James Lawton: Sangakkara has the nerve to seize glory from Tendulkar on India's biggest day
It is in his mastery of ‘psychological sledging’ that this universally admired character reveals a special talent for exploiting pressure
Saturday 02 April 2011
Mumbai awoke this morning agog to celebrate the life and the meaning of its Little Master, Sachin Tendulkar, and who could begin to question the force of this urge of a great city to anoint a favourite son?
Few sportsmen have ever connected so deeply with the emotions of their birthplace – and perhaps never with such possibility of sheer joy represented by Tendulkar's pursuit of his 100th international century in the World Cup final against Sri Lanka.
The potential for sheer happiness is certainly in sharp contrast to the poignant farewell paid 28 years ago by Rio de Janeiro to the beloved Garrincha – Little Bird – when the body of the brilliant, tragic football star was borne from the Maracana stadium through streets awash with tears to the cemetery and a gravestone which carried the inscription, "He was a sweet child, he talked with the little birds."
Today, though, the expectation of Tendulkar's hometown and all of India is that his story will soar as high as the kites and the rockets. However, one of the great beauties of sport is that there is always someone with the nerve and the talent to tear up even the most luminous of scripts.
The suspicion in Sri Lanka – and here – is that today this man will be Kumar Sangakkara.
At 33 he is only four years Tendulkar's junior and he is not likely to get close to that astonishing haul of 99 centuries – at the moment he trails by 54 – but in every other respect this is a man who can cheerfully place his record against any contemporary.
In Test cricket his average is superior to Tendulkar's, 57.25 against 56.94, the result of superb technique, especially on the offside which has brought 25 centuries. He is a fine wicketkeeper and a captain of both tremendous calm and resolution.
But then it is in his mastery of "psychological sledging" that this universally admired character reveals a special talent for exploiting the pressures on Tendulkar and his team-mates that were becoming increasingly evident in an often fraught semi-final win over Pakistan.
This important discipline, in which the Sri Lanka captain is equipped with immaculately precise English, Sinhalese and Tamil, could become increasingly crucial if India reproduce some of those frailties displayed against Pakistan.
Most significant in this context, though, is the nature of Sangakkara's sledging. It works devastatingly at times – even the imperious Jacques Kallis was once deeply undermined – but never in a way that might bring shame to the former head boy of Trinity College, Kandy.
There is none of the rough, often sexually oriented abuse made notorious down the years. Sangakkara's is a much more subtle business and some years ago he gave a fascinating account of its origins – and debt to Sri Lanka's World Cup-winning captain of 1996, Arjuna Ranatunga.
Sangakkara explained: "Sri Lankans, Indians and Pakistanis had always been very passive with regard to any kind of verbal aggression on the field. As a result we have at times been on the receiving end of a virtual running commentary of personal abuse and sledging designed to make us feel like inferior cricketers from inferior countries. What Arjuna understood was what kind of counter-attack should be launched when it got out of hand."
The portly Ranatunga, who was once harangued as fat and unfit by the Australians when he called for a runner, chose his moment in a high tide of South African sledging, saying, "Look you fellows, this has gone too far. If it doesn't stop, we will respond."
For Sangakkara this was a moment both exemplary and exquisite. He says: "The public perception of sledging is to go out there and abuse someone in obscene language, questioning their parentage or sexual preference. That kind of abuse does not belong on the field of play.
"Sledging should be a measured comment designed to provoke a reaction. It can be something as simple as, 'Let's leave a big gap there, he can't score through there.' Even if you're mentally strong, something like that can still work in the mind. You might be keen to hit the ball through the gap. You might be keen to avoid it. Either way, a seed has been sown."
The needling, discreet or otherwise, may indeed become important at various stages of a battle filled with a fascinating range of talent but the chances are that one or two key performers will get it so right, will perform at such a level, that all else is thrust into the margins.
Tendulkar and Sangakkara loom hugely in these categories, along with India's frequently volcanic opener Virender Sehwag and the man most likely to form a vital stand with the Sri Lankan captain, the No 4 Mahela Jayawardene. Of the bowlers, the pacemen Zaheer Khan of India and Sri Lanka's Lasith Malinga are currently on fire and among the spinners two of Malinga's team-mates, the fabled but injured and retiring Muttiah Muralitharan and sometimes unreadable Ajantha Mendis, are capable of bursts of destruction.
In means that the climax to this meandering, too often purely money-grubbing, TV thirst-slaking World Cup is, on its last day, magically invested with an almost ridiculous level of intrigue. The Indian heart wants to sing for Sachin. However, the neutral head says Sangakkara, who is a mere 8-1 to score a century. The head boy certainly could not pick a better day to be the top man.
Clubs should look to their reputation if they become branches of banks
Many cruel blows have been aimed at the image of English football but who was ready for a banker to worry publicly that association with the old game might just damage his firm's reputation?
Forget toxic debt, gut-wrenching banker bonuses, the rape of taxpayers, consider instead the declaration by Gavin Law, global head of corporate affairs at Liverpool's £20m sponsors Standard Chartered, that a bigger concern is that Andy Carroll might go on a bender or that the team's Asian player content might not quite meet optimum levels for profit-boosting in the Far East.
"We'd love the club to have players from the nations in which we operate. Look what Park [Ji-sung] has done for Manchester United," he said.
United's scuffling South Korean is an industrious operator but he is not Ronaldo, not even Rooney on an indifferent day.
This is a picture of the ultimate football nightmare: United and Liverpool serving not as emotional forces in thriving communities, fuelled by decent levels of banking support for small businesses, but as commercial arms of a big bank.
Director of football is a title that has always carried questionable value, in these quarters anyway, but how much worse would be director of football commercial exploitation?
Imagine Kenny Dalglish or Sir Alex Ferguson's reaction to the memo saying that while it was vital for a club to sign a new midfielder it was also just as essential that the new man has a large fan-base in Hong Kong or Bangkok.
Of course, this is not entirely virgin territory. When Richard Dunne was transferred soon after being voted Player of the Year by Manchester City fans, it was carefully explained that it was all very well playing out of your skin but how many shirts did that sell in Beijing?
Mr Law also thinks it better for Liverpool to stay at Anfield – apparently his customers think this is the best idea. They also believe that Kenny Dalglish should be appointed forthwith. This is probably a very good idea, but not when it comes into the category of customer satisfaction at some bank or other.
Twenty million is a decent amount of money but it should not, even now, be the price of a football club's operating independence. This is before we discuss anything as fancy as its soul.
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