Home >Opinion >Online-views >The splendid ambassadors of Sri Lankan cricket

Rarely does one feel happy when India has lost in a tournament final. But last night, who couldn’t help but feel good for Mahela Jayawardene and Kumara Sangakkara. As Sri Lanka won the ICC T20 World Cup, and Mahela and Sanga were carried around the field by their joyous teammates, I definitely wanted to join the celebrations. The two men who have guided and inspired Sri Lankan cricket for more than a decade and a half had just played their last international T20 match, and were going out in a blaze of glory.

Who could have deserved it more? Who would want a lesser farewell for them?

Has there ever been, in the history of cricket, such a partnership? Born 153 days apart, these two men have been close friends (and business partners. They co-own a seafood restaurant in Colombo called The Ministry of Crab.) committed completely and selflessly to their nation’s cricket. And they are certainly due to be counted as two of the game’s greatest batsmen. Together they have scored nearly 50,000 runs for Sri Lanka in the three versions of the game. Jayawardene has 33 Test centuries, and Sangakkara, 35. Among batsmen who have scored more than 7,500 runs in Test cricket, Sangakkara has the highest average: 58.07. Jayawardene has nine Test double centuries, second only to Don Bradman’s 12. Sangakkara has seven.

And they are certainly among the most gracious and gentlemanly cricketers of their generation. They are fiercely competitive, yet always dignified, and they have the sweetest and most sparkling smiles in the game.

Both have captained Sri Lanka with distinction (Jayawardene was perhaps a better captain than his mate), and both resigned their captaincies voluntarily to give younger men a chance. This is extremely rare in international cricket.

It is astonishing to realize that the Sri Lanka team that played in the World T20 championships had five men who had captained the nation. Yet, at no point were there any flashes of ego or rancour. In the proto-quarter-final against New Zealand, Lasith Malinga was handed the captaincy in the absence of Dinesh Chandimal (thereby maintaining the captaincy score at five). Sri Lanka were skittled out for a mere 120.

When their team came up to field, Jayawardene and Sangakkara took charge. They were setting the field, deciding on bowling changes, and Sangakkara was standing right up to the stumps to his fast bowlers. The players happily obeyed their instructions. Jayawardene and Sangakkara were the wise men, the best, and the inspirational figures, and everyone in the team knew that they would do the right things. Sri Lanka crushed New Zealand.

Fast bowlers often come in pairs—Truman and Statham, Lillee and Thompson, Caddick and Gough—but batsmen, hardly ever, not even opening pairs. India has had Tendulkar, Dravid, Ganguly and Laxman playing together for many years, but their careers have not been totally contemporaneous, and we haven’t seen the sort of camaraderie between them like we have seen in Jayawardene and Sangakkara. Gavaskar and Vishwanath come to mind, but they never had any big partnerships with each other. Jayawardene and Sangakkara hold the world record for batting partnerships—624 against South Africa in 2006 (Sangakkara 287, Jayawardene 374).

The journey of Sri Lankan pride in cricket was flagged off by a portly man called Arjuna Ranatunga, who, as Sangakkara mentioned in his MCC Spirit of Cricket lecture in 2011 (the lecture is worth reading in full, as he recounts the story of a nation, a game, and a decades-long civil war; the text and the video are available on the net), set about creating a wholly Sri Lankan brand of cricket, unfettered by colonial memories and should’s and should not’s. Players were encouraged to be themselves and play in the manner that came naturally to them. The only non-violable rule was: You are playing for Sri Lanka, and you must give everything you have to the team effort. Among the extraordinary results of Ranatunga’s project were Muttiah Muralitharan and Sanath Jayasuriya. Neither would have been the destructive forces they were if they had been constantly hit on the head with a cricket textbook.

Jayawardene and Sangakkara have played their cricket imbued with the spirit that Ranatunga thought was essential. Jayawardene wrote about Sangakkara in Wisden a couple of years ago: “(An) aspect of our game he feels strongly about—and we have been emphasising over the years—is the importance of playing cricket the Sri Lankan way... The techniques of some of our players did not come out of the textbook, but they are uniquely Sri Lankan... The idea is not necessarily to be just flamboyant but work from a strong base and build a unique style, much in the manner of jazz musicians who improvise all the time but whose skills are rooted in sound technique... We don’t want people telling us ‘do this’ or ‘do that’. In a group of six or seven, everyone is different. That is our strength. We don’t want to play like anyone else."

Ranatunga’s team won the World Cup in 1996 with a unique flair and that truly was a great day for cricket. Jayawardene and Sangakkara have carried that Sri Lankan theme in their hearts and made their team one of the most exciting to watch. It is a team with a special character—and also full of special characters. In fact, Jayawardene and Sangakkara are possibly the two most normative cricketers in the whole team. But what they have always personified is honour, grace, humility, wonderful talent and extraordinary leadership ability. They are splendid ambassadors of their nation and of cricket. After the World Cup final was over, Jayawardene said that they still have a bit left in the tank, so they’ll be around for some more time. May those two tanks never run dry.

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