Holding his own in illustrious company!

Sangakkara and Mahela Jatawardena... unique partnership.-GETTY IMAGES

Besides his overall strength based on statistical highs and value to the team, Kumar Sangakkara has a facet that other greats missed out in their twilight years. He finished strongly unlike the rest, who irreversibly faded away, writes K. C. Vijaya Kumar.

If it was Independence Day week in both India and Pakistan, the rest of the cricketing globe was coming to terms with the angst of departures. Kumar Sangakkara in Sri Lanka and Michael Clarke and Chris Rogers in England, were playing their respective last Test matches in cities as far flung as Colombo and London.

But in terms of stature, the three are pegged at different levels. Sangakkara unmistakably is a legend; Clarke, notwithstanding a promising start, has just skimmed below the surface of greatness, more good than great and Rogers, a stodgy opener, making a belated mark just before his 37 summers caught up with him.

Yes, there will be a twinge of emotion with all three retirements but Sangakkara’s ride into the sunset, albeit from international cricket, will leave a bigger void, not just in Sri Lankan cricket but in any part of the world where a willow is used to whack a hard ball. Such is the southpaw’s stature, such his list of staggering achievements that truly he is an icon. With 12,400 runs after his final 134th Test at the P. Sara Oval, against India, Sangakkara is placed fifth in the all-time aggregates list, behind illustrious men like Rahul Dravid, Jacques Kallis, Ricky Ponting and topper Sachin Tendulkar.

It is a massive club and Sangakkara seamlessly fits in. That he also donned the wicket-keeping gloves for a sizeable part of his early career places him in a special position, just like Kallis, who bowled consistently well right through.

There will also be those inevitable comparisons with other left-handed batsmen but though Sangakkara may be the highest run-accumulator in that group, he definitely was no genius like Brian Lara, no batting-poet like David Gower, definitely not offering the aesthetic delight that members of his ilk were supposed to provide. But he was better looking as a batsman when compared to men like Allan Border or of the more recent vintage — Alastair Cook.

Closer home, in the style-quotient, Sangakkara was not in the same league as his friend Mahela Jayawardena, perhaps a right-handed version of beauty with the bat just like Mohammad Azharuddin or V. V. S. Laxman. But runs don’t lie and Sangakkara with his huge mountain and an average of 57.40 (at the time of going to the press) that mirrored remarkable consistency, is a stupendous batsman, who will be omnipresent in the pantheon headed by the peerless Sir Don Bradman.

For Sri Lanka, Sangakkara and Muttiah Muralitharan are the two genuine greats though the latter still has doubters, who question his action. Jayawardena will run them close but he will have to settle for the third slot just marginally ahead of Aravinda de Silva. However, as allies, there is no denying the Sanga-Mahela fortress. Together they raised 6554 runs, just second behind another illustrious pair — Tendulkar-Dravid (6920).

But there are differences, Tendulkar and Dravid share a terrific mutual respect while Sangakkara and Jayawardena, are back-slapping buddies, still bonded together off the field as evident in their common business interests largely amplified by their quaint Colombo restaurant: The Ministry of Crab. In the greatness league, Tendulkar and Dravid had their Indian predecessors. Think Sunil Gavaskar and later Gundappa Viswanath with the likes of Dilip Vengsarkar and Mohinder Amarnath too having their purple patches. Plus Tendulkar and Dravid, united by greatness and a common mother-tongue Marathi, also had a terrific support cast that hovered between the good and the great — Virender Sehwag, V. V. S. Laxman, Sourav Ganguly and later M. S. Dhoni.

Sangakkara and Jayawardena had no such comfort. If we are talking about past-masters, except for Aravinda de Silva, the Sri Lankan cupboard was bare, though, Arjuna Ranatunga and Duleep Mendis were feisty while Roy Dias was a stylist. In terms of contemporaries, the duo just had Tillakaratne Dilshan for company. For a large part of their parallel careers, Sangakkara and Jayawardena along with Muralitharan and Chaminda Vaas, tested rivals’ plans. Yet, it was the Sanga-Mahela duet or batting romance, which drew in the maximum cameras or newsprint.

As distinguished batsmen, as strong captains, as members of the same peer group, the two shared a terrific bond that radiated solidity and hope, two facets that provided balm to an island nation that until a few years ago, struggled with the ramifications of a long-drawn civil war.

Jayawardena, in an article in the Wisden India Almanack 2013, wrote about his friend: “He brings stability to the team, and is the go-to man whether the need is for stout defence or all-out attack. He takes responsibility at the crucial No. 3 position, holding the innings together so others can bat around him.”

If Sangakkara offered a strong citadel, Jayawardena was the window lined with flowers, letting in the soft breeze. Their batting was different but together they were coated with the same layer of steel and without each other, they might have been lesser players.

Jayawardena’s 11,814 runs is evidence of his longevity and ability. He was the perfect foil to Sangakkara while also staying ahead of the latter by the sheer beauty he radiated at the crease. But there is one significant difference between them, Sangakkara averages 44.58 outside the sub-continent while Jayawardena has a modest 32.75. Across the seas, Sangakkara adapted faster and with that he stayed above his pal in the batting sweepstakes. Jayawardena doesn’t grudge that and places Sangakkara just near Tendulkar!

Besides his overall strength based on statistical highs and value to the team, Sangakkara has a facet that other greats missed out in their twilight years. He finished strongly unlike the rest, who irreversibly faded away. A Cricinfo study revealed that in his last 25 Tests, Sangakkara averaged 64.04, topping the list of fine batsmen doing their farewells. In that top-ten, from among his recent contemporary greats only Kallis finds a slot (55.83) while Tendulkar, Dravid and Ponting miss out.

Sangakkara leaves when people still ask ‘why’ and not ‘when’ and in that, he has emulated the peerless Sunil Gavaskar.