x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

No cricket player stands out like Kumar Sangakkara

The former Sri Lanka captain, in the UAE to play series against Pakistan, continues to be a champion on and off the field even at the age of 36, writes Osman Samiuddin.

Kumar Sangakkara, right, is likely to keep scoring runs in the ODIs and Test matches against Pakistan in the coming weeks. Marwan Naamani / AFP
Kumar Sangakkara, right, is likely to keep scoring runs in the ODIs and Test matches against Pakistan in the coming weeks. Marwan Naamani / AFP

Kumar Sangakkara cuts an unnerving figure.

Not only is he such a champion cricketer, he is an articulate man. To some eyes, there is nothing better than Sangakkara on one knee, driving through covers. To some minds, there has not been a better talk given by a serving cricketer than Sangakkara’s Spirit of Cricket Cowdrey Lecture in 2011.

He does plenty of the obligatory big-star charity work. He gave up the Sri Lankan captaincy after a two-year stint – and hello, who does that anywhere, let alone the subcontinent? Right now, he averages 56.98 in Test cricket, which is the highest mark for anyone with more than 93 Tests and the highest among current players with more than 15 appearances.

He keeps wickets well, and his sledging is not too shabby, either. He has was just named the International Cricket Council’s One-Day International (ODI) Cricketer of the Year.

It is safe to say that if Sangakkara ever inside-edged a shot, it was deliberately done and that if a black cat cuts across his path, it might spontaneously combust. If there is no such thing as perfect, then this is mighty close.

Last Friday, as he helped Sri Lanka level the Twenty20 series against Pakistan, he was reminding us again of how unnervingly close he is to not being human. First there was his unbeaten 21-ball 44, which, frankly, was a ridiculous hand.

Sangakkara is an outstanding long-format batsman. It is not that he cannot play Twenty20, or that he has failed in the format.

But instinctively, it feels beneath him, or at least the canvas is too small for his grand scale. Also, he is 36 now and to remain competitively relevant across three formats at that age is no easy task.

Yet, his innings that evening could be a model for T20 finishing. It was built on an orthodox enough platform – the two sixes were straight down the ground, both shots you might see in a Test or ODI. But there was enough nimbleness in the mind and body to play the kind of shots the format requires: the paddles, the nurdles and the flips.

That innings was evidence not only of how well he can mould and reshape himself, but also of that streak of pure and often nasty competitiveness inside. It would be easy, at that age, to not care much about Twenty20 cricket, especially the international version of it, which is a far-less-lucrative proposition than the various domestic leagues.

He could leave it, concentrate on Tests and ODIs, and let the money come in from the Indian Premier League.

There was also the little matter of the catch to dismiss Shahid Afridi, a twisting, flying one-handed take of a difficult, swirling skier. It was, well, perfect.

There will probably be much more to come over the next month. He makes nearly 90 every time he bats against Pakistan in a Test, has nine hundreds already and two more in ODIs, where he averages a healthy 37 against them.

Nobody, crucially, plays Saeed Ajmal better, either.