Kumar Sangakkara Talks Candidly About Many Things in Exhaustive Interview, 20 August 2015
The Island: By your own admission, you were an average cricketer at school while your contemporaries like Thilan Samaraweera, Mahela Jayawardene and Aviskha Gunawardene were way ahead. How have you been able to finish with a Test average of 58?
Sangakkara: I think there’s a lot of things that go into it. When you look back upon the game of cricket and your own career, you always realise that these are not things that you do alone. There are so many other contributions that enrich your career along the way that you learn from, you build upon and that will help you with your game. In my case, I had so many people – friends, family, coaches, teammates, opposition players that really lifted my game when I played. All of these factors contribute. And when I look back upon my career, I feel extremely blessed and extremely lucky to have been playing this game for so long and to have played it in the best manner that I could. I think it is important to play it with a sense of wonderment, like childhood wonder, because if you don’t enjoy the game and you don’t thrive in an environment where you are supposed to have fun, and also compete and perform at the highest level, it’s hard to be successful. I have just been in an environment that continually pushed me to get better.
The Island: When people talk of your best knocks, they often remember your 192 in Hobart, your century at Lord’s or your match winning hundred in Durban that set up Sri Lanka’s first Test win in South Africa. But many forget your first double hundred. Even you haven’t spoken much about it. It was a greenish track in Lahore; you had kept wickets the whole day and then walked in to bat to face the second ball of the innings after Marvan Atapattu got out to a first ball duck. Talk us through that innings.
Sangakkara: Well, to start with, it was a wonderful year for us in Test cricket. Sanath was captain and I think we won ten Tests in a row and our average first-innings score must have been close to 500 in all those games. That game I think was my first Test match against Pakistan. It was quite an impressive pace attack. They had Waqar Younis, Shoaib Akthar, Mohammad Sami and Abdul Razzaq. We’d just got them out for 262 with Charitha Buddhika seaming and swinging the ball to get five wickets. And then I just went in to bat. I remember Marvan got out hooking the first ball of our innings. I had just started to put my pads on, taken my keeping pads off and I had to walk in. I walked in and I played the first over – Waqar was swinging it back into me. Shoaib started, and this was the first time I had seen Shoaib bowl in a match. I remember he just ran in and he bowled one ball to Sanath and he just hit it over point or extra cover for four. Next ball again, one-bounce four. The third ball was a bouncer which went over Sanath. I don’t think Sanath saw it, I don’t think Rashid Latif who was keeping saw it. It just went over his head and went for five wides. And I was on the other side thinking this is not going to be easy. But that was a day when everything fell into place. I started middling the ball almost immediately, I started scoring quite quickly and I remember Shahid Afridi came in to bowl at lunch the next day and I had gone into my 90s. And he bowled two of the best balls you can bowl trying to get to a hundred. They were short and wide enough for me to cut. I remember getting there and Mahela I think was there on the other side when I got to my double hundred. I still remember flicking a ball to fine-leg for four. And I looked at the board and said to Mahela, I think have just scored a double hundred. And I was really proud of that knock because it was Asian Test championship final. It was a good pace attack. A good wicket to play on and I was happy that I scored runs in the match we won.
The Island: There have been couple of other Test wins too in Pakistan. Then there were other Test wins overseas like 2006 Nottingham, 2006 Wellington, 2011 Durban and 2014 Headingley. You scored heavily on all those occasions. What’s your best memory?
Sangakkara: I think there were two knocks in New Zealand in 2006. I had just gone to New Zealand the previous time and Stephen Fleming had this plan of trying to bounce me out. I remember I inside-edged a drive in the first Test. I got out bowled by James Franklin in the second Test and then we had a return leg. We had like three tours of New Zealand during that time, one after another. I went back. It was Christchurch – Shane Bond, Chris Martin, James Franklin and Jacob Oram. First innings I got out caught third slip to Shane Bond and I thought oh, not a great start to the Test series but the second innings knock, I was very happy. We were again five wickets down for 46. I managed to bat with the tail and get to a hundred. And I think if not for that unfortunate run out of Murali at the end, if we could have another 30-40 runs, we could have actually won that game because New Zealand lost five wickets chasing down 119. We went to the second game and the wicket was strangely much harder than it was in Christchurch. I think there was an Australian groundsman. We asked him about that, looks a really good wicket and he said yes, if there is pace and bounce, it is enough for a fast bowler. You don’t need the ball to seam and swing around all day. We said ok, and we were four down pretty soon and I batted with Chamara Silva and I managed to get quite a decent hundred in that effort. And Chamara, having scored two ducks in the first Test, made a 60 and a 150 in the second Test. So that was a really satisfying effort because it was quite an attritional Test match, Test series and one-day series. We managed to win the second Test quite convincingly. Those two knocks were good and also that knock in South Africa because again, I got a duck in the first innings, out to Marchant de Lange who was bowling quite quickly. In the second innings I went out to bat and Boucher dropped me when I was about nine, probably the easiest catch he is ever gonna get and he drops me and after that, for some reason, I just found rhythm and timing. Everything seemed to hit the middle of my bat and I went on to a hundred and we won. It was those knocks that were very special because they were conditions in which I would normally think twice about when I prepare. But to go there and get on top of those conditions was pretty satisfying.
The Island: Over the years, left arm seamers have had quite bit of success against you. Tell us about your preparation before facing the likes of Trent Boult, Zaheer Khan or Mitchell Johnson.
Sangakkara: Probably less Mitchell Johnson, more Zaheer Khan. I remember, Zaheer was a nightmare to face because he was so skilful. He has the ability to seam the ball as well as swing it both ways. He is like a Chaminda Vaas. He is absolutely sure of himself. He knows exactly what he is doing. He has got amazing control and he can bowl with the new ball, he can bowl any time of the innings. He can bowl quick if he wants to or really bowl within himself if the situation calls for it. Reverse, he was just the master. And then I probably because I have quite a large trigger movement at times, it made it a little difficult for me to face left-arm pacers. Especially guys who had the skill to move the ball both ways. Trent Boult is a fantastic bowler but I think to get on top of him is a little easier than a bowler like Zaheer Khan. I have a lot of respect for Zaheer, the way he bowled not just to me but around the world in all conditions. I have had trouble against guys like Graeme Swann, spinners like Murali who would turn the ball almost immediately off the pitch. I have had my share of troubles but the real key is to try and find a way to score runs at the end of the day, whether it looks ugly or nice I didn’t care as long as I managed to make an impact on the game. So it was really interesting to try and work things out in my head as to what I should do and how I should approach an innings when I faced these bowlers.
The Island: How important is it for a batsman to set ego aside?
Sangakkara: I think it is important for anyone, not just in cricket but in everything you do. I think everyone has an ego in the sense that they have the belief and self-confidence. The real key is not to allow it to blind you to the options that you should take and to commonsense and to reality at times. And you should have room for other opinions also. And room in your life to be criticized and to be able to accept that and learn from mistakes. You can’t let your ego just ensure that you are trying to do the same thing over and over again and expecting different results when it is not working. I think confidence and being really sure of yourself is a fantastic trait. Being very secure in your own abilities is great but you need to be balanced and I think that’s where even in a dressing room environment, for it to be healthy, you need egos that are constructive and that drive and push each other to achieve better things together, not just you as an individual.
The Island: You have been involved in several charities as well.
Sangakkara: The main foundation that I have been a trustee since early 2000s is Foundation of Goodness headed by Kushil Gunasekara and Muttiah Muralitharan. That’s been one of the most effective charity organizations in Sri Lanka. And at this moment, we maintain well in excess of 50,000 people annually all over Sri Lanka from the south to the north. We have a Centre of Excellence in Seenigama, we partner with the MCC, with Tesco, with Laureus, Dell Computers and various other wonderful institutions that come and partner up to help us be more effective. We offer free psychosocial support, pharmacy, dentistry, indoor and outdoor facilities for sports, vocational training, English language training – basically life skills to bridge the gap between the urban and the rural communities. Since the war ended in 2009, we have gone every month without fail from then to now and we keep going every month without fail. We are trying to replicate the same centre and the same facilities we have down south in Mankulam and we have just got approval for the land as well which was granted to us a few years ago. They are exciting times. There are also other projects that I am very proud to be part of. There’s another charity works specifically on anti-suicide and mental health related issues. We are just starting to establish a centre of excellence for differently abled children in Ragama. We have just joined hands with Hemas and the doctors in Ragama to try and set up a centre. The first of its kind, and it has just got underway. Hopefully, in the next three years we will be able to achieve that. There is never enough time really and never enough that you can do but I think again this game has given us so much and I think the Sri Lankan team especially, I should commend everyone who has been a part of it that they have set a great example for me to follow and for others to follow after me where we have set up instances where even the Man of the Match and Man of the Series cash awards that we get, we put it into a pool and that is used as a team fund for not just team-related issues but mainly to help anyone who comes and makes requests from us. We just put whatever we get into a fund, we don’t have the habit of sharing that out between individuals or the team. We put it into a fund, the manager usually has access to it and it’s to benefit people who come for urgent bypass operations or cancer-related treatment or any urgent medical help that we can then contribute towards.
The Island: You took over as the captain in 2009 just ahead of the World T-20. It was a successful stint, but lasted only 19 months. Talk us through some of the highlights of your captaincy, the changes you brought in and whether you regret giving it up too early after the 2011 World Cup?
Sangakkara: The decision was conveyed to the selectors well in advance. No regrets, not really. I think that was also realistically the time period. Before that Mahela was there for a while, I was there for close to two years. But I really enjoyed my tenure as captain. And the changes that we tried to do was not really changes but to try and build on the base that we already had. So that again, we wanted to try and beat good sides, especially away from home. It was great to go to Australia in 2010 and for the first time beat them in a series in Australia in one-day cricket. We had Pakistan in 2009, first time we ever beat them in 26 years in a Test series at home. I remember Trevor Bayliss was there and Chandika Hathurusinghe was Assistant Coach. Paul Farbrace had I think just left us. We played nine One-Day tournaments and reached the final of almost every tournament. It was a great atmosphere. A great period for us because it was a side that had older players and younger players. We had Angelo Mathews who had just come into the side establishing himself, we had Dinesh Chandimal playing a few games with us, we had Lahiru Thirimanne who made his debut during that time, Thisara Perera – a lot of these players just came through and really impressed themselves upon the national side. All we tried to do was to create a really comfortable environment for them to come and play in, an environment where they felt valued, where they had no fear or doubts when it came to their performances or how to behave or really come in and gel with seniors in the side. And it really helped to have guys like Murali in the side. Mahela was there, Vaasy and Sanath were just finishing. I think it was a collective effort that really stood us in good stead.
The Island: You just mentioned the name of Chandika Haturusinghe. You were almost pleading with the board not to treat him harshly when the board Chairman wanted to take disciplinary action against him. Eventually he had to leave Sri Lanka’s set up. He is now producing excellent results for Bangladesh. How happy are you for him?
Sangakkara: Feels great to see how well he has done. He left Sri Lanka unfortunately and we lost his services but I remember when he first requested that he join the national side, it was very easy to see what a wonderful player manager he was. He understood individuals. He created a wonderful environment for players to thrive in and enjoy their cricket and when he went to Australia, they really wanted him to join their set-up quite early. He worked with New South Wales and some of those batsmen have done really well like Steven Smith, for example. And then, very, very happy that he got to coach the Bangladesh’s national side. And again, the change that you see in the Bangladesh approach to cricket, the way they have been positive and smart and the way they have shown no fear, these are hallmarks of the environment Chandika creates for players to really go out there and not fear failing. And I couldn’t be more proud and happy when I see Chandika and the amount of work he has done. Not just for us but also for Bangladesh and some of the Australian players as well.
The Island: What’s the greatest thing you take away by playing this sport?
Sangakkara: I think at the end of the day, some things in cricket you learn very fast. That it is at the end of the day a sport – a fantastic, wonderful, very unique sport but it is a game and you need to enjoy it. You need to be able to let go. And at the same time, you need to appreciate the fact that you have been one of the very, very lucky few to be afforded the privilege of representing your country and playing on a world stage. And I think those are really the most important things when you play because if you play with all that in mind, it is very easy to thrive in this game rather than fight it. I have been one of those lucky few and I am very, very thankful to everyone who has given me that opportunity.
The Island: You became a role model to many young Sri Lankans from a very young age. How prepared were you for it?
Sangakkara: I don’t think you are ever prepared or really thinking about it. At the end of the day, you are yourself, you try and do things the best way that you can. It’s a shame that people don’t really see you when you are relaxing at home with your family, when you are not just a cricketer, you are another part of the group. I think it is a responsibility that comes with what we do and being in the public eye. It is no use trying to contrive anything for cameras or for press or for public benefit. It is just a case of trying to be who you are and trying to be the best person that you can be.
The Island: How comfortable are you with it?
Sangakkara: There is no escape from it, is there? It’s the scrutiny, the eyes of society, everyone being on you. Sometimes, it can seems intrusive, it can seem unfair, sometimes you think of ‘why me’ and lot of things like that. But you have got to understand that the benefits I have received from this game and from being in the public eye are immense and there is always a responsibility of understanding that that is not your right, it is a privilege that has been given to you by the public. If they don’t come and watch you play or they don’t buy products you endorse or whatever that happens, that partnership is such an important thing for the longevity not just of your own career but also of sport. And that is something that you have to respect. That partnership, that privilege that you are allowed to represent them and they love you in return, no matter whether you do badly or well or whether you win or lose. I think that is an amazingly grounding thought. In Sri Lanka, we are very, very lucky I think. Through thick and thin, we have had the support from every community in Sri Lanka and cricket’s been a great uniting factor and we have had a very, very good partnership with the public.
The Island: Tell us about your friendship with Mahela Jayawardene?
Sangakkara: There’s no friendship where you agree on everything. We hardly agree on a lot of things. But the point is you argue, you debate things but you try and come to the best decision because you had all that information coming in and sounding boards for different opinions and different thoughts that you have. But at the end of the day, it is all built on mutual respect and the fact that everyone is trying to do the best what they can for the team, the sport and for each other and that’s something we have tried to set up in the dressing room as well; to understand that again, you come and you go as a cricketer but the time you are gone or when the time to leave has come, you have left the dressing room and the sport in just a slightly better place, that you have made an impact on other people around you that’s enhanced their own careers. So I think that combination, our friendship has always been with that in mind.
The Island: More than runs and fame and money, is relationships your biggest takeaway from cricket?
Sangakkara: Yeah, I think it is all a combination of everything but at the end of the day, the real test of what you have achieved is felt only when you have left the game and a few years have passed. Whether you can still sit around the dinner table and have your closest friends coming and having a chat with you and some of your teammates, they are having a drink with you and having a chat about the good old days. That’s the real test of what you have achieved. You will have your runs, you will have the fame and the cash at times, but that’s the real test. Once you have faded away and you are not very much in the public eye, whether people still value you for who you have been and who you will be.
The Island: Have you spoken to others on preparing for retirement?
Sangakkara: I think it is very hard to prepare yourself because I really don’t know what it will be like to actually stop playing international cricket. I think I am very, very lucky compared to earlier players because there is so much cricket that I can play around the world still to get it out of my system slowly. But guys like Aravinda, there have been so many people who have gone from the sport, gone on to other things, who have become very successful in their own right in other fields. There are lots of people you can look around and see that life doesn’t end with the sport. But at the same time, as a structural improvement in Sri Lanka cricket, we really need to be able to do what a lot of the other countries including India have done with the pension schemes and the pension funds for cricketers so that once they do leave the game, they don’t feel that they have been abandoned and forgotten. That if they are in trouble, that there is a place or an institution or a facility that they can make use of to try and alleviate some of that pressure. And I think that’s something we must seriously look at because cricketers give a lot – they are given a lot but at the same time they give a hell of a lot in return, so they need looking after not just while they are playing but also after they are finished.
The Island: Your wife turns up for most games you played in Sri Lanka and spends time with you during overseas tours. Tell us a few things about her?
Sangakkara: I met her in Kandy. We were in two schools that had the same founder. Rev Ireland Jones founded Trinity and then Hillwood College in Kandy. I met her there when I was about 16-17 and been with her for well over 20 years now. And it’s been the best partnership of my life, without a doubt. We have two beautiful children and she’s a very practical, very sensible lady who minces no words in telling me exactly what she thinks of my cricket or what I do or the decisions that I make. Not in any technical sense but in a sense of whether what the thought processes are that go into making these decisions. She has been one of the most important figures in keeping me grounded and ensuring that there is sanity at home. There is order when I am playing. When I am away from home, I have always travelled with them, with my wife and my children, when they come around. And again, I have been very, very blessed to have her in my life.
The Island: You have played down the Lahore terrorist attack in 2009. But your wife was pregnant at that point.
Sangakkkara: Yes, actually my wife was a few months pregnant, quite pregnant by the time we were attacked. Actually I called her and I spoke to her and I said listen, we were driving to the ground and there has been a bit of a shooting but everyone’s fine. Don’t worry about anything. That’s all I told her, I didn’t tell her anything about who got hurt, who got hit and all of this. But unfortunately, there were news items being run saying I got hit in the head and people have died and all these things and she was panicking. I got a few calls and at the end of the day I said listen, I am talking to you, so that means I am fine. But at the same time, I can understand the stress that she was going through. It was easier for us because we knew exactly what was happening but they weren’t getting the news quickly enough or clearly enough. And it was hugely stressful not just on her but all the families and you could see when we landed that the relief they had to have us back and at home in Sri Lanka. It was quite a tough time.