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Match Analysis

The case for Sangakkara's all-time greatness

Kumar Sangakkara does not usually feature in discussions of modern batting greats. His numbers demand for that to change

Kumar Sangakkara powers the ball down the ground, Bangladesh v Sri Lanka, 2nd Test, Chittagong, 2nd day, February 5, 2014

Kumar Sangakkara has the same number of double-centuries as Brian Lara, but does not consider himself in the same league  •  AFP

Kumar Sangakkara approached his maiden triple-hundred at a sprint. When the eighth wicket fell, he had been on 253 - in danger of being stranded short of a milestone he later admitted he desired, if only to "be part of the club". The team's goals happily aligned with his own in the late afternoon, lighting a fire underneath his feet. He sped forward from the crease often, with brutal intent.
His final 52-runs as a non-member of the 300-club were walloped in 30 balls, but although Sangakkara was still mid-frenzy when he passed the milestone, his celebrations were remarkably collected. A hand-grasp with his partner followed the raising of both arms, before the helmet came off, briefly. Within 90 seconds, he was taking guard again.
Perhaps he knew that he had not unlocked anything new in himself in the course of his epic. There were few thorny periods to overcome, and an already-battered opposition had been further hamstrung by an injury to a frontline bowler, as well as their captain and wicketkeeper. His team could not have claimed their commanding position without him, but at a personal level, perhaps his greatest achievements on Wednesday were his statistical harvests.
Sangakkara became the quickest man to 11,000 runs on Wednesday. Though outside Sri Lanka he is rarely spoken of in the same breath as the modern batting greats, that discussion is now long overdue.
The first port of call for any such exercise is his average. At a career-high 57.83, he comfortably outstrips Sachin Tendulkar, Brian Lara and Ricky Ponting, and is better than Jacques Kallis by more than two runs. Of the seven batsmen that boast better averages (qualification: 2000 career runs), Ken Barrington had the most recent career, from 1955 to 1968. None of the men above him have scored 8000 runs, nor played more than 90 Tests. The debate then moves to how many of Sangakkara's runs mean little? He is by far Bangladesh's lead tormentor with the bat, having struck 1711 runs against them - over 15% of his career total. He has not gone easy on Zimbabwe in six innings either, averaging 89.88.
To dismiss all those runs is unwise, particularly in light of this Chittagong innings, where only one other Sri Lanka batsman passed 50 and no one else reached triple figures. But for the sake of argument, Sangakkara has impressive numbers even if those teams are omitted. Of batsmen who have played in the last 15 years (qualification: 2000 runs), only Kallis has a better average than Sangakkara's 52.68, and that only 0.30 higher. If the last 30 years are considered, Javed Miandad is the only other cricketer to join Kallis above Sangakkara on that list.
A charge often leveled at Sri Lanka batsmen is that they make their runs on flat home pitches. Galle's dry surface, however, is often as stiff a test of batting technique as any track in the world, and the P Sara Oval is regularly a result-venue. Still, omitting draws, and only counting matches among the top eight nations, Sangakkara's figures hold up. Of the seven modern batsmen who have better averages in wins or losses, four - Ponting, Steve Waugh, Adam Gilchrist and Damien Martyn - are from the legendary Australia team. The remaining three are AB de Villiers and Pakistan's Inzamam-ul-Haq and Saeed Anwar. Tendulkar and Lara both rank well below Sangakkara.
His away record against the top-eight teams does not place him as highly in the pantheon, but at 45.37, he is hardly liability outside Sri Lanka. Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid, Lara and Kallis have better away averages, alongside a host of other modern players, but Sangakkara's returns are marginally better than Ponting's.
Where Sangakkara sets himself apart from Lara, Ponting and Tendulkar in particular, and veers towards all-time greatness, is when his records as a specialist batsman are separated from his career as a wicketkeeper-batsman. Sangakkara has not been the designated keeper for 61% of his 122-Test career, and in those matches, he has averaged 69.55. Only Don Bradman sits above him, and he is almost five clear of the next man. Clyde Walcott surpasses Sangakkara if Bangladesh and Zimbabwe are again stricken from his record, but he drops only that one place, retaining an average of 61.41. The next remotely modern batsman is Miandad, who scored his runs at 53.30.
Sangakkara has hundreds against and in every Test nation, but perhaps there are more gaps in his record than the other modern greats. He averages 30.58 in England - a statistic he will hope to partially rectify in two Tests there in June. His average of 36.50 in India will likely remain at retirement, as will his 35.75 in South Africa. Unlike Ponting, Tendulkar and Lara, he was also incapable of demoralising attacks for much of his career - though recently that has begun to change. It is perhaps for this reason he does not place himself in the same realm as batting hero Brian Lara, whose double-century count he matched.
"I grew up watching and idolising sir Vivian Richards," Sangakkara said. "Then Brian Lara came along and he was magical to watch so I am pretty happy to have equalled him in some kind of way. But I don't think I will equal him as a batsman, because I think he is on a completely different level to most of the batsmen I have seen.
"I think I have surpassed him in very little. I may be fastest to 11,000 or whatever, but I don't think I compare myself to him at all. There is no use of comparing myself to him. To me he is beyond reach."
Whatever Sangakkara's own view, consistency is its own form of dominance. As he reaps the numerical rewards of his 14-year toil, it is time the wider cricket world appreciated his stature.

Andrew Fidel Fernando is ESPNcricinfo's Sri Lanka correspondent. He tweets here