Two teams lost two emblematic cricketers in the space of two days. On Sunday, Australian captain Michael Clarke bowed out from international cricket at the Oval in London. On Monday, Sri Lankan Kumar Sangakkara’s storied career came to an end at the Oval in Colombo. Two of the finest batsmen of the 21st century, Clarke and Sangakkara have also witnessed big changes in the way the cricketing community perceives them. Clarke was disliked for what many thought was his duplicity in dealing with one-time friend and all-rounder Andrew Symonds and former opener Simon Katich. That hostility towards Clarke melted away in the aftermath of Philip Hughes’s death last year, when, choking back tears at his “little brother’s” eulogy, he gave voice to the grief of a nation. That day he wasn’t just Australia’s skipper, he was world cricket’s captain.
In Sangakkara’s case, too, it was a speech that made the difference. Sangakkara, unlike Clarke, was never disliked. He just didn’t stir much emotion in non-Sri Lankans. Until July 5, 2011. On that day at Lord’s, he gave one of the most inspirational performances by a cricketer off the field, as he delivered the Spirit of Cricket Cowdrey lecture. In measured tones and with polished diction, he spoke of the indomitable spirit of Sri Lankan cricket. The world had seen it in 1996, talked about it for a while, and then forgotten it. But Sangakkara reintroduced it to us and explained how precious it is. In a way, that lecture mirrored his career. It began in an unappetising manner, like a Wikipedia article on the history of Sri Lankan cricket. But gradually, gems started trickling in in the form of anecdotes. He gave you first-hand insight into playing the sport in a civil war-torn society. The speech reached a crescendo, like his career, in the latter half, and climaxed in a profound way, with Sangakkara declaring: “With me are all my people. I am Tamil, Sinhalese, Muslim and Burgher. I am a Buddhist, a Hindu, a follower of Islam and Christianity. I am today, and always, proudly Sri Lankan.”
As a packed MCC exploded into applause, he stepped out of the shadow of his predecessors and contemporaries. The wicketkeeper-batsman was now a cricketer-intellectual. As a fan, you could henceforth enunciate precisely why you liked Sangakkara over Jayawardene in the great, if pointless, one-versus-the-other debate. For, before that, Sangakkara might have outscored his great rival- cum-accomplice, but Jayawardene’s runs, made more aesthetically and frequently in crunch games at bigger stages, seemed to carry more weight.
This tag of second-best, in a way, goes with him into the sunset as well. Sangakkara is the second highest run-getter in ODIs after Sachin Tendulkar, the second highest run-getter in international cricket, again behind the Indian master. And he has the second highest number of double centuries after Don Bradman. On most parameters, he has never been Number One. Interestingly, if not for his attempt at being good at everything, Sangakkara could’ve perhaps been the best at one thing. Had he given up on wicketkeeping earlier, it is tempting to believe that he could have been the highest run-getter in Tests. In the 48 matches in which he donned the gloves, Sangakkara made 3,117 runs at an average of about 40. While playing purely as a batsman, he scored 9,283 runs in 86 Test matches, an average of 66.78, second only to Bradman.
But then Sangakkara often gave the impression that he cared for things more significant than numbers. In an interview a few years ago to Harsha Bhogle on ESPNCricinfo, he said: “We live on borrowed time, every single player. You are great when you play. You reach iconic status but you cannot maintain it forever.” Intellect, however, is more durable than numbers. On that count alone, therefore, Sangakkara — the second this and the third that — will go down as one of the game’s greatest.