Sri Lanka's former captain and arguably the best batsman in world cricket today, Kumar Sangakkara talks about his team's chances at the World T20 and why they stumble at the last hurdle; his performances against Pakistan, the challenge posed by Wasim Akram and why he's glad Mohammad Asif isn't playing international cricket anymore.
What do you make of Sri Lanka’s prospects at the World T20?
I think we have a great chance this time round. We have a balanced side, a good mix of batsman and bowlers, and our fielding is also shaping up really well. The home conditions will help of course, but what it comes down to is preparation. It’s won’t be like the IPL where the grounds are smaller, and you get to face some bowlers that you can score off more easily. Here it is the best bowlers up against the best batsmen, with grounds that are fairly big, so we need to adjust our games accordingly. We need to prepare mentally and physically for that challenge, which we are doing and I don’t see any reason why we shouldn’t be successful at the end.
Sri Lanka has failed to win three finals at the world stage now. You have been a part of all of them, what is it that the team lacks at the final hurdle?
It is a strange thing really and it’s hard to pinpoint one thing. I think we need to talk a lot more about what it means to be playing in a World Cup final, what it takes to win the final. It takes a lot of emotion to get to the semi-finals, it drains you as a player, and once you are over that hurdle, it almost comes as a relief that you are in the final. I think you have to be aware of that danger and need to sit down and discuss what it means to you individually and as a team to be playing the final. I think we haven’t done that on the three occasions, and need every one to be aware of that significance. We can definitely do better in preparing mentally for the final.
Saeed Ajmal is being tipped as the one bowler who will trouble batsmen the most during the World T20. How hard is it to keep wickets to a bowler with so many variations? Tell us about the experience of keeping to Murali all those years. Did you have any special signals for the doosra and other variations?
No signals. I just worked really hard in the nets, and had to start picking him if I wanted to be a successful keeper. He was extremely accommodating when I first broke into the team, and worked really hard with me. I was fortunate that I started picking him up really early. You don’t have time to pick it up off the surface and need to pick a guy like him off the hand. Watching his hand closely at the point of release and picking the off-break from the doosra, and the big-spinning off-break from the regular one and the top-spinner were essential when I was keeping to Murali.
Tell us about managing the duties of keeper and batsman. How hard is it? And when did you realize you had to give it up in Tests?
It is a pretty tough job. When you start, are young enough, and your fitness is built-up, you can manage it quite well. The only problem is when you start to get a bit older. Especially if you are batting in the upper-order, you don’t get the time to put your feet up and relax a little after exerting yourself while keeping, and it makes the job much more difficult compared to keepers who tend to come lower down the order. With me, what happened was that the selectors told me they would appreciate it if you I would just concentrate on my batting in Test matches, as they thought it would help my batting. And I think the statistics have proved them right.
When you are young you think you can do every thing. You want to be involved in the game through out, and you think being keeper will keep you as involved as any body else. But it does take a toll on your batting, especially if you are coming higher up. The fatigue is bound to get to you. For example if you are out there for a day and a half keeping, and then the openers get out early, the fatigue affects your footwork. It affects your powers of concentration and mental toughness. So you have to be mindful of that.
In the modern day game who do you think is more valuable to the team, a decent keeper who can bat well, or a sound keeper who is an average batsman?
Well the ideal scenario would be to have someone who can justify both roles. But I think it is very rare that you get someone like that. We have someone who is probably the best wicketkeeper I have seen, in Parsanna Jayewardene, also a pretty capable batsman. In Tests I think when you are playing six to seven specialist batsmen it is not a good idea to depend on an unreliable keeper. Yes, you need someone who is aggressive with the bat, and can handle batting with the tail, but in Tests the skills of a gloveman are absolutely essential. In the shorter formats you can get away with stuff.
You gave up captaincy last year sighting reasons that you wanted somebody else to have more time to perform on the job. Are you any more certain about your own future now?
I think you have to take it one season at a time. It depends on how I am performing and how content I am with my own batting. It also depends upon my relationship with the selectors and the team management. But right now I am happy where I am, over a thousand runs in ODIS this year, and doing well in Tests as well, so will take it one season at a time.
Most Asian batsmen either tend to shy away, or don’t handle the short ball well. The cut and pull are solid trademarks of yours, however.
I think it’s because I was lucky enough to play most of my early cricket in Kandy. That wicket has always been really helpful to fast bowlers. When I was playing as a youngster, it always used to bounce a lot and was green. The weather there is also usually murky, and the ball tends to o more in the air and off the surface, than in other parts of the country. So from a young age in Kandy you are groomed to play the bouncing and moving ball, and learn to play on the back foot.
And I think, Sri Lankan batsmen in general tend to play the short ball well. Of all the Asian sides, I think we are the best equipped to handle the short ball, and are proud of the hard work we put into it. We don’t ask our bowlers to pitch it up in the nets, and have them bowl to us the same way as they would in a match. We challenge ourselves to come out of our comfort zones, and that helps us in facing the shorter pitched stuff.
You seem to fancy Pakistan’s bowling a lot?
I don’t know actually, I think it’s maybe just that my style of batting suits their bowling a lot. They have had a quality attack almost through out my career, and that eggs me on to perform better against them.
Any specific bowlers that have troubled you?
Zaheer Khan of the current lot I think, especially with the one that goes away. Luckily Mohammad Asif is not playing any more, because he used to give me a lot of trouble I remember. More generally, Warne of course was always a hard one to face. And Kasprowicz, due to the way he delivered the ball. It always felt like it was going to be an in swinger, but he managed to take it away. I didn’t face Wasim Akram a lot, but the few times I did, it was extremely challenging, and I would have loved to face a bit more of him.
You handled the strains of captaincy, batting and keeping really well. Many falter when handed over the captaincy, how did you manage?
I think they are completely different traits. You need to realize that and enjoy your time as a batsman when you are out their batting. You are not captaining the side when you have the bat in hand, and it’s essential you switch your hats and perform the duty you are supposed to perform at the time. Differentiating the two jobs is essential to succeeding in both of them.
Do you think being a wicket-keeper captain helps in leading the side on the field?
I think it helps. It gives you a better collective idea of what is happening with the angles, how the batsmen are batting, what they are doing wrong. Adjustments to different bowlers also become easier. Of course it is more tiring, but it keeps you in the game through out, which is the captain’s job and made it enjoyable for me.
T20s or Tests?
Test matches by far.
And do you think there is validity to the claims that Test cricket is under threat?
I think there is a certain negativity surrounding Test cricket. In terms of attendance of crowds and appeal towards the younger generation, but it is the greatest form with out a doubt. It is the most complete test of your skill, which is what makes it so fulfilling. As a player you need to rise to that mark and meet that challenge only Test cricket can offer. Only when you do that can you claim to have come a long way as a player. You can be successful in ODIs and T20s, but you are a complete cricketer only when you succeed at Test cricket.
Fondest memory on the field?
Definitely Muarli’s 800th wicket. Being part of that and also captaining at the time was just an experience I will never forget.
The writer has been a player and junior coach in Auckland’s club cricket circuit, and has worked with the New Zealand Cricket Player’s Association. He is currently working as a freelance cricket journalist.