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By Suresh Menon
Somehow ‘Sangawardene’ sounds right, conjuring up a relationship where it is difficult to separate the two great batsmen who have been friends from their schooldays, led Sri Lanka, and made over ten thousand runs each in two forms of the game. In all three forms put together only ‘Tenduly’ (Tendulkar-Ganguly) stands ahead of them. But Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene have a chance to add to their tally. They have the highest partnership in all cricket, 624 for the third wicket against South Africa.
Jayawardene is the older by exactly five months; both will be 38 by the next World Cup. Not surprisingly, they have both decided to quit T20 internationals after the T20 in progress in Bangladesh. Sangakkara, never afraid to speak his mind, has said he will continue to play in the IPL because the money is good.
The media have tried to portray their partnership as a coming together of opposites. Left hander versus right hander. Aggression versus calm. Efficiency versus style. Yet, what they have in common is more interesting and will be of more lasting value to cricket, especially in Sri Lanka. For one, they are agreed that there is a Sri Lankan way of playing the game which is too valuable to be lost in the by-lanes of excessive coaching. Not only must we win, said Sangakkara at the 2011 World Cup where he captained in the final against India, but we must win playing like Sri Lanka.
No other country could have produced Muthiah Muralitharan, Sanath Jayasuriya, Lasith Malinga, each unique, and each successful by being unique. Young Sri Lankans aren’t embarrassed about being different; it is a philosophy endorsed by their most successful players. In some ways, Sangawardene represented the two strains of Sri Lankan cricket. Jayawardene is in a straight line from the naturally correct, moving coaching manuals that can be traced to the likes of Sathasivam and Gamini Goonasena. Sangakkara is a successor to Aravinda D’Silva whose correctness was leavened by originality.
Few modern batsmen made the score board irrelevant, keeping us focused at the manner of scoring rather than the volume of runs scored. India’s V V S Laxman had that magic touch. So did Jayawardene, a batsman incapable of an ugly stroke yet modern enough in his thinking to play the long innings, make the triple century. Sangawardene’s partnership of 624 was built on the left hander’s 287 and his partner’s 374, still the highest individual score in an innings by a right handed batsman.
If there is a statistical weakness in Jayawardene’s career, it is his record in England, Australia, South Africa and New Zealand, countries where his average slips to under 35. Away from home Sangakkara, whose overall Test average of 58.07 is superior to that of Sobers, Hobbs, Tendulkar and Dravid, averages over fifty.
Yet, impressive as the statistics of these two batsmen are, their impact must be seen in psychological terms, for the combination of self-assurance and instinct to return fire that they brought into the team. It was the street fighting skills of Arjuna Ranatunga refined by the greater width of knowledge. Sangakkara could sledge with the best of them, especially from behind the wickets, but he could also deliver the Spirit of Cricket Lecture at Lord’s bringing to the oration a sense of purpose and a line in humour that invited a standing ovation, one reserved only for Nobel Laureate Desmond Tutu before him. “He spoke the truth,” wrote Jayawardene in a tribute to his friend in Wisden India Almanack, “when it might have been more convenient to mouth platitudes.”
Jayawardene was possibly the better captain, with a greater understanding of the tactical aspects of the game, while Sangakkara would inspire by both word and gesture.
When C B Fry and Ranjitsinhji were putting bowlers to the sword in their time, rival supporters often said, “Ranji is not out and Fry is not in,” as if there was no hope for the opposition. Over the years, the sentiment has remained, only the names have changed: Ponsford and Bradman, Kanhai and Sobers, Miandad and Zaheer Abbas, Dravid and Tendulkar. Sangakkara and Jayawardene take their place in that list as if by right. It isn’t enough to get one of them out, both had to be dismissed before a bowling side could begin to breathe again.
At 37, you don’t need a law degree like the one Sangakkara has, to figure out that you are closer to the end of your career as a sportsman than at the beginning. There is the tour of England in June. Then the World Cup in February next?