LET me start by admitting that I was always on tenterhooks while watching my son bat. I don’t know how this sounds but I just knew when he was going to get out. It was like an intuition but I was never wrong, and that’s why it would make me even more nervous. I could pick it almost an over before it eventually transpired.
That is one of the reasons; I preferred not watching it live from the ground. Even from home I would only watch his innings in phases when I knew he was in good flow, and his body was getting into perfection position, eye over the ball.
I have always been his harshest critic. And he knows about it all too well. For the world, Kumar was this venerated technician. But in my opinion, he never reached that level. He could have done so much better with the skills he had.
Everybody speaks about his average being in the same league of Graeme Pollock and Garry Sobers, but Kumar could have done better. He too often let bowlers dismiss him rather than them having to get him out.
For me, Don Bradman was the ultimate batsman. He scored a century once in every three innings. If you truly consider yourself to be a world-class batsman, you should be able to do that. Kumar did well, don’t get me wrong.
But did he achieve his true potential? I don’t think so.
I started working on Kumar’s cricket from a very young age. He always had great touch. You could see that from the way he connects his shots. But touch and technique are two totally different concepts. According to me Mahela Jayawardene had a much better technique, and a much tighter defence. Kumar’s temperament and grit is what ensured he scored more runs and averaged more than Mahela. But I still believe the likes of Mahela, Marvan (Atapattu) and Aravinda de Silva were more in control of their game in the middle.
There is hardly a shot Kumar plays that I haven’t mentored him or harangued him about. He was always very competent against the short-ball. He had a very good back-foot technique. The pitches in Kandy always have had more bounce and carry than those in the south. Kumar grew up batting on them. Mahela was lucky in the sense he faced a lot of spin in his early years.
Kumar never used his feet to the spinners though, and he wasn’t comfortable against them early in his career. He did get better at it. But he took too long to get there. It also took a lot of pestering from me, often to his chagrin. Even now at times, I feel he gets too leaden-footed.
For me, the one batsman I admired a lot was Sunil Gavaskar. He was someone who tired the bowlers out first with his temperament, and then put them to the sword with his array of strokes. But never did he succumb to their relentless pursuit to raid his citadel. A successful batsman is a lot like a boxer. You have to last till the 12th round to win the battle. And I ensured that Kumar grew up watching a lot of Bradman and Gavaskar, and reading about them too.
I wouldn’t call Kumar a natural talent. He has always had very skilful hands.
Not many know this, but he was a very good tennis player. Tennis was his first sport. His sister, Saranga, was a more accomplished player than him. She won the senior national title when she was just 15. I think she’s still the only up-country girl to have done so. She went to the US and did really well too, and had a great future ahead of her but she suffered a shoulder injury that killed her career. She had a forehand that most male tennis players in Sri Lanka would have struggled against. But Kumar was more talented on the tennis-court. One day Saranga beat him though in an inter-family battle of the sexes. That’s it. He never played tennis very seriously again. Cricket became his primary passion right after that defeat. I’m sure he won’t agree with me though.
Kumar and I have always had our debates, on cricket mostly. He has a very modern view of politics and general life in Sri Lanka, unlike mine. He has travelled the globe and got great exposure. And he certainly has an opinion about everything. But in most cases, in my opinion I get the better of him in our healthy discussions. My wife always feels he’s a lot like me, and that we both are equally stubborn over our respective views on everything.
There are some of Kumar’s innings that I remember fondly though not all of them. His 192 in a losing cause against Australia in Hobart always gets talked about a lot. It was my favourite knock. It was alright. His four centuries in four matches in the World Cup was a good achievement too.
There are many batsmen who have been tagged as great. But I consider those who really come into their own after they turn 35 and their reflexes start slowing as the true legends. I do agree that Kumar has scored plenty of runs after turning 35. Some say he has hit a purple patch. But I wish he had hit that purple patch earlier, he could have easily scored many more runs and tons then.
My son might be a cricketer but cricket is not close to my heart. It has brought too much of malice into sport. It is no longer the gentleman’s game even if my son played it with great integrity. The corrupt practices we hear about from the IPL and T20 leagues have marred the image of the sport, quite indelibly. I didn’t have a problem with Kumar playing in the IPL but I think he never got going there. His was a game built to be successful across all formats, but he never reached a great level in T20 cricket-even if he was there in the middle when Sri Lanka won the World T20 last year.
There wasn’t much sorrow or anguish when he informed me about his decision to retire. We both agreed that his time was up, and that there was no point hanging around for much longer.
These days I travel to Colombo a lot to meet my daughter, Thushari, and her kids. I am very confident about my grandson Methvan. He is a combination of Kumar and Saranga, and I see him becoming an excellent tennis player. I am not sure what Kumar has planned for his future. I don’t see him taking up law seriously at this stage. I wouldn’t advice it. He’s 37 now. By the time he finishes his law studies, it will be another five years and by the time he establishes himself he will be well over 50. There’s no point then.
I do have a new challenge for him, and I hope he accepts it. I want him to take up golf very seriously. It’s a sport where his touch and skilful hands will hold him in good stead. He’s been a professional sportsman for two decades now. That competitive spirit will never die. Golf will provide him that opportunity and at the same time it’s a sport that he can pursue for another 30 years. Age doesn’t really matter as we have seen. And I can assure you this: I will not be half as nervous watching him on a golf course.