Sanguine Sanga’s sucker punch

Four years ago Kumar Sangakkara made his debut for Sri Lanka as a make shift wicket keeper who had never scored a first-class hundred. It was a gamble alright but, sometimes, good selectors pick cricketers because they just ‘know’ they belong in international cricket.

Sangakkara was one of those. He had ‘attitude’ and self-belief to go along with his obvious talent. Attitude and confidence are frequently misinterpreted as arrogance – ask Mark Boucher – but Sanga has lived up to all his early promise and now boasts six Test centuries and an average nudging up towards 48 after his wonderful innings of 157* on the first day of the second Test against South Africa at the SSC in Colombo on Wednesday.

But it’s not necessarily his runs that have made the biggest impact on his team. It’s that ‘attitude’ – the fearlessness that allowed him to tear into Shaun Pollock and Boucher, amongst others, when Sri Lanka toured South Africa in the 2002-03 season.

Having been humiliated in the first Test at the Wanderers, Sangakkara decided to place himself at the forefront of a new and very different Sri Lankan approach in the second Test at Centurion. He smashed a scintillating 89 and then continued counter-attacking with his razor-sharp tongue as South Africa limped to a slightly embarrassing fourth innings win, finishing on 124-7. The truth is that South African teams had always bullied Sri Lankan teams, even with the likes of Arjuna Ranatunga and Aravinda de Silva in them, and here was a young man who refused to accept that.

During the Galle Test last week I was lucky enough to share a magnificent villa inside the famous Fort with a journalist colleague resident in Sri Lanka, Charlie Austin. On the third evening we decided to make use of the magnificent facilities available to us (including a chef!) by hosting a dinner party for other colleagues and some of the players. Two members of the SA touring party accepted invitations but, very unfortunately, pulled out at the last minute.

Sanga and his wife were delighted to come, however, and Mahela Jayawardene brought his girlfriend. In the absence of his girlfriend Nuwan Zooysa brought a giant pot of fresh crab curry to the party while Charlie and I organised some cold wine and lots of mineral water (which was very much appreciated once we’d tried Zoys’s crab curry).

Sanga, by default, sat at the head of the table but it soon became obvious that was his natural position. Just like he belongs in international cricket, he belongs at the head of the table. Articulate, amusing, thoughtful and, most importantly, modest. Confident, certainly, but undoubtedly modest. It was a most memorable evening.

As the second Test began in Colombo we were presented with the official tour brochure (a little late but worth the wait.) Inside was a lengthy interview, appropriately enough, with Sanga. As I read it I realised I’d heard much of what he was saying before, that night in Galle. And that is when you know you are dealing with a real, genuine person. The truth, afterall, is the truth at dinner or during an interview. (OK, there were a few very amusing stories that wouldn’t be appropriate in a tour brochure!) But this is what he had to say about his ‘history’ against South Africa:

“There were a few eye-openers for us during our last tour there, in 2002. We realised that if you play a very aggressive brand of cricket against them then it affects them, mentally and in their game. That is something that we can carry into the Test series. We have to keep in the back of our minds that you have to ‘go hard’ at the South Afdricans – you have to be aggressive in your batting, fielding and bowling and in your general body language.

“They are used to turning up and trying to dominate teams on the field and that is something we won’t let happen this time around. It was not a pleasant feeling drawing one-all the last time they were here. We are really looking forward to going out there and playing some good, tough Test cricket,” Sangakkara said in the brochure.

Well batted, Sanga.


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