AS Kumar Sangakkara disembarked from Angelo Mathews’ shoulders at the P’Sara Oval two weeks ago, he had left his young cohort with a bigger burden-that of literally carrying Sri Lankan cricket single-handedly into the future. A task that the 27-year-old skipper has dealt with manfully so far-a Test average of 68.80 since taking over-despite his team’s dip in fortunes. Like was the case against India, where Mathews scored two memorable centuries with both ending in defeat. BHARAT SUNDARESAN meets the unassuming Sri Lankan captain and tracks down his journey from being a Mama’s boy to his country’s cricketing talisman.
There’s a similarity between you and Curtly Ambrose in terms of how you started with cricket. It was your mother who pushed you to start with?
My whole family is cricket-crazy. Dad (Tyronne) played cricket, and so did my brother. When I was growing up, my dad was abroad most of the time. So, my mother (Monica), who is probably the most passionate cricket fan of the lot, pushed me. She went to the extent of giving me throw-downs and hanging the ball in a sock off the tree and wanting me to hit that. That’s one of the chief reasons I have always played with a straight bat, which was crucial in my childhood. (laughs)
We used to play on a narrow street with houses on each side, and you were deemed out if you hit it cross-batted, and the ball went into a house. The neighbours never complained though since their kids played with us too.
Mrs Ambrose is known to have been very critical of her son…
She’s still critical. Nothing has changed from that point of view. Even now, if I get out, she will say that was a very poor shot to get out to. Or she will say I could have bowled a lot better. It happens day in, day out. There are days she will praise me. But it’s never “Oh my God, you were brilliant.” It’s more, “Yeah, yeah well played.” (laughs)
At school, St Joseph’s College, your nicknames ranged from Jocka to Superman, both apparently to do with underwear. How did those come up?
Jocka actually got on well with my name, Angelo. They called me Angoka (An-jo-ka). That one wasn’t about underwear. Superman was though. I used to wear my underwear over my tight shorts. That’s why the nickname. I just got used to it from a young age, and it just stuck.
Do you still go around being Superman in the Sri Lankan dressing-room?
There are days when it just happens. No hard and fast rule. Within the team, I am Angie, though my childhood friends still call me Jocka.
You used to be an athlete too at school?
I actually started off doing athletics for my college. I took part at provincial and national level in hurdles and 100m when I was young. The practices then started clashing, cricket and athletics. So I had to give up. My family is crazy over cricket, so I had to take up cricket. I had no option. I actually started believing that it was a good choice when I was selected for the U-15 national squad and I was made captain. Even back then I never knew I would play for the country at the highest level. I was a bowling all-rounder to start with then my coaches started encouraging me to bat higher up.
Cricket is all about perception. Why do you think you have always been looked at as a leader?
Maybe they saw something in me which I actually didn’t know. From U-15 onwards, I got to captain at U-17 and U-19 level as well. And it continued through to ‘A’ cricket and the senior team.
But the likes of Sanga and Mahela were promoting you as national captain even while you were very young.
Till I was made the vice-captain, I never knew I could become captain one day. Even if you are a captain, you are still a player and you have to keep contributing with bat and ball. So I kept concentrating on that, and how to improve myself as a player. The captaincy, I was just put into that spot.
Handling media might come naturally, but being Lanka captain is much more. Like Mahela and Sanga have said many times, it’s about dealing with politicians and all that?
It’s about not letting your team get affected by anything. Our job is to concentrate on cricket, and the administrators are there to negotiate and resolve issues. Captaining a team is itself a tough ask. It is a hot seat, and you are accountable for all your decisions. Decisions can go right or wrong, and you learn from those mistakes.
In cricket, you make mistakes every day, and I’m not afraid of making a few. But as long as you admit them, you can be a better player and captain. I consider going to a press-conference and addressing the media as a perk of captaincy. That gives you a chance to stand tall and face the music.
You have always come across as a very studious guy.
I am not really a fan of reading a lot of books. I just enjoy being with family and with my friends or going on holiday or watching movies. I like fishing too. Sleeping is another favourite pastime. I am not a big fan of sight-seeing, but I do love the beach.
You also have a reputation of being a dancer who could be at it all night?
No, no I am not a good dancer. But I did dance till 4 in the morning after we won the World T20 final against India.
Was that the most fun day you have had as a cricketer?
That was the first time I was part of a World Cup-winning squad. It was an amazing feeling, we had lots of fun. Everyone thought India would win it because we had lost to them quite often. Winning the Test series in England for the first time was historic too. We had to face a lot of controversies there. The Sachithra Senanayake incident (the off-spinner mankaded Jos Buttler) for starters. Plus, we were playing in the early summer where the pitches were in their favour.
The Indian dressing-room can be a complex place with people from different communities and with a lot of egos. How different is the Lankan dressing-room?
We’ve done wonders despite our small population in international cricket, starting from the 1996 World Cup. Everyone’s humble about their achievement. Fortunately for us, we have had guys who are from different religions, different races, etc. We have had Muslim guys, Tamil guys, Sinhalese, but never a single clique. There has always been a family feel. Even during the off-season, if one of us is throwing a party, he will invite the whole team with their families. And everyone will make sure he’s there.
Who’s the joker in the pack and who’s keeping the spirits alive?
We have a few guys who are very lively in the team. Ajantha Mendis and Senanayake top the list. It’s a chilled out dressing-room. Sanga and Mahela, and seniors before them too, created a culture where all the guys can open up and where the younger guys are welcomed and made to feel at home.
Has the kind of music changed from the time you joined?
There’s a good mix of new and old, Sinhala, baila and English. I like to listen to music before I go out to bat. It calms me.
Sanga had lamented about how you never realized the kind of special player you were, and always preferred to underplay it.
These words are coming from a great, and easily the most consistent batsman I have ever seen. It’s an honour to know that he said something like that. I have always wanted to be a genuine all-rounder. Humility is what I learnt from Sanga and Mahela. They are humble even after scoring 10,000 and 20,000 runs. They still have their feet on the ground. I am very religious, and go to church every Sunday. I pray before each game too. That helps too.
Are you someone who searched for videos of your innings on YouTube?
Sometimes I do to refresh and remind myself that I am capable of doing these things. I go back to my knock in Australia in 2010 when I and Lasith finished that ODI off (they added 132 for the 9th wicket to chase down 240 at MCG). The SLPL final knock, and the one and only ODI ton I got against India last year.
You’ve had to deal with a lot of on-field confrontation these days. Never gotten into a fight or a quarrel?
Me? Never. No. Because I was always scared of fights. I was also very skinny in school. (laughs)
Was there any dark period in your cricketing career, where you thought it wasn’t working out for you?
Straight after the U-19s. I have had so many injuries. So I had a couple of years where I was not even considered for first-class cricket because I was so injury-prone. I couldn’t play three games on the trot. It was only after I got into the developmental squad, and entered the academy, which was two years after U-19s that my career got going. I just didn’t give up. I kept going and I started getting to know my body better. I understood what to do and what not to do. Someone like Chandika Hathurasinghe (presently head coach with Bangladesh) has played a major part in my career.
Is that why you have always under-bowled yourself?
Because I am playing all three formats, and we are playing a lot of cricket, I need to manage my workload, especially in Test matches. So if it is seaming quite a lot, then I bowl quite a lot. Not a question of under-bowling. I try to manage myself. I definitely have bowled a lot in ODIs and T20s in the recent past.
Did you ever imagine yourself as a 50+ average Test batsman with such a good record overseas?
Not really. I had a good couple of years, and that has sort of surprised so many people. There’s no point in getting a 100 and losing a game, it’s better to score a 20 and make your team win. I am not really into records but I know how many centuries I have, since there are so few. I always look for opportunities to score runs rather than just hanging in there. If you are saving a game and I have to bat the whole day (like at Lord’s last year) then maybe I might change.
How did you handle the sudden influx of big money into your life?
I come from a middle-class background where we have a very low-profile and we have been taught good principles. I have seen my parents work really hard and sweating it out to bring us up. Me, my brother and sister. They made loads of sacrifices to give us the good life. Money will be with you today and not there tomorrow. Good qualities remain forever. I bought my first car only when I started playing for the A team, when I was around 20. I own two cars now but I’ve never been one to splurge money or go to a casino.
Your dad was a chef but now runs a cricket academy?
He worked at some big hotels in Dubai for a long time. He’s in Sri Lanka now and is running the Mathews Cricket Academy along with my brother.
So how good are you in the kitchen?
I tried to cook once but failed miserably. My mom’s probably the best in terms of Sinhalese food. But dad beats her when it comes to western dishes and cakes.
Your wedding in 2013 was a high-profile affair that was attended by everyone, including the then President, Mahinda Rajapaksa.
(Smiles). Heshani’s a double accountant. She used to work but not anymore. My father-in-law, Prasanna Silva, is an architect and he’s the one who designed our house in Wattala-the town, which is 30-40 km from Colombo, and where I grew up in and still belong to. I met Heshani when I was 18 and doing advanced levels in school, and we dated for eight years before getting married.
Do you get captaincy advice too from your parents?
Not really. They follow my performance very closely. They don’t get involved in it or ask me about the team. They are generally busier criticizing me. (laughs).
— The interview was done before the India-Sri Lanka Test series