Kumar Sangakkara: Elegant on the field, eloquent off it

In a chat during the World Cup final, Kumar Sangakkara held forth on what lies ahead for him as MCC president, on The Hundred and on what Sri Lanka needs to do to turn around.

Kumar Sangakkara was destined for greatness from the time he broke into the Sri Lankan Test side when only 22 and still a law student, in July 2000.   -  AFP

Kumar Sangakkara was destined for greatness from the time he broke into the Sri Lankan Test side when only 22 and still a law student, in July 2000. One of the most elegant batsmen to have graced cricket, he married his skills with remarkable mental toughness to set stall as an all-weather batsman across formats, apart from carving a niche as an astute thinker and a shrewd leader.

By the time he called it a day in August 2015, Sangakkara had amassed 12,400 runs in 134 Tests at a remarkable average of 57.40, to go with 14,234 runs in 404 One-Day Internationals at 41.98.

His consistency also extended to the Twenty20 format, all of which eclipsed his wicketkeeping brilliance. Sangakkara bowed out with 509 catches, the bulk of them as a gloveman, and 139 stumpings in international cricket. In all representative cricket, the left-hander piled up 47,214 runs across formats to go with 1,053 catches and 217 stumpings.

As staggeringly impressive as those numbers are, there is more to Sangakkara than just a phenomenal cricketer. Eloquent and erudite, he touched a chord with his exceptional speech at the 2011 MCC Spirit of Cricket Lecture. He has also been an integral part of the World Cricket Committee, the Marylebone Cricket Club’s equivalent of the International Cricket Council’s Cricket Committee, for a while now. In keeping with his burgeoning stature, Sangakkara was named on May 1 the next president of the prestigious MCC, the custodians of the laws of cricket and headquartered at Lord’s.

The 41-year-old, who will take over from Anthony Wreford on October 1, will thus become the first non-British president of the club.

In this free-wheeling chat during the England-New Zealand World Cup final at Lord’s on July 14, the former Sri Lankan captain holds forth on what lies ahead for him as MCC president, on The Hundred that is expected to take England by storm next year, and on what his home country needs to do to turn around a miserable run since the retirement of several legends of the game this decade, including himself.

In all representative cricket, the left-hander piled up 47,214 runs across formats to go with 1,053 catches and 217 stumpings.   -  AFP

 

Excerpts:

What does it mean to you becoming the MCC president?

It’s a great honour. I am very grateful to (outgoing president) Anthony Wreford for thinking of me and nominating me as his successor. It’s the MCC and Lord’s, it’s such an important part of cricket. To be its president, to continue the good work of the past presidents like Anthony, who has been very progressive and very innovative in thinking, is a great privilege.

What does the role entail?

The club is run by its chairman, its CEO (chief executive officer) and the committees. The president can choose to decide where he can make the most impact in terms of getting involved. With my cricketing background and being the first international president, you can raise the international profile of the MCC. You can think about how to get involved in its charitable activities, in spreading the gospel of the game, especially with children and young cricketers around the world, not just England.

The Hundred is being launched next year, so one can look at the impact of The Hundred and beyond. Also, in terms of the MCC becoming the hub of nurturing international cricket and its place in international cricket as a voice of authority. All these are areas that interest me, so I will be talking with Anthony, to the CEO Guy Lavender, and everyone else to see how best we can position the MCC, be the inspiration when it comes to how cricket progresses in the next few years.

It will be an interesting role. There will be certain amounts of curtailments which will come in, where I have to ensure that I fulfil the roles of the president and give it the time and energy that’s required. Otherwise, there is no use taking up the job for entirely the prestige or a little tick on your resume. It’s about trying to do the best job possible and Anthony has been a great example to follow.

I have been watching him for the last few months, throughout my summer here in London, to understand what that role is and he has been amazing. And so has Guy and all the other committee members around them that have helped me be gently initiated into the role and helped further understand what my role can be.

Cricket’s unique in that there is a governing body (the International Cricket Council), and then there is the MCC which is the custodian of the laws. How do you reflect on this dichotomy?

Sangakkara: "There is no use taking up the job for entirely the prestige or a little tick on your resume. It’s about trying to do the best job possible and Anthony has been a great example to follow."   -  Getty Images for MCC

 

It is about the partnership, which can be made to work for the benefit of the game at large and the cricketers and the fans that are the heartbeat of the sport. It has to be mutually beneficial; it can’t be at odds or in conflict.

It is lovely that the history of the game, the traditions of it, the laws and how players view their roles within the sport and how they translate that in the manner which they play, in the manner which they conduct themselves on and off the way, connect with the fans across the world, are part and parcel of how the MCC writes the laws and the spirit of cricket, and how much work the MCC does to safeguard that intangible part of the game.

It is a great place to be at. Also, with the World Cricket Committee gaining in significance over the years, it is now a true partner of the ICC in terms of looking at the game in a holistic manner, spreading the game, innovation and progress when it comes to all formats of the game and when it comes to women’s cricket. It is a partnership which will keep improving and getting stronger. I see it as a very positive thing.

You want cricket to have its characters, and yet you have to be mindful of adhering to the spirit of the game. How do you balance the two aspects?

Sangakkara: "Sometimes, you might think that that has no relevance in the modern-day, cut-throat, competitive, high-stakes game, but the more the stakes are raised, more value those intricate, subtle and almost idiosyncratic aspects the game has come to have."   -  AP

 

A lot of that is ingrained in terms of how cricketers, coaches, parents of cricketers, the fans all around the world feel the role of the MCC is and how they align themselves with the spirit of the game, with the laws of the game, with the unwritten customs and traditions of the game.

Everywhere you go, whether it is in Asia, whether it is in New Zealand, whether it is in South Africa or Australia, from a young age, children are brought up to play the game hard but fair. They are taught to respect the opposition, respect yourself, respect each other in terms of the team, and that is such an important part of finishing off, not just a sportsperson but also a person’s character as a whole, irrespective of whether they play international cricket or not. That has been the beauty of cricket, and that has been the impact of cricket, what has set it apart from other sports as well.

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Sometimes, you might think that that has no relevance in the modern-day, cut-throat, competitive, high-stakes game, but the more the stakes are raised, more value those intricate, subtle and almost idiosyncratic aspects the game has come to have. It’s lovely to see children around the world, the manner in which they play actually reflects the message of the MCC.

There’s a lot more work to be done in spreading that message, of strengthening those bonds, of actually being relevant to the modern-day game and august history. All of that still needs to be made relevant to the players of the modern day and also in anticipation of what is to come in the future. The word ‘balance’ is sort of a tough word. You never find perfect balance, which is not what you are looking for. You are looking to have mature players, being developed where they make those decisions for themselves and they have the guidelines and the structure to guide them in the right manner to make the right decisions.

We have seen even in the recent past that sometimes we tend to confuse rules with spirit and thereby over-complicate things…

Yes, there are instances when that does happen. One should try and be proactive in terms of the laws never conflicting with the spirit of the game or vice versa. Relativity is an important thing to consider. Different cultures intersecting, different attitudes, different backgrounds, and you can see the same event from many different perspectives.

If you play within the laws of the game, you play within the spirit of the game. Whether you agree with the law or whichever side you put your camp on shouldn’t be the reason why you are celebrated or why you are criticised. It has to be playing hard but playing fair, which is the key.

There have been various changes to the laws, there has been anticipatory steps taken to counter situations that might crop up in the future, and sometimes when things have not been foreseen, the MCC has been very, very quick to change and be progressive and keep being relevant. I don’t see a huge problem.

There will always be a discussion, there will always be areas of disagreement at some point, but it is never unsolvable. The best way to deal with it is to keep thinking proactively about both the sport, the rigidity of the laws, but also think of the human aspect of the players that play and the fans that engage with the players. If you can keep that aspect which is mirrored in the spirit of the game, which is mirrored in the laws of the game, I think the confusion will die down.

With so much technology coming in, is there a danger of the human element being sucked out of cricket?

There is again a debate of how much technology there is, and what the purpose of the technology is. Is it to augment decision-making, to support the umpire and the players? Is it for fan engagement as well, to give them a more intimate insight into the nitty-gritty of the sport and how technical it can get?

Also, the competence of the officials that officiate and the players that play because sometimes technology can fall just short of vindicating how a human being is able to do what he has done in the middle in terms of athleticism, in terms of judgement, in terms of reflexes. So again, it’s a case of making sure that we try and balance interests — technology and why it is used, and also to ensure the glorious uncertainties in terms of the human elements of the sport remain in constant balance.

There will again be criticism. Criticism is healthy when it is constructive, when it’s taken on board in the right manner, and it is used to actually move the game forward. I imagine that is how the attitude of everyone should be. An open mind to understand why something’s being used, but then also to find ways to use it in the best possible manner where one doesn’t disadvantage the other.

You alluded earlier to The Hundred. Is it a format cricket really needs?

Cricket needs a point of difference at all times. If you are having a tournament, are you going to have another generic T20 (Twenty20) tournament, or are you going to have another tournament that connects an even more uninitiated audience with cricket?

The more hip, the more urban, time-poor, cash-rich kind of individuals who want to be connected with the game, who want to bring their families to the game, curious new younger fans who think, ‘Okay, what is this sport?’ How we hold their attention span for a certain extent to concentrate on a smaller, more concise, more impactful and more powerful period of cricket is a real question and I think The Hundred can serve that purpose very, very well. It’s hard to launch an absolutely perfect product. The whole point is that once it is visualised and the concept is workable, everyone buys into it, especially the players.

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Ultimately, you can have all the fanfare and you can have all the connection in the world, but it has to be vindicated by the players celebrating that by playing their best cricket. That can happen by buying into the format, the differences, the changes and the connection that has stretched to traditional cricket.

By ensuring that it has not really broken with tradition but has made it a lot more palatable to the new audience while it retains the already loyal spectator. I think it has a great opportunity to become successful, and it is an exciting opportunity for not just English cricket but cricket as a whole around the world to understand that anyone from anywhere who has an interest, and the ability and talent, whether you want to play international cricket or play it in a non-structured manner, to actually enjoy what cricket has to offer. If The Hundred is successful, it will be a great step forward for world cricket.

How much are the players engaged in the entire process when a new format is conceptualised?

It takes a lot of planning, a lot of guts actually to see whether something new can succeed, but the risk has to be taken. Players locally will be sounded out. It’s for the PCA (the Professional Cricketers’ Association, the player body), the ECB (the England and Wales Cricket Board), the MCC, everyone together to reach out to the players, try to understand their mindset, to see what they can offer to it in a positive manner and to really sell it as a concept to the players. And the fans, too. They are both vitally important because ultimately that connection is going to happen via The Hundred.

More fan engagement by the players, more attraction to new fans, the ability to hold the loyal fans, it all depends on that connect. That is such an important thing. So the engagement, the buy-in of the players is absolutely vital. Also to see commercially whether you can have international players coming in, whether Indian stars, retired Indian stars or even current Indian stars, is it possible for them to come and play in this? It is such an amazing lift to world cricket, and the contribution of each home board to raise the profile of the international game beyond their shores becomes quite relevant.

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Getting the buy-in of the players right from the start and having them contribute throughout the first edition of The Hundred and beyond becomes crucial — to refine it, fine-tune it and make it attractive to the public, get the fans on board, ask them the questions as well. Not really dictate to them as to what they should be watching, but also tell them to tell us what they expect from cricket and tournaments and that partnership going forward.

Speaking of home boards, things haven’t been very rosy back in Sri Lanka for a while now.

It has been a struggle for Sri Lanka cricket over the last three years. It is not for the lack of talent or the dearth of good cricketers. There are lots and some of them will go on to become great cricketers. They just need to have less chaos around them, less noise around them. The best facilities to train in, the most secure environment within which to play, consistent selection policies, a much, much better, more refined, more competitive domestic structure, a huge amount of planning in terms of how the pathway of cricket development in Sri Lanka reflects the requirement of the international game and the international side.

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How that message gets conveyed from the top all the way down to the grassroots and how in terms of fitness, in terms of mental skills, in terms of technique, in terms of individuality, what it is that is required to succeed at this stage. And then continuously concentrate on driving the players in that direction in a manner that takes care of their growth, not just as cricketers but also as people. It is something that needs a conscious effort, a big change in mindset in Sri Lanka, and an investment of money and time to give it the years it needs to rebuild a strong, world-beating team. I hope it is done quickly.

Do you actually see it happening quickly?

Sangakkara: "You must have cricketers in Sri Lanka succeeding because of the system, rather than in spite of it."   -  AFP

 

Well, it takes… Traditions are great as long as they are positive. You can’t be a slave to history. You also need to able to learn, change, progress. The change of mindset and change of attitude — perspective is one of the most difficult things. People are always very, very stubborn. You can have very set ways and set ideas and sometimes ego also gets in the way. The best way is to be realistic and understand that it is not about you, it is about the future of the sport in Sri Lanka and the future of the cricketers in Sri Lanka and also the fans. It is a big responsibility, and when you understand that that requires a certain amount of risk-taking in terms of concept, in terms of change, in terms of getting the right people in to do the right jobs, it becomes easier to understand why you need to change. That effort has to be taken now. You can’t do the same old things and expect different results. You must have cricketers in Sri Lanka succeeding because of the system, rather than in spite of it.

A while back, Mahela Jayawardene, Aravinda de Silva and you constituted a task force that came up with a roadmap for Sri Lankan cricket.

Sangakkara: "It is time to really take stock, be very realistic and honest, and see how best we can change."   -  REUTERS

 

Since 2009, we’ve presented a blueprint for what we think is a better system for Sri Lankan domestic cricket, international cricket, selection policy, administration. All encompassed into a proposal that’s been bandied to and fro, presented on and off for the last 10 years at least. It takes a certain amount of political will as well to change the status quo. Or the clubs themselves have to vote for those changes. People in power also need to be able to let go of those seats in terms of allowing the devolution of power to be beneficial to the game. Again, that takes a lot of doing. It has to come from within, it has to. If the administration doesn’t do it, it has to be out of the political will of the sports minister who takes it and debates it in parliament, changes the sports law and then of course has a change in the board constitution and the required changes to the domestic structure that are required. We have to wait and see who the first person is who has the courage and the vision to do just that.

How frustrating is it for you that you have invested so much time and emotion in this exercise and little has come out of it?

I think you get frustrated at various times. I am not saying that this is the perfect system. If this is a blueprint or a first draft — although it has been there, bandied for about 10 years — we need other people to engage and add things positive to it, not just to look at it and try to shoot it down.

I am not saying that myself or Mahela or Aravinda or whoever it is that contributes to that is always right, always correct. There is so much that we will also learn, our viewpoints will also change. There may be others who might contribute even more and better to that plan.

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But we need to get that plan set and activated. It can’t be a theory or a hypothesis that just keeps floating around for the next 10 years. It’s not just frustrating, it is also sometimes a little sad. When I watched the players who played in this particular World Cup, they are amazingly talented. Players who can go on to become world-beaters. We need those players to flourish, and we are holding them back. You see the fans getting frustrated, they are on an emotional roller coaster. You need to think about them.

It is time to really take stock, be very realistic and honest, and see how best we can change. How everyone, irrespective of differences, of mindset, of policy, of politics or whatever, come together to change it for the better because it will benefit everyone. The administrators, the players, the fans, the game of cricket — it will benefit everyone, and it will make for a much more transparent, better, stronger system that can produce even better cricketers.

Do you feel sometimes that you dodged the bullet, you played at the right time?

I think we are all playing at the right time. And for players in Sri Lanka also, you need to learn to control what you can control, and compartmentalise your thoughts and ideas that you put forward for the growth and development of the game. Your immediate responsibility is of performing well and succeeding, irrespective of what goes on.

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The players need to understand that they are two different things. You contribute and you look for a better system, put your ideas forward, be a part of change, but then when that is out of your hands and you can’t really control what is happening, what you can control is your performance on the field. Do you train, do you prepare? You can’t continue to give the same excuse even though it could be a legitimate excuse.

That has been the case with Sri Lanka cricket for a long time — players have been able to succeed and play under tremendous pressure. So it is not an impossible task. But what we need to do is make the job a lot easier for the current and future crop of cricketers so that they take away all the excuses of players and teams, give them everything that is required to better themselves — decision-making on the players’ abilities, selection — so that progress also becomes quite easy and manageable.