Sporting careers usually wind down with an ache and a disappointment but Kumar Sangakkara has avoided the melancholic exit. Instead, he has only grown in stature in recent years. In a cricketing nation blessed with outstanding captains like Arjuna Ranatunga, Marvan Atapattu and Mahela Jayawardene, he carved his own space as a leader. In a land that has produced a few talented batsmen, he stood out for his skill and achievements. By the end of his career, he was elevated to the status of a statesman by his countrymen, a perception that was beginning to be shared by the cricketing fraternity worldwide after his impressive speech at the MCC’s Spirit of Cricket Cowdrey Lecture in 2011.
Along with Sachin Tendulkar, Sangakkara is perhaps the most un-subcontinental batsman to have emerged from the subcontinent. His most famous shot is the on-the-up punch, a stroke where his bat almost recoils upon impact with the ball. It’s not a dainty wristy tribute to aesthetics like some of Jayawardene’s shots, nor a utilitarian manoeuvring of the field, like that of a Ranatunga. It’s an aggressive statement, and quite un-subcontinental. If an Australian who grew up playing on bouncier pitches had played it, it would have been understandable. Even the most flamboyant whiplash square drive of Brian Lara was, in essence, within the Caribbean calypso tradition. Sangakkara has gone beyond the tradition of his nation to produce this utterly modern shot.
But Sangakkara wasn’t just a batsman. An all-rounder of sorts with his handy wicket-keeping abilities, he became captain at the right time. Ranatunga was the captain that a vulnerable Sri Lankan team needed to gain the confidence to compete with international teams, and he set the base for a more tactically strong Jayawardene to emerge. Both Ranatunga and Jayawardene, then, laid the perfect platform for Sangakkara to infuse ruthlessness in the team. Leading from the front, he took the team to the big finals and proved Sri Lanka could survive the departure of Muttiah Muralitharan and Chaminda Vaas.