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“There’s never been any doubt in my mind that Maiya’s always been the better batsman.” : Kumar Sangakkara

India, August 03, 2015

Around three weeks from now one of the greatest – and most respected – cricketers of the 21st century will play his last international match. This month The Cricket Monthly, ESPNcricinfo’s digital magazine, pays tribute to Kumar Sangakkara with an in-depth package that looks at a unique career.

In an exclusive and intensive interview to The Cricket Monthly, the Sri Lankan cricketer speaks about his team and team-mates Jayawardene, De Silva and Muralitharan; his father as a coach, family and inspiration; decisiveness and resilience; passion and uphill battle on-field; his Bradmanesque pile of double-hundreds and batting technique; the much talked about retirement; and much more. The interview will be published on August 3rd on the Cricket Monthly site.

“I came into a Sri Lankan team full of World Cup winners and greats in their own right. Where I began wasn’t where they began,” Sangakkara says.

So he ventured in a direction few Sri Lanka players consider. While prevailing wisdom taught that international success rested on leaving one’s natural technique unmolested, Sangakkara chose to evolve.

“There were lots of innings where I was not in sync. Sometimes I fought that, but then eventually learned to allow myself to fall into a rhythm. There were times when I started really uglily and really had to fight it out, until suddenly, one ball, after two hours, gets you into perfect rhythm. Then everyone thinks: ‘Where the hell has this guy been all this time?’”

This was Sangakkara through the early 2000s. He was one of the Sri Lankan batsman opposition bowlers worried least about, yet at the end of the day they would find him clinging on, 57 not out. At some point the next morning, after looking like he wouldn’t survive the opening spells, Sangakkara would reinsert himself into his opponents’ flesh, and continue the bloody drip, drip, drip.

In contemplating Sangakkara’s career – in acknowledging the recent frequency of fifties, the seeming inevitability of his tons, and the Bradmanesque pile of double-hundreds – it is important to take stock of the beginnings. It is crucial to mark out his starting point, because in the rickety van that is Sri Lankan cricket, amid public clashes with administrators and captaincy crises, Sangakkara’s journey to greatness has resembled one of those winding wartime trips to Ampara or Anuradhapura, with his father absorbed in his own work but always close by. 

On his father – Kshema Sangakkara 

But through the years, amid the violent national crises that speckled his youth, Kumar played sports. And while he played, his father coached him. “My father’s view was that if you were going to spend time playing something, you should play it correctly,” Kumar says, “which is fine.

“But very quickly the coaching became a pain in the neck. All my siblings went through this. If we had a two-hour practice, we would work for maybe half an hour, and argue for the other one and a half hours. It was a tug of war and I was always chuffed when I could prove him wrong. When I scored runs sometimes, I said, ‘Listen, this is how I did it, and it’s completely different from the way you taught me.’

“But then the older I got, the more I understood. The more I realised, I guess, the value in what my father said.” 

On becoming the fastest to 10,000 Test runs, alongside Sachin Tendulkar and Brian Lara

“I knew that if I had got there in any innings before that, I would have been the fastest alone,” he says. “But then I reached 10,000 there, and the screen at the ground had my name on top, then Sachin and Lara. I would be an absolute liar if I said that didn’t give me a lot of satisfaction. David Warner, who was fielding close by at the time, had seen that, been surprised and said something like: ‘He’s consistent, I’ll give him that.’ You know, it was something to strike even Warner.”

Jayawardene on Sangakkara and vice-versa

“I don’t think our relationship has ever been based on trying to outdo each other,” Jayawardene says. “We’ve definitely helped each other along by sharing our knowledge, or telling each other if something isn’t quite right with their game, but it’s never been a competition. Nothing like that.”

 Their only rivalry has been played out in latter-day interviews, awash in complimentary one-upmanship. For example, Sangakkara would often let fly with: “There’s never been any doubt in my mind that Maiya’s always been the better batsman.” Then Jayawardene would counter: “Kumar would say I am the best, but if you look at the numbers, it’s quite clear who was.” Betrayed by his own statistics but never short of words, Sangakkara reaches for a more nuanced homage: “Mahela reverses pressure so well, and makes it easy for anyone to bat with him.”

On retirement

“I think in Sri Lanka we have real trouble letting go,” he says in the car. “I can’t see what value I will be to the team if I carry on for a few months, or 12 months. If they want the senior players to assist the team – to come and spend some time at training or in the dressing room – all that can be arranged. We are all willing to do that. But my taking up a place for another few months is just delaying the future for someone else.” 

“I’ve been told if I play another year or two years, I could score another 1000 runs, or I might be the second-highest Test run scorer,” he says. “But if you really think about it, if that’s the only reason you want to prolong your career – then it is really time to say, ‘Thank you very much.’”

How sure is he of his future?

“When you’ve done one thing – played cricket – for such a long time, I guess you never know what you’ll be good at afterwards.

“It will be a big change,” he says, “but you don’t have to be afraid of that. Change is not bad. Change is good.”

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