And so it wasn’t to be. Sri Lanka’s defeat at the hands of South Africa last week brought the curtain down on their World Cup campaign. A strong Proteas side completely outplayed the Lankans in every department on the day and were deserving victors. While some encouraging batting performances in the group stage, particularly the prolific form of Kumar Sangakkara, had raised hopes of a contest in the knockouts, the Sri Lankans weren’t quite polished enough to progress on this occasion.
It meant a sad end to the one day international cricket for two of Sri Lanka’s greatest cricketers and national icons. It certainly feels like the glittering careers of Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara deserved a showpiece finale, and it will have been galling for many Sri Lankans to see their heroes go out on such a limp note.
While there was no fairytale ending, let’s not forget to celebrate these giants for years of wonderful service to Sri Lankan cricket. I find it hard to imagine watching another game without them. The memories are almost too well engrained in our heads…the majestic cover drives either side of the wicket…the sensational catch at slip or behind the stumps…THAT world record test partnership. These two towers of Sri Lankan cricket have given our country much to be proud of.
The boy wonder turned leader
Mahela Jayawardene was a cricket front-page boy in Sri Lanka right from his earliest years in international cricket. Prolific in school cricket, in the immediate post-1996 era he was identified early as a future captain of the national side. The talent was obvious, and he tasted early personal successes. However his early career was dogged by inconsistency in both his batting and fielding. With experience came maturity and nous, and in 2006 Mahela propelled himself and Sri Lanka to new heights. Thrust into the captaincy after an injury to Marvan Attapattu, he led from the front with exceptional batting and captaincy on a run which saw records broken, overseas whitewashes, and a World Cup final appearance in 2007.
The latter half of his career was almost just as impressive, featuring a stunning World Cup final century, a second captaincy stint which breathed new life into a struggling side, and a prolific record opening the batting in cricket’s brave new world of Twenty20.
For me, two things stood out about Jayawardene on the cricket field. First was the artistry and innovation he brought to his batting. No cricket aficionado would label him a “slogger”, yet in Twenty20 cricket he could score runs at a rate comparable to many of the games bit hitters. Time and time again he would unfurl shots that you would probably call a fluke if you’d seen a lesser batsman play it for the first time. Yet when Jayawardene nails the reverse sweep or the deft late cut fine for the umpteenth time you’re not surprised. After his last game he said that “the challenge has been to evolve” in today’s fast moving world of ever-changing rules and formats in international cricket. It’s fair to say he’s overcome that challenge with distinction. Secondly, his masterful proficiency as a tactician stands him out as one of the best captains in the modern era. Rarely taking a defensive approach, it was intriguing watching him move fielders this way and that, plotting with his bowler the next ambush on his unwary victim.
Image from ESPN Cricinfo
The practitioner who made practice make perfect
Despite being of similar age to Jayawardene, Sangakkara broke into the national side a few years later. Also an aspiring lawyer at the time, his talent was similarly evident from the start. Initially a wicket-keeper batsman in all formats, he was viewed by many as a brash young player with a propensity for the impetuous. In parallel with Jayawardene, his game became more polished with maturity and experience. In 2007, when he shelved the wicketkeeping gloves in test cricket, a very good batsman became a world class batsman. After that, he went interstellar.
The numbers are quite mind boggling- look on Cricinfo for yourself. Even at the age of 37 in his final ODI tournament he was making batting and wicket-keeping records tumble in this World Cup. Four centuries in four consecutive games was a first in the World Cup and was the cornerstone of Sri Lanka’s batting efforts. Consistency has become second nature to him, and he has delivered under pressure in all formats of international cricket. Sangakkara is undoubtedly a modern legend of cricket and must rank amongst some of the best batsmen of all time.
His success has come as a result of copious training, preparation and attention to detail. It is well known in the Sri Lankan dressing room that if Sanga gets out cheaply, the coaches will be out of luck as they will face an entire day of throw-downs in the nets. A determined warrior with an exemplary work ethic, coupled with prodigious talent, his success is perhaps not so surprising.
Image from ESPN Cricinfo
Inspiration for the nation
Great cricketers come and go, but there are few who capture the hearts and minds of their countrymen and cricket lovers alike the way “Maiya” and Sanga have. It is perhaps their off field demeanour and exploits that have set them apart. Publicly at the forefront of charitable causes, they have both spoken of harnessing the spirit of cricket to build broken and divided communities in Sri Lanka. Mahela repeatedly speaks of feeling humbled on a relief mission to the war torn areas of Sri Lanka following the 2004 tsunami when rebel soldiers from the LTTE would speak to him with great passion for the exploits of the national team. Sangakkara’s stirring “Spirit of Cricket” lecture in 2011 touched the hearts of millions as he told the story of Sri Lankan cricket like an epic novel, speaking openly about where he felt it’s controlling powers had let down his nation’s sporting love, and the code by which he would play for “his people”: “ My loyalty will be to the ordinary Sri Lankan fan…Fans of different races, castes, ethnicities and religions who together celebrate their diversity by uniting for a common national cause…. Their spirit is the true spirit of cricket…I am Tamil, Sinhalese, Muslim and Burgher. I am a Buddhist, a Hindu, a follower of Islam and Christianity. But above all, today, and always, I will be proudly Sri Lankan.”
There are too many memorable Mahela-Sanga moments to recount, but my personal favourite comes in a perhaps not so well known match in 2012 shown in the video below. Sri Lanka are playing Australia in a one day international in Melbourne in the Tri Series tournament also featuring India. They have only a few days earlier fluffed a chance of qualifying for the finals by failing to defend 320 after Virat Kohli smashed them all around Hobart and are faced with a do-or-die clash with the Aussies. They post 238, a fighting but underwhelming score. Sangakkara scores 64, supported by further fifties from Chandimal and Thirimanne. Sri Lanka lose Angelo Mathews and Thisara Perera to injury early in their bowling effort. Mahela, a month into his second spell as Sri Lanka’s captain has a steep task ahead of him. He leads a determined fielding effort and Sri Lanka haul themselves back into contention. At critical junctures, he throws the ball to Lasith Malinga, ignoring his pasting by Kohli a few days earlier and trusts his star bowler’s match winning ability. Malinga takes 4 wickets and Sri Lanka are closing in, but David Hussey is steering Australia through choppy waters too. 10 needed from the last over with 1 wicket remaining. Kulasekara to Hussey…hit aerial flat down to long on…Dilshan is under it…and takes the catch! The Sri Lankan-strong crowd goes berserk. The camera initially cuts to Kulasekara exalting flat on the floor, then to a beaming Mahela knelt down. His smile is cut from view as he is mobbed by a Sangakkara rugby tackle. The two friends then rush to the boundary to join their comrades as echoes of lion roars bellow through the night.