Sanga and Mahela – A partnership for the ages

It was for over two days in July 2006 that Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene's friendship was truly put to test and cemented on a 22-yard strip.

Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara

Sri Lanka's captain Mahela Jayawardene (R) and Kumar Sangakkara during the second day of the 2006 Test match against South Africa in Colombo on July 28.   -  Reuters

It had taken decades of toil, and several generations of world-class players had been lost to cricketing anonymity. Finally, in 1982, Sri Lanka had played its first Test match. The cricket-crazy island had barely finished soaking in the happiness when disaster struck a few short months after the historic Test.

When the Sri Lankan Civil War got underway – it would last over two decades – a six-year old boy in the city of Kandy was just learning to hold a bat. Kumar Sangakkara’s father, Kshema, a Civil lawyer, had taken it upon himself to secretly provide shelter to Tamils in danger of their lives. For young Kumar, his father’s ‘friends’ were a welcome addition to the family, and to his backyard cricket.

Not that cricket was just a game at the Sangakkara home. As the player would explain in a 2015 interview to ESPNCricinfo, “My father’s view was that if you were going to spend time playing something, you should play it correctly.” That meant his childhood was filled with hours of practice and long weekend shadow-batting sessions. Accompanying that would be parental lectures on batting technique as he sat next to his father in their rickety jeep, bouncing over blown-up roads and shattered tarmac as they drove to faraway towns affected by the Civil War, their residents in need of fair legal advice.

A hundred and fifty kilometres away in the capital city of Colombo, another six year old was also taking his first steps in life and cricket. Mahela Jayawardene’s training would be more formal, his life less impacted by the conflicts that largely stayed clear of his city. His father Senerath had enrolled him at the Lionel Coaching Clinic run by the Nondescripts Cricket Club. It is here and at his school Nalanda College that he would learn his cricket. He would truly blossom once he started appearing for the Sinhalese Sports Club.

The first time that Kumar Sangakkara of Kandy and Mahela Jayawardene of Colombo met each other was, appropriately enough, on the cricket field. They were 15 and their schools were pitted against each other. But a friendship between the two only began to grow when Sangakkara moved to Colombo to play club cricket.

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Mahela’s phenomenal talent was recognised early, and by the time he was 17, he was already appearing for the Sri Lanka A team. Sangakkara continued playing club cricket and slowly progressed through the ranks. When he finally made his debut against South Africa at Galle in 2000, walking in at No. 5 and scoring 23, his friend was batting at the other end with a brilliantly compiled 167, already a three-year veteran and vice-captain of the Sri Lankan team.

By the time Mahela Jayawardene laid down his bat 14 years later in the home series against Pakistan, his 11,814 runs with 34 centuries from 149 Tests at an average a shade below 50 had firmly cemented his place as one of the greats of Sri Lankan cricket. A year later, when Kumar Sangakkara retired at the same ground in a home series against India, he had gone a step further. His 12,400 runs at a phenomenal average of 57.40 from 134 Tests with 38 centuries, fans and critics alike would acknowledge, had not been a bad effort for a man who had started his career as a wicketkeeper who could also wield a bat.

Between the two, they played 283 Test matches and amassed more than 24,000 runs and a total of 72 centuries. A staggering portion of the 24,000-plus runs would involve the two friends tormenting bowlers from 22 yards apart at cricket grounds all around the world. But it was over two days in July 2006 that their friendship would be truly put to the test and be cemented forever on a 22-yard strip of prime real estate in Colombo.

Colombo, July 2006

When South Africa landed in the Emerald Isles in 2006, they were missing some stalwarts – Graeme Smith and Jacques Kallis from injuries, and Shaun Pollock who had skipped the first Test at the Sinhalese Sports Club in Colombo to be by the side of his wife as she gave birth to their second daughter.

Captaining the side was the inexperienced Ashwell Prince. It appeared to be an auspicious start to his leadership career when he came up trumps at the toss. The decision to bat first was a no-brainer, for facing a rampaging Muthiah Muralitharan on a wearing final-day pitch was a nightmare Prince had dreaded on the flight over. Despite the holes created by the absence of Smith and Kallis, he knew his team boasted a long batting line-up led by Herschelle Gibbs and Hashim Amla. He had other capable batsmen all the way down to Nicky Boje at No. 8. With the toss won, if the task ahead already appeared less daunting to the young captain, he could hardly be faulted.

Ten wickets and 50.2 overs later, the decision to bat first looked a bit less inspired. With Murali accounting for Amla, Boucher and Boje, South Africa was dismissed for 169. A. B. de Villiers, with 65, had waged a lonely battle at one end while the rest of the side perished at the other. But Prince knew that all was not lost for the Proteas, for in Dale Steyn and Makhaya Ntini he had one of the most potent opening attacks in the world at his disposal.

Steyn soon justified the faith reposed in him by the young captain. An express delivery trapped the dangerous Sanath Jayasuriya in front of the stumps, and Upul Tharanga soon joined him in the dressing room, edging a ball down the leg side. The host looked no more comfortable than the visitor had done earlier in the day. The South Africans were back in the game. Or so it appeared.

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At the crease were now Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara. As the day went by, their grit and resolve showed no sign of weakening. At stumps, the pair had taken Sri Lanka to 128.

The bright sunshine the next morning was the only thing that reminded Prince of Port Elizabeth, his home ground. The pitch could not have been more different. All day long Ntini and Steyn ran in with enthusiasm and banged it short, and all day long not a single ball went above stump height. Sangakkara and Jayawardene just had to pick the line early and then put the ball away to whichever corner of the field they fancied, which they did. The more the bowlers toiled in the sapping heat, the less support they got from their colleagues. Jacques Rudolph dropped Sangakkara twice – once when he had scored 28, and the second time as he approached his century.

At the end of the day, the pair had added another 357 runs. Sri Lanka went in for the day at 485 for two, with Sangakkara on 229 and Jayawardene on 224. “When you’re in, you have to make the most of it,” said Jayawardene at the post-match interview that night. “I just like batting,” added Sangakkara.

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Mahela Jayawardene celebrates after completing a double-century as teammate Kumar Sangakkara looks on.   -  AP

 

The next morning, first personal milestones were brushed aside as Jayawardene went past 242 and Sangakkara 270, their highest Test scores thus far. Then came 576, a partnership number that had been embedded like an arrow in the hearts of Sri Lanka’s northern neighbours by Roshan Mahanama and Jayasuriya in 1997. It had been a part of the highest Test score of all time, 952 for six, inflicted on a hapless India. A ball later, the two friends marched past 577, the highest first-class partnership of all time that had stood for seven decades in the name of Vijay Hazare and Gul Mohammad.

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Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara congratulate each other after compiling a record partnership on the third day of the 2006 Test match against South Africa at the Sinhalese Sports Club ground in Colombo.   -  AP

 

Sangakkara would later say: “We knew it was the record – both the Test and first-class record – it’s a great feeling to do something that nobody else has done before. That’s what records are there for, to inspire you to try to break them. Hopefully, one day someone else will break this one – that’s the way cricket should go.” By the time they were separated that day and Sangakkara departed with a nick to Boucher, he and Jayawardene had put on 624 mind-numbing runs. Jayawardene would end up with 374 before the declaration came at 756 for five.

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Given the speed at which Sangakkara and Jayawardene had accumulated the runs while stitching together the greatest partnership in Test cricket history, they had left the match in a state where a result was very possible. Indeed, with the bowling prowess at the disposal of the Lankans, a win appeared almost inevitable.

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Mahela Jayawardene acknowledges the crowd as he walks back to pavilion after being dismissed for 374 runs.   -  AP

 

And so it came to pass. Over the next two days, South Africa batted for their pride, and thanks to a fighting 90 from Rudolph, 85 from Boucher and scores in the 60s from Hall and Prince, they made it to 434 on the final day, with Murali claiming five wickets. It was merely the 54th time in the spin genius’ illustrious career he would do so. But the target was always going to be beyond reach, and Sri Lanka eventually had the much-deserved victory by an innings and 153 runs.

The two days and 157 overs they had spent together out in the middle were to only strengthen the bond of friendship between two of the greatest batsmen Sri Lanka has ever produced. When asked later what they discussed between overs, a typically disarming reply came from an ever-smiling Sangakkara: “We were just having a good time, talking about a lot of things, including what we would be eating for dinner!” The iconic Ministry of Crab restaurant the two friends would start five years later a stone’s throw away from the 22 yards they had ruled over may well have been the venue they had agreed upon.

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