky Ponting was found perusing grade cricket scorecards from around the country. All men, whose livelihoods had happily aligned with their life's most ardent passion.
At 35, a lifetime of learning is propelling Kumar Sangakkara's cricket far further than his innate ability ever could, and into the reaches of greatness. Against South Africa, he hit the highest ODI score ever made in Sri Lanka at a breathless pace that would have done Sanath Jayasuriya or Aravinda de Silva proud. Unlike either of those men, Sangakkara is not a natural strokemaker, nor are ODIs his format of choice. Yet the records continue to tumble over and again to a man who was never the precocious teenage talent that every other great Sri Lankan batsman was, before coming of age. By the end of his career, Sangakkara will probably top more lists than the rest of them combined.
A year ago, when Sangakkara became the ICC's Cricketer, and Test Cricketer of the Year, he refused to put himself in the company of the greats, both from Sri Lanka and worldwide. "They dominated attacks," he said, "and they were great to watch. I'm more of a worker, and I graft for my runs." Yet 13 years into his career, he is tearing international attacks apart for the first time, and playing the match-winning innings that have frustratingly eluded him in the last decade. Having accumulated 66 from his first 91 deliveries, Sangakkara snapped in the batting Powerplay, and unfurled an array of finishing blows even a 30-year old version of himself would never have attempted - 103 came from his next 46 balls.
AB de Villiers later reflected on Sangakkara's ability to manipulate the field, but the batsman had set such panic upon the South Africa bowlers they seemed incapable of containing him regardless. Even in a Test career that gleams far brighter than his limited-overs returns, he has rarely known such uncompromising dominance. The attack left the field not just emphatically beaten, but roundly humiliated.
His unbeaten 134 at The Oval last month, to lead a difficult chase against a strong England, was another innings that showcased a new dimension to his one-day game. There are 77 half-centuries to the 16 hundreds in Sangakkara's career, and many of those fifties meant little to the team, failing, as they did, to launch Sri Lanka to victory. He has learnt now, what it takes to carry the side over the line, and his ODI average is the best it has been since the honeymoon of his career.
The 46th over of the Sri Lanka innings produced a moment that exposed the core of Sangakkara's success. Going down to one knee, he attempted an over-the-shoulder scoop off a Ryan McLaren full toss, and had his stumps splayed. In an instant he was on his feet, looking from umpire to umpire and pointing at the men on the fence with agitation. De Villiers had stationed too many outside the circle and Sangakkara had counted them mentally before taking guard. He knew the ball would not count, so the risky stroke was no risk at all. The most unique facet of his greatness is that it is foremost a triumph of the mind.
Before the series, Angelo Mathews had said Lahiru Thirimanne was capable of becoming the next Sangakkara, and as the young batsmen floundered while the great frolicked at the other end, plenty remarked on the vast gulf in class. Thirimanne's critics might be surprised to learn that at the same age, and number of ODI innings, Sangakkara averaged six runs less than Thirimanne does now. He may have only made 17 from 33 in a 123-run partnership, but Thirimanne has already hit an ODI ton against a high-class attack. Batting in a similar position to Thirimanne at the start of his career, Sangakkara did not manage that until his 86th game.
"There are a lot of things to learn from Sangakkara," Thirimanne said after the match. "As young batsmen we take a lot out of what he says and the way he plays. He's a special player and we're lucky he's from our country. In matches, I use a lot of what he says."
Thirimanne will do well to adopt Sangakkara's obsession with improvement. Unfortunately for the young man, his beautiful, bent-kneed cover-drive has already drawn parallels with Sangakkara, and his future will likely be measured on the Sangakkara scale. It is a career that is almost impossible to emulate, because his mentor is himself one of cricket's greatest students.