The world is his oyster!

It is entirely possible that his career in cricket might turn out to be the least of Kumar Sangakkara’s achievements. This is not because he is not a modern legend (he is), not because his impact as batsman and captain are negligible (it is not), but because at 37, his best days might still be ahead of him. There’s the International Cricket Council which has been crying out for a leader with the vision and integrity of a Sangakkara. Perhaps there is a career ahead as a leading lawyer, a social activist, a UN Ambassador or a Prime Minister even. The statesman-cricketer could evolve into the cricketer-statesman. By Suresh Menon.

In the end, it was like an aircraft which had been flying at top speed coming to a gentle stop at the aerobridge, trip completed. In the last decade, Kumar Sangakkara made more runs in Tests at a higher average and with more centuries than anyone else. It wasn’t merely hope, but expectation, that he would finish his career with a double century, his 12th, to match Don Bradman’s record.

No one, not even the Indian bowlers would have begrudged him that, such was the respect he commanded. In a variation of the Neville Cardus prayer, the Indian fan might even have said, let Sanga make a double in an India win. That way, fantasy could be satisfied without stretching patriotism.

But the aircraft came to rest quietly — scores of 32 and 18 meant that Sangakkara went gentle to that good night. Murali Vijay at slip picked up the final catch, gave the batsman time to gather himself and then ran to pat him on the back, congratulations and commiserations nicely mixed. The camera swung to catch Sangakkara’s wife dropping her head into her hands.

It was all over. One of the richest, most influential careers in the modern game had come to an end. For years, statisticians will continue to drool over the figures he left behind. Not since Sachin Tendulkar has an individual invited comparison with Bradman for his figures. In matches where he did not keep wickets, Sangakkara’s average is second only to the great Australian’s.

Yet, despite all that, it is entirely possible that his career in cricket might turn out to be the least of Kumar Sangakkara’s achievements. This is not because he is not a modern legend (he is), not because his impact as batsman and captain are negligible (it is not), but because at 37, his best days might still be ahead of him. There’s the International Cricket Council which has been crying out for a leader with the vision and integrity of a Sangakkara. Perhaps there is a career ahead as a leading lawyer, a social activist, a UN Ambassador or a Prime Minister even. The statesman-cricketer could evolve into the cricketer-statesman.

Sangakkara, who began a career in law is well qualified for these various roles as an articulate player of rare intelligence who is both the quintessential Sri Lankan and the classical citizen of the world, ideally situated to both explain Sri Lanka to the world and vice versa. At the ‘Spirit of Cricket’ Lecture at Lord’s, where he was given a standing ovation, he said, “I am Tamil, Sinhalese, Muslim and Burgher. I am a Buddhist, a Hindu, a follower of Islam and Christianity. I am today, and always, proudly Sri Lankan.”

After the bus the Sri Lankan team was travelling in was attacked by gunmen in Pakistan, Sangakkara wrote an account that was both moving and dignified, as he described the poise with which his team came through it and paid a tribute to the driver of the bus whose presence of mind saved the day.

That combination of intellect and compassion is rare and it would be a disappointment if Sangakkara were to settle down to television commentary or providing sound bytes to the media at irregular intervals. Leave that to those who are nothing but for their averages and runs and wickets.

Contemporary players begin so early and have such a focused approach to their careers that at the end of it, they tend to be misfits anywhere outside the cricketing environment. Of very few of them can it be said when they retire that the best is yet to come.

For the moment, though, Sangakkara isn’t going cold turkey. He will ease himself out of the game gradually — there are first class commitments he plans to keep, and the odd games here and there before the boots are hung up and the kit is packed one final time.

Statistically, Sangakkara finishes as one of the top batsmen to have ever played, amassing runs in the three formats combined that is only behind Tendulkar’s record. Yet, like the South African Jacques Kallis, Sangakkara is often seen as an almost-great rather than the genuine article. This may be the price such players pay for efficiency and professionalism rather than flair and uncertainty. Again, like Kallis, Sangakkara will be anointed a great by future generations who are not distracted by the compulsions of his contemporaries.

Sangakkara does not fit into the romantic notion of the great player; the lack of a discernible weakness, far from establishing his claim to greatness seems to take away from it. Sangakkara lacked the vulnerability of a Mahela Jayawardena or an Aravinda de Silva. In defence he was certain; in attack, sure, almost cocksure.

Sangakkara was an adult in a game of children, his self-knowledge complete, his awareness for the right gesture instinctive. It set him apart. There was an air of unattainability around his achievements, on and off the field. Relieved of wicketkeeping duties, he responded with an innings of 287 against South Africa in a world record partnership with Jayawardena; his appetite was huge, as innings of 319 and 105 in the same Test against Bangladesh showed. His batting could be explained but not imitated.

The rule in this regard was laid down by Cardus years ago, when he wrote of Bradman that, “his batsmanship delights one’s knowledge of the game; his every stroke is a dazzling and precious stone in the game’s crown. The stuff of his batsmanship is skill, not sensibility. In all the affairs of the human imagination there must be an enigma somewhere, some magical touch that nobody can understand and explain….”

He might have been speaking of Sangakkara, although to see him as merely a run-making machine would be diminishing his role. Like Arjuna Ranatunga before him, he gave his countrymen the gift of pride every time he walked out to play. He was a tough competitor, and in the early days, one who laced his sledges from behind the wickets with humour. He wanted his team to win while playing the Sri Lankan way, which was a combination of orthodoxy and originality.

It is a motto that could equally sum up his batting. His style was neither David Gower nor Allan Border, neither all grace nor all utilitarian. Like the finest of his country’s players, he was unique.

Still, for all his achievements on the field, it is what he does off it from now that will be his real legacy.