As I watched Kumar Sangakkara play his final international match today, as I saw him tear up delivering his heartfelt farewell speech and as I kept a straight face when my favorite active cricketer become a former player, I thought that I will never be able to express the myriad emotions I felt.
It was easy to watch his T20 swansong in 2014, even though my team was losing, because he scored the match-winning innings. It was easy to write about his ODI swansong earlier this year, with his illustrious career and records, may be because I knew there was more to come. But there was nothing today. What do you say when all you feel is numb as the last link to your childhood obsession is out and what do you write about someone who has been the mainstay in the media for the past few weeks. So I decided to just type and type and type which resulted in this stream-of-consciousness blog post.
This is not an eloquent tribute to the Sri Lankan legend, this is not a cricketing or statistical analysis of why he was ‘underrated’ genius, this isn’t even a recollection of his many virtues as gleaned from interviews and my minimal interactions with him. This is an honest outpouring of why Kumar Sangakkara is my favorite. This is a fangirl talking about what her role model means to her.
First things first, supporting Sangakkara as an Indian cricket fan hasn’t been easy. The number of times I have been trolled and ridiculed for supporting the ‘excessive appealing’, ‘sledging’, ‘cheating captain’ of a rival team, both on and off line, was enough to dent anyone’s faith (or fanaticism.) Like the time I was targeted for defending skipper Sanga when Suraj Randiv bowled a no-ball to Virender Sehwag stuck on 99 to deny him a ton in India’s win, or the time when my inbox was full of insults when I posted that Sanga had correctly called the 2011 World Cup finals toss the first time during the match.
Had I been a fan of a lesser cricketer or if there was even an inkling of doubt on his sportsmanship, my loyalty may have wavered. But no, I was a fan of a player who radiated such passion on field and conviction off it, as a cricket fan you had to believe him and in him. (And as a teenager, even love him.)
But then again, it is hard not to love a guy who had the aura of ‘geeky gentleman’ around him, possibly a first in cricket. Who else can quote Oscar Wilde’s ‘consistency is the last refuge of the unimaginative’ to a player like Kallis on field! While I can’t say how true this is (when I asked him about this episode, all I got was his boyish laughter in response,) his video sledging Shaun Pollock in his typical-accented English during the 2003 World Cup assures me that he did pull some classic and classy shenanigans on field. (As does his wicked laughter in response to seeing the Pollock clip during an interview.)
But the same cocky laughter had another facet, the calm, composed smile. Picture the following incidents –
He is playing a crucial test against Australia on their home turf, there is actually a chance of his underdog team winning it, he is nearing a well learned double century and he is wrongly given out. All he does is walk away and calmly accept the umpire’s apology later.
He has played one of his finest ODI knocks, carrying his bat throughout the innings and giving his team a formidable total only to have the Indian wicketkeeper-batsman smash his record and bowlers. He congratulates the opposition with a calm smile.
He has played in the finals of four consecutive World championship finals, only to lose all of them. But he doesn’t lose his smile at the post-match ceremony. In fact, I vividly recall his face when Dhoni hit that six of Kulsekara; he had a serene smile and congratulated Mahi-Yuvi before giving one of the most gracious runner-up speeches in the tournament’s history, his calm unfazed. (He had the same composed reaction when he returned to Lanka the next day and was greeted by cheering fans.)
He is returning home to his pregnant wife after being caught in a terrorist shoot-out in foreign country and being air-lifted from a cricket stadium. He should be terrified but he has a reassuring smile when he talks about it and is even able to joke about his teammate Paranvithana being shot later.
He is leading a team that hasn’t been paid in months by an organisation riddled with petty politics. Yet he manages that serene smile and ensures that he not only exposes the politicking on a global platform but also that the players get their due, monetary and otherwise.
(The only time I remember him being losing the composed façade is when he scored that much-awaited century at Lords in 2014 and pumped his hands in an exaggerated celebration.)
A lesser person would probably not have survived all this with their record and reputation unscathed. A lesser player would have reacted angrily, thrown a fit, been broken or unsporting. But Sangakkara carried on, played his game, lead his team, brought about change in the system and made a difference to his country on a larger level. Seriously, how could one not love this guy!
Cricket aside, Sangakkara is unique in many other respects. An aspiring lawyer from Trinity, Kandy who speaks with the tone and flair of one from Oxford. He loves U2 and Oscar Wilde but is true to his roots when it comes to his country’s pride. A witness to war and strife at a young age, he speaks so fearlessly against anti-national elements, many see a future politician (or diplomat if Sirisena succeeds) in him. Yet at the same time he is a cheesy romantic whose love stories (both wife and cricket) sound too idealistic to be true. A smart, sharply-dressed celebrity whose penchant for different hairstyles is matched only by his bespoke fashion sense. A voracious reader who is known to have no ghost writer. A responsible citizen who has helped rebuild his country after civil war and tsunami, supporting numerous charities and generally making a difference to anyone who met him.
I know several people, of different nationalities and backgrounds, who interacted with him and had only words of praise. In fact the only people I ever heard bad mouth Sangakkara were on Twitter, mainly (and sadly) Indians who either hated his guts or found his team/cricket boring. Of course, it is beyond me how anyone can find his stylish, southpaw strokes boring, but then again he himself has confessed that he finds his cover drive ugly, (but even he can be wrong sometimes!) However, ugly or not, the his sheer statistical success cannot be denied and even if he thinks that Ranatunga and Jayawardena are better batsmen than him, he leaves the game as the second most successful batsman after Tendulkar.
Which brings me back to today, 24 August, the last time I saw Sangakkara play international ‘crickut’. I saw the usually calmly-smiling Sanga tear up as he delivered his farewell speech, his short hair streaked with grey now as he called curtains on a 15-year long career. And then I remembered the dashing, long-haired wicketkeeper-bat I saw in the early 2000s as a kid; the messy-haired, flamboyant No 3 I had a crush on as teen; the mature, suited-booted player who delivered a striking blow in a mild-manner at his 2011 Spirit of Cricket lecture; the scruffy, smiling guy who was so impressed when I spoke to him in Sinhalese and wanted to know about my plans for the future; the weirdly-shaped helmet clad batsman I saw from the stands of the Brabourne Stadium, and all I could think is that cricket will never be the same again, not for me.
Stephen Chbosky wrote in his cult novel ‘The Perks of being a Wallflower’, “I didn’t think it was very good because I didn’t feel any different when it was over.” Well it is over now and I feel the difference.
Farewell & Thank you for the memories, Sangakkara.