x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Nothing to fear in England for Kumar Sangakkara

The former Sri Lankan captain believes skill can equalise the home advantage their opponents have.

Kumar Sangakkara believes Sri Lanka can surprise England despite the home side's impressive record.
Kumar Sangakkara believes Sri Lanka can surprise England despite the home side's impressive record.

When Kavith, his 19-month-old son, comes and taps his knee to ask that he get the train working, Kumar Sangakkara laughs.

With winning the bottom line, sportsmen tend to be tightly wound. But though his time in charge of the Hyderabad-based Deccan Chargers has not gone well, Sangakkara exudes calm as he leans back on a couch in the business centre of the team hotel.

Little Kavith and his twin sister, Swyree, have given Sangakkara a new perspective. When he talks of defeat, and there have been three in World Cup finals dating back to 2007, there are no end-of-the-world emotions.

Sangakkara was still in his teens when the 1996 World Cup championship transformed Sri Lankan cricket, and in the two-year period that preceded him relinquishing the captaincy last month, he presided over a period of unrivalled success.

It ended in tears at the Wankhede Stadium on April 2, but he looks back on his tenure with justified pride.

"If you take 2007 to now, we've reached two 50-over World Cup finals, and the T20 final in 2009," he said. "It's very disappointing to be runners-up, but we do well in big tournaments.

"We've broken into the top three of the rankings in both forms of the game on a consistent basis. We hold our own against the best sides in most conditions. That means Sri Lankan cricket has adapted and is not just doing well at home."

For long, like Big Brother to the north, the Sri Lankans have been seen as a fiendishly hard side to beat at home who are soft touches away.

It's a perception that has yet to change, and as they prepare to take on an England team that has lost only twice at home in the last decade - to India in 2007 and South Africa a year later - Sangakkara is keenly aware of that.

"For a good side, it's about how you perform away, how you tackle conditions that are supposed to be difficult for you," he said. "You can't be scared of going to England or Australia, scared of bouncy tracks or swing and seam."

Why, then, did he give up the captaincy before such a watershed tour?

For once, he's not his usual candid self, hinting subtly at behind-the-scenes interference in a country where the national sport and political chicanery are inextricably linked.

"We had great times on the field, two of the most successful years," he said. "But that was a consequence of trying to manage a lot of things behind the scenes."

His great friend and predecessor as captain, Mahela Jayawardene, insisted that Sangakkara's withdrawal was perfectly timed.

"He'd told us months before the World Cup that it would be his last assignment," Jayawardene said. "Now's the time to build for the future and I believe it's vital to do that when senior players like us are still around."

While Sangakkara may no longer call the shots on the field, he is under no illusion as to the enormity of the task that Sri Lanka face. "England are very very good Test side," he said.

"During the Ashes, what stood out was their discipline, the efficiency of the bowling. They may not have out-and-out pace, but they possess a lot of control. It's old-fashioned hit-your-lines, hit-your-lengths bowling.

"That's going to be the big challenge for us, how we counter that."

In his view, Sri Lanka will also have an unlikely ally: television.

"We have to recognise how big a part TV and advertising play in the preparation of a modern-day pitch," he said. "People think of cutting down on bounce and seam movement so that Tests last the distance.

"In the past, when a subcontinent team toured England, West Indies or New Zealand, it could be hard to tell the wicket apart from the outfield."

Sri Lanka go into the Cardiff Test without the retired Muttiah Muralitharan and Lasith Malinga. Angelo Mathews, their best all-rounder, is injured.

But while the pace attack lacks Malinga hustle, Sangakkara emphasises that it is skill that wins Test matches in England.

When India were victorious in 2007, Zaheer Khan was the main man. "After [Wasim] Akram and [Chaminda] Vaas, there's Zak," he said. "I'm very open in saying that I don't like facing him.

"Look at Brett Lee. He came in as a tearaway quick, but transformed himself into being fast and accurate. Shaun Tait is extremely fast but not accurate. Same pace, both of them, but one a much better-quality bowler."

The build-up to this series has been overshadowed by Indian Premier League (IPL) talk, with England's Eoin Morgan also having just returned from a stint.

In Sangakkara's eyes, the concerns have no basis. "I don't think there's any debate over how loyal players are to their country.

"But they want to play the IPL as well. I don't think players should be put in a position where they have to choose one over the other."

And while others shy away from discussing how IPL money has changed lives, Sangakkara relishes the opportunity.

"It's a funny thing, isn't it? I don't understand why we shouldn't talk about the financial benefits," he said. "That is the biggest attraction, without a doubt. Why should we be ashamed of saying that?

"If you're an elite sportsman, your services are worth what the IPL franchise pays you. It's not a case of: 'should a cricketer be paid this much?' Administrators and past players need to be careful when addressing these issues.

"Players cannot be persecuted and victimised now for chances that others didn't have before. Home boards get 10 per cent of what each player makes. That's a significant amount.

"The IPL is lucrative for everyone involved."

The benefits for young Indian players are obvious, but money aside, what is it that drives a grizzled veteran to excel in a format that many of them see as a lesser test of skill?

"When you're a cricketer, what drives you is performance, that hunger to win," Sangakkara said. "The pride you have in your ability, delivering when the chips are down and winning games for your side.

"Different things motivate different players. Some might think: 'I'm being paid this much, I must perform.' Someone who's young or been in and out of the team might think: 'If I do well here, I might get into the national side.'

" Someone else might just want to show that he's the best. You have to find what motivates you. You never want to be second-best."

England should win this three-match series that also includes Tests at Lord's and a first one at Southampton, but with the old firm of Jayawardene and Sangakkara back in harness, do not write off a team that is peerless when it comes to punching above its weight.

England v Sri Lanka, first Test

History

Sri Lanka have never won a Test series in England, but they did win a one-off Test at the Oval in 1998.

Captains

• Andrew Strauss: Has led England well since taking the role full-time in 2009 and his only series defeat as captain was his first in charge against the West Indies. A mixture of calm thinking under pressure, as well as having one of the best bowling attacks in the world has made his side a real force. Strauss, below, has only one real concern and that is improving his own form having hit only one hundred in his last 30 Test innings.
• Tillakaratne Dilshan: Starts his reign in charge today after inheriting the side from Kumar Sangakkara, who stood down from the role prior to the tour. Dilshan’s biggest challenge is going to be finding a way for his weakened bowling attack to take 20 wickets against England’s imposing batting line-up.

Weather

The forecast is not promising for a full day’s play today with rain showers predicted to hit proceedings. Brighter weather is expected tomorrow and Saturday, but there is more threat of showers in Cardiff on Sunday.

Squads

• England: Strauss (captain); Cook, Trott, Pietersen, Bell, Morgan, Prior, Broad, Swann, Tremlett, Anderson, Finn
• Sri Lanka: Dilshan (captain), Sangakkara, M Jayawardene, Samaraweera, Paranavitana, Perera, Silva, Thirimanne, P Jayawardene, Chandimal, Maharoof, Mendis, Pradeep, Fernando, Herath, Randiv, Lakmal, Welegedara

Officials

Umpires: Billy Doctrove and Aleem Dae.
TV Umpire: Aleem Dar.
Match Referee: Javagal Srinath.

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