If they were a law firm, or chartered accountants, they would be called Jayawardene, Sangakkara & Associates. But, because they are merely a cricket team, they call themselves Sri Lanka. To say this is not to disrespect the other members who walk alongside Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara, but rather uplift a duo to their rightful place in Sri Lanka’s cricket pantheon.
An island nation like none other, Sri Lanka and Sri Lankans love their cricket, but they don’t do hype. There is as much passion for the game in the fishing villages of Matara as there is in the posh bylanes of Colombo 4. A Sangakkara or Jayawardene is instantly recognised, but if one of them were buying groceries at the local Keels, they would be greeted with a smile and a wave, but not mobbed.
On Kandy’s streets, Angelo Mathews will smile at you from a thousand Milo hoardings, telling you how good chocolate milk is for you, and cricketers do well for themselves, but they aren’t all the dollar millionaires their compatriots from neighbouring India are. When Lasith Malinga goes home to Rathgama in Galle district, he still joins pick-up games on the beach, and jumps in the lake where hours of swimming built those strongman shoulders.
Even Sri Lanka’s most gregarious supporter, the inimitable Percy, a fixture at games his team plays home and away, has none of the fanaticism of his colleagues from other countries. Percy will not resort to the full body paint favoured by India’s Sudhir Gautam if you assured him a lifetime supply of Mendis Special and he certainly won’t be asking God for help to break a partnership as Pakistan’s Chacha Cricket frequently does.
In Sri Lanka, to Sri Lankans, cricket is a significant part of life, but it is not life itself.
And this is why there will be much cheerful doffing of hats, a guard of honour and the warmest of hugs, but no melodrama when Jayawardene and Sangakkara play their final Twenty20 International, fittingly a tournament final, in Mirpur on Sunday (April 6). The fortunes of these two cricketers have been so intertwined with each other, and jointly with the destiny of Sri Lanka cricket, since 2000, that it seems silly to try and contemplate life after.
With the bat in hand, Jayawardene is so beautiful, his strokes born of a purity that even Twenty20 cricket’s brash charge has left untouched, that bowlers occasionally stand gaping in awe after they have been dismissed to the boundary. Sangakkara is no less effective, and certainly has proved himself far more than his friend in varying conditions, but his batting bears more resemblance to a street fight than the rapier dance that Jayawardene’s can be.
Off the field, the Jayawardene-Sangakkara combine has had bigger battles than anything they faced on the field. The two had a vision for cricket in Sri Lanka, one that Sri Lanka Cricket did not always agree with. At different times they have had to negotiate, plead, insist, argue, cajole, even scheme without malice, to get things done.
To use a cringe-worthy word that is so popular with the young of today, the Jayawardene-Sangakkara bromance is one with few parallels in cricket. And Sunday is important for it signifies the first step in the winding down of the careers of two modern greats.
Malinga, who felt his way into cricket under the leadership of Jayawardene and Sangakkara, wanted nothing more than to make their exit a special one. “We all know that they are not just great Sri Lankan cricketers, but great cricketers,” said Malinga. “We all want to do our best for these two. It’s a special day tomorrow and we have to do something special.”
Mahendra Singh Dhoni, who has always shown utmost respect for his peers, naturally did not wish that the two went out on a high. “Well, I don’t have anything personal against them …” began Dhoni. “They have served Sri Lankan cricket for a long time through all the formats. Whether it’s Tests, ODIs or T20 … Sri Lanka will miss their presence in the dressing room. Between them, they have in excess of 650 ODI games and a lot of Test matches. They will definitely be missed, but all good things must end at some point. Sri Lanka will have to get over it and get someone else to fill in the space.”
Sri Lanka will certainly find two other cricketers to replace Jayawardene and Sangakkara, but the kind of bond that the two shared is not taught in academies or learned in dressing rooms. This one was forged in the cauldron of a life lived together, of experiences shared, common enemies engaged and defeated, of mutual respect and admiration, and, most importantly, a celebration of the other’s success.
That is not going to be easy to replicate.