Sangakkara grows into senior pro role

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The Independent Online

Nobody who saw Kumar Sangakkara play against England for the first time will forget it. It was at Galle in 2001 and when he was not talking he was appealing and when he was not appealing he was agitated. He was one of four Sri Lankans to be hauled before the match referee.

A fortnight later in the next Test at Kandy it got worse. Sangakkara and Michael Atherton were summoned and fined for sniping at each other throughout a long afternoon. It was obvious that Sangakkara had irritated Atherton and equally obvious that that was the precise intention.

It came as a mild surprise - no, actually, it was perfectly bewildering - eventually to meet an erudite, charming man who said he was the one and the same Kumar Sangakkara and showed scant contrition.

That was then, when Sangakkara was 22, trying to assert himself and hoping that by doing so Sri Lanka might do likewise. Now he is the vice-captain of his country, a senior professional of 54 Tests and 166 one-dayers.

"I think I have become less confrontational," he said. "I think that comes with a bit of maturity, focusing more on playing the game rather than just gamesmanship. I had a few run-ins - for which the blame should be shared equally. But in the last few years it has become much more amiable."

That was always the contradiction. Sangakkara is an amiable man. He was in the middle of studying for a law degree when Sri Lanka called in 2000. He is still in the middle of it, though nearer the end than the beginning. He may return to the law after he finishes cricket. "I would like to keep in touch with cricket once I've finished, but to do something completely away from it. Fifteen years or so of your life doing one thing is enough, then try and do something else for a few more years."

Sangakkara is quite simply a clever chap. He probably knows it as well but this is no bad thing. It has taken him time to become a clever batsman and the next month or two should provide a hint of how smart he is now.

Obviously he can bat, as a Test match average of 47 testifies, and you probably do not keep wicket regularly to the wonder that is Muttiah Muralitharan by being a dud with gloves on. But although his record away from Sri Lanka bears some scrutiny he has not done well against either Australia or England. Too flashy perhaps.

"I would love to score runs in Australia, in England, in New Zealand. They are the benchmarks if you like. Four years ago for me here was a steep learning curve. I have come a long way, it's not perfect but I have sharpened and streamlined a few things. You learn every day at cricket and I have come to understand myself a bit more and my cricket a bit more."

He can be a lovely player, serene driving matched by lethal shots square. But as he put it he still has to cut out some of the shots that he likes playing.

Sangakkara is smart enough to recognise that Sri Lanka are up against it on this tour. But he spoke persuasively of the blend of youth and experience in the squad and of how the young men have it in them "to surpass whoever has set standards in Sri Lankan cricket".

He added: "It's good to see people who can become better either than you or players who have gone before come into the side. They need a good long run to see what cricket is all about, experience the whole culture. It has a huge tradition and you need to understand why you play the game and your place in the history, especially as it is relative to Sri Lanka."

He spoke rapturously of Murali, of Chaminda Vaas, of his captain for this tour, Mahela Jayawardene, of the "great leader" Arjuna Ranatunga who had infused the team.

But nor did he repel questions about the tragedy of the tsunami. "When you saw what had happened you knew how lucky you were to do what you do. People say it's humbling and it is but those people also expected us to get back to playing cricket."

Civil war is again threatening to engulf Sri Lanka with the Tamil Tigers having resumed their armed bid for independence. "We have had political instability for a long time but there are still certain positives despite some incidents lately. Cricket has a huge role in getting on with life. The team is entirely multi-ethnic and it is important for everyone to see, even politically, how much mutual respect and affection there is in the team."

Kumar Sangakkara is a deeply thoughtful and impressive man who can play cricket beautifully at times. If perchance he should sledge an Englishman this month remember that.

Replay 1984: Wettimuny the wonder bat

It was difficult to know which was England's biggest mistake: picking only 11 in the squad, putting Sri Lanka in, or playing ineptly. None of these should diminish Sri Lanka's wonderful performance during their debut at Lord's, one which bellowed their fitness for Test cricket.

None of the tourists had played at the home of the game before, this was their 12th Test, their first in England. Yet by the end of the first day they were 226 for 3, by the end of the second 434 for 4, and at times looked like enforcing the follow-on.

Three Sri Lankans scored centuries: Sidath Wettimuny, Amal Silva and Duleep Mendis. Wettimuny made 190 over more than 10 hours, the highest by anybody in his first Test at Lord's, Mendis fell six runs short of becoming only the second man to score hundreds in both innings there.

Allan Lamb's fourth hundred of the summer ensured England kept the deficit to only 121, but their run- rate was shockingly pedestrian. The draw meant it was England's 12th match without a win.

Stephen Brenkley