Paul Rhys for Al-Jazeera, 12 March 2009
Kumar Sangakkara’s appointment as Sri Lanka cricket captain in place of Mahela Jayawardene comes just nine days after the team escaped from an ambush by heavily-armed killers on their way to a Test match in Lahore, Pakistan. In a wide-ranging telephone interview with Al Jazeera’s sports website from the Sri Lankan capital Colombo, the world’s No 3 batsman described the extra responsibility of leading a group of players for whom going about the business of playing cricket meant staring down the barrel of a machine gun. The attack on the team convoy on March 3 left eight dead, including six Pakistani policemen and the driver of a minivan carrying match officials to the Gadaffi Stadium. As he prepared to have stitches removed from his own shrapnel wounds on Thursday, Sangakkara also spoke of how he would prevent the mantle of leadership from affecting his record-breaking batsmanship – and how his one-time favourite occupation of sledging the opposition can make or break a player’s game.
Al Jazeera: Congratulations on your appointment today. What does it mean to be leading your country after what happened in Lahore?
Sangakkara: It’s always a big responsibility to take on a cricket captaincy, but with what the team has undergone in the last two weeks there is a special significance and dimension to that responsibility.
It is not just about our cricketing skill now, but our group mentality and the need to ensure everyone is firing for the World Twenty20 in England. We really have to sit down and have a very honest and open discussion about whether what has happened will change the players in any way, to talk about their families and whether we can take something good from what has happened in Lahore.
Have you noticed any change in the players since the attack?
I haven’t met all the guys since Lahore but I’ve spoken to a few of them on the phone. Most of them are spending some time at home with their families and appreciating the little things they may have taken for granted before. But all of them are raring to get back to cricket and some are already back in training. What has been brought home to us is the stark reality of the world today.
Is there any reluctance now to go touring, whether to Pakistan in the long term or other countries in the short term?
There is no reluctance at all on the part of the players about playing cricket on the subcontinent or anywhere else. The concerns are there but there’s no reluctance to play the game – it’s our living and what we love to do.
Will Mahela’s captaincy be a hard act to follow?
He was probably our best captain and he’s done a wonderful job. The way he’s grown into it, how he’s handled the players and all the other things that come with being a Sri Lanka captain – he’s been an inspiration. It’s not going to happen straight away, but we will be improving the player’s strengths, not just planning for the future but in winning immediate matches and gaining confidence.
You are ranked third-best batsman in the world at the moment. Is it a myth that your batting suffers when you become captain?
put too much responsibility on yourself.
The real responsibility of the captain is in the field.
When you’re at the crease you’re just a batsman. All you think about is playing the next ball and what the other batsmen are doing. I’m always a great believer in leadership being situational. Different people at different times will lead. It won’t be the captain all the time. If the captain can make sure we have 15 in the squad who are equally able to read the game, then the age-old concept of captains doing everything for the players can be dismissed.
Mahela once said you shouldn’t play like Australia or India, but like Sri Lanka. What makes Sri Lankan cricket special?
Australia play in an aggressive way, always trying to keep the run rate up when batting and always keeping the batsmen under pressure when bowling. In Sri Lanka we have so much variety in our side – orthodox and unorthodox, old and young, power players and touch players. We have left-arm fast bowlers that other sides struggle to produce. We don’t hesitate to chuck even the new ball to a spinner.
When you put all this in the team we are flamboyant but strange. That’s the way we play, it’s fine but we have to build in consistency, responsibility and understanding.
Sometimes coming into the dressing room, people don’t understand why someone is doing something they have been trying to do and there can be words exchanged. We need to accept players doing what they are good at.
You have been known in your career for enjoying a few words with the opposition batsmen. Is sledging something you will encourage as captain?
I think I have learned that it doesn’t matter what you say, it’s what you do that matters. Sometimes you are found out when you talk but you don’t deliver. I have found to my benefit if the occasion does warrant it you can stand up for yourself and your team mates. But the final vindication is what you do on the field. That has to be the prime focus. You can talk, but do your job. There’s lots of occasions where it’s better to shut up and play the game.
A famous example of sledging was Andrew Flintoff telling Tino Best to “Mind them windows, Tino” after Best had attempted a six on the West Indies tour of England in 2004. Best was stumped next ball after trying to smash the ball out of the ground. Can you think of any noteworthy occasions in your own career?
There’s the famous footage of me sledging Shaun Pollock in the World Cup in 2003, when I was keeping wicket. There have been occasions with Michael Atherton. Once with Brian Lara I remember getting in some words in St Lucia and I was out a couple of balls later to no-stroke with Chris Gayle. I have been involved in many verbal jousts – sometimes it has raised my performance but other times it has suffered.
You don’t sound like a man who has recently been shot at. How have you coped with what happened in Lahore?
I haven’t had the recurring flashbacks or waking up in the night. I have been sleeping quite soundly. I have managed to talk to my family. Sri Lanka gone through a lot in the past 26 years but we’re islanders and we have a prevalent durable feature and we have a sense of humour that enables us to take things in our stride. Hopefully that will stand true for all the guys.