It might have been Roy Dias and Duleep Mendis in the formative years of Sri Lankan cricket in the 80s and Aravinda de Silva in the 90s but in the new millennium there is little doubt that Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara have been the twin pillars of the team’s batting.
Either on their own or in tandem, the two have carried Sri Lanka’s fortunes on their shoulders and somehow it seems fitting that the world record partnership of 624 – not just for Tests but also for first class cricket – stands in their name. The understanding between the two is something else when it comes to running between wickets and being aware of each other’s strengths.
Not very long into his career, it was on the cards that Jayawardene would become the first Sri Lankan batsmen to cross 10,000 runs in Test cricket, such was his class, skill, elegance and insatiable appetite for runs and big scores. Not surprisingly he did reach the landmark though right now he is struggling and for the first time after an extended period his average has fallen below 50.
Not so for Sangakkara who is going from strength to strength. There was some doubt initially whether he would emulate his partner and reach the five-figure mark in Tests particularly as he was also regularly keeping wickets. But from the moment he handed over the gloves to Prasanna Jayawardene his batting, already very effective, improved by leaps and bounds.
Now it was only a question of when, and not if, he would cross 10,000 runs in Tests. That great moment came about just before lunch on the opening day of the second Test against Australia at Melbourne on Wednesday and now it is only a matter of time before he surpasses Mahela as the leading run getter for Sri Lanka. It is also a matter of time before he surpasses Mahela as the leading century maker for the country for with 30 he is only one behind.
Two other stats will put Sangakkara’s feat in proper perspective. One, he has taken the same number of innings – 195 – as Sachin Tendulkar and Brian Lara to get to 10000 runs, which is the fastest to get to the five figure mark. Second, with an average of virtually 56, he is fractionally behind Jacques Kallis with the best average among the eleven who have reached the landmark.
Also, with eight double hundreds he is third behind Lara (9) and Don Bradman (12) and here it would not be out of place to mention that he has a score of 199 not out and two scores of 192. Besides he only one among four batsmen – Bradman, Wally Hammond and Vinod Kambli being the others – to get double hundreds in successive innings.
The figures against his name make for eye rubbing and mind boggling stuff particularly since he is not a stonewaller but a natural stroke player. While being secure in defence, Sangakkara is fluent on the attack. Indeed he can be a purist's delight for his strokes are straight out of the textbook.
He reserves his innovative shots for limited overs cricket where needless to say he has been enormoussly successful being the leading run getter for Sri Lanka, marginally ahead of Mahela with a much better average. But in Tests his drives, pulls, cuts and hooks are pure cricketing shots.
As captain, Sangakkara was a natural. Mahela, who was his predecessor and successor, gushed about his qualities and hailed him as "a born captain, a natural leader." Sangakkara, while inheriting a good side from Jayawardene, within a very short period moulded it into a squad that was difficult to beat in any format of the game.
A great deal of the credit for Sri Lanka’s successful run in recent times can be attributed to Sangakkara’s leadership qualities. Supremely confident of his own ability and that of his teammates, he instilled that confidence in his side and particularly in the new boys. He was ready for the captaincy having been Mahela’s long standing deputy and when it was handed over to him he grabbed it with both hands and was firmly in command before relinquishing the post last year.
His success story stems from Sangakkara’s personality for he has been a picture of confidence ever since he first played for the national side in 2000. In his dual role of wicket keeper and batsman, he excelled as the figures will confirm. In the first few years of the new millennium, if Adam Gilchrist was the world’s most valuable keeper/batsman, Sangakkara came in a stylish second.
With the exit of the great Australian, Sangakkara became the premier dual role player. And while history will chiefly remember him as an astute skipper and a world class batsman he could be a menace for the opposition behind the stumps too, being able to boost the confidence of the bowlers and fielders with a diving catch or a quickfire stumping.
Erudite and intelligent, Sangakkara’s talk at the Colin Cowdrey lecture at Lord’s last year was greatly appreciated for both his impeccable English and the important points he made. He can also be ultra-competitive and now and then has been pulled up for breaching the ICC’s code of conduct.
A cricketer of the times, he is not afraid to indulge in sharp banter on the field, getting under the skin of even the most unflappable of players. Sangakkara might have the traditional grace of a left hander but his attitude is very much Australian. Naturally aggressive, he has a tendency to over react when the adrenaline really starts to pump.
However, age and the responsibility of captaincy have mellowed him and his appeals are less catlike these days even though he remains fiercely competitive. He is not the kind of cricketer one would like to get into an argument with - not unexpectedly for he is training to be a lawyer between tours.
It is his feats as a batsman that have earned Sangakkara a name as one of the leading players in the world. He has been ranked in the top five for years and has reached the top slot more than once. He remains a feared batsman as he can also play the rescue act to perfection. Add to all this his well known feats in the shorter versions of the game and one can see why Sangakkara is one of the superstars of international cricket.