Cricketer supreme, family man to the core, a true friend, a guide and a mentor, an ambassador of Sri Lanka as much as Sri Lankan cricket. Kumar Sangakkara is all this and more. Apart from entertaining cricket lovers with his extraordinary batsmanship, the 37-year-old is also a quiet, behind-the-scenes contributor to charitable causes, lending his name, presence and resources to causes dear to his heart. As recently as on Wednesday (August 19), he was named Ambassador for the National Anti-Narcotics Programme by Maithripala Sirisena, the Sri Lankan President.
As he prepares to walk into the cricketing sunset at the end of a remarkable career, Sangakkara opens up to Wisden India on a wide range of subjects enveloping his climb from what he himself calls an average player to being among the best of all time, his short captaincy stint, his relationship with Mahela Jayawardene, and the stabilising influence of his wife Yehali, a friend and companion for over 20 years now. Excerpts:
You have said many times in the past that batsmen like Mahela and Thilan Samaraweera were far more talented than you. How then have you managed to end up with a Test average of nearly 58?
Ha! I think there’s a lot of things that go into it. When you look back upon the game of cricket and your own career, you always realise that these are not things that you do alone. There are so many other contributions that enrich your career along the way that you learn from, you build upon and that will help you with your game. In my case, I had so many people – friends, family, coaches, teammates, opposition players that really lifted your game when you played against them. All of these factors contribute. And when I look back upon my career, I feel extremely blessed and extremely lucky to have been playing this game for so long and to have played it in the best manner that I could. I think it is important to play it with a sense of wonderment, like childhood wonder, because if you don’t enjoy the game and you don’t thrive in an environment where you are supposed to have fun, and also compete and perform at the highest level, it’s hard to be successful. I have just been in an environment that continually pushed me to get better.
What is the one thing that cricket has taught you?
Some things in cricket you learn very fast. That it is, at the end of the day, a sport – a fantastic, wonderful, very unique sport but it is a game and you need to enjoy it. You need to be able to let go. And at the same time, you need to appreciate the fact that you have been one of the very, very lucky few to be afforded the privilege of representing your country and playing on a world stage. Those are really the most important things when you play because if you play with all of that in mind, it is very easy to thrive in this game rather than fight it. I have been one of those lucky few and I am very, very thankful to everyone who has given me that opportunity.
More than the runs and the fame and the cash, is it the impact you have made, the relationships you have forged that is the biggest takeaway for you?
Yeah, I think it is all a combination of everything but at the end of the day, the real test of what you have achieved is felt only when you have left the game and a few years have passed. Whether you can still sit around the dinner table and have your closest friends coming and having a chat with you and some of your teammates, they are having a drink with you and having a chat about the good old days. That’s the real test of what you have achieved. You will have your runs, you will have the fame and the cash at times, but that’s the real test – not just immediately after. Once you have faded away and you are not very much in the public eye, whether people still value you for who you have been and who you will be.
The benefits I have received from this game and from being in the public eye are immense and there is always a responsibility of understanding that that is not your right, it is a privilege that has been given to you by the public.
When you gave up the captaincy after the 2011 World Cup, you had been at the helm for only 15 or so months. Any regrets that you didn’t lead longer than that, considering your career has lasted 15 years?
No regrets, not really. The decision was conveyed to the selectors well in advance. I think that was also realistically the time period. Before that Mahela was there for a while, I was there for close to two years I think or probably just under. But I really enjoyed my tenure as captain. And the changes that we tried to do were not really changes but to try and build on the base that we already had. We wanted to try and beat good sides, especially away from home. It was great to go to Australia in 2010 and for the first time beat them in a series in Australia in one-day cricket. We had Pakistan in 2009, first time we ever beat them in 26 years in a Test series at home, we won the series 2-0. I remember when Trevor Bayliss was there and Chandika Hathurusinghe was the assistant coach, I think we played nine one-day tournaments and we reached the final of almost every tournament. It was a great atmosphere, a great period for us because again, it was a side that had older players, younger players. We had Angelo Mathews who had just come into the side establishing himself, we had Dinesh Chandimal playing a few games with us, we had (Lahiru) Thirimanne who made his debut during that time, Thisara Perera – a lot of these players just came through and really impressed themselves upon the national side. All we tried to do was create a really comfortable environment for them to come and play in, an environment where they felt valued, where they had no fear or doubts when it came to their performances or how to behave or really come in and gel with seniors in the side. And it really helped to have guys like Murali (Muttiah Muralitharan) in the side. Mahela was there, Vaasy (Chaminda Vaas) and Sanath (Jayasuriya) were just finishing. I think it was a collective effort that really stood us in good stead.
Very early in your career, you had the status of role model thrust upon you. How prepared were you for it?
I don’t think you are ever prepared or really thinking about it. At the end of the day, you are yourself, you try and do things the best way that you can. It’s a shame that people don’t really see you when you are relaxing at home with your family, when you are not just a cricketer, you are another part of the group. It is a responsibility that comes with what we do and being in the public eye. It is no use trying to contrive anything for cameras or for press or for public benefit. It is just a case of trying to be who you are and trying to be the best person that you can be.
And how comfortable are you with that?
There is no escape from it, is there? It’s the scrutiny, the eyes of society, everyone being on you. Sometimes, it can seems intrusive, it can seem unfair, sometimes you think of ‘why me’ and lot of things like that. But you have got to understand that the benefits I have received from this game and from being in the public eye are immense and there is always a responsibility of understanding that that is not your right, it is a privilege that has been given to you by the public. If they don’t come and watch you play or they don’t buy products you endorse or whatever that happens, that partnership is such an important thing for the longevity not just of your own career but also of sport. And that is something that you have to respect. That partnership, that privilege that you are allowed to represent them and they love you in return, no matter whether you do badly or well or whether you win or lose, I think that is an amazingly grounding thought. In Sri Lanka, we are very, very lucky, I think. Through thick and thin, we have had the support from every community in Sri Lanka and cricket’s been a great uniting factor and we have had a very, very good partnership with the public.
You have been fairly actively involved in charity work…
The main foundation that I have been a trustee since early 2000s is Foundation of Goodness headed by Kushil (Gunasekara) and Murali. That’s been one of the most effective charity organisations in Sri Lanka. At this moment, we maintain well in excess of 50,000 people annually all over Sri Lanka from the south to the north. We have a Centre of Excellence in Seenigama, we partner with the MCC, with Tesco, with Laureus, Dell Computers and various other wonderful institutions that come and partner up to help us be more effective. We offer free psychosocial support, pharmacy, dentistry, indoor and outdoor facilities for sports, vocational training, English language training – basically life-skills to bridge the gap between the urban and the rural communities. Since the war ended in 2009, we have gone every month without fail from then to now and we keep going every month without fail. We are trying to replicate the same centre and the same facilities we have down south in Mankulam and we have just got approval for the land as well which was granted to us a few years ago. They are exciting times.
The man of the match and man of the series cash awards that we get, we put it into a pool and that is used as a team fund for not just team-related issues but mainly to help anyone who comes and makes requests from us.
There are also other projects that I am very proud to be part of – the anti-suicide and mental health related issues. We are just starting to establish a centre of excellence for differently abled children in Ragama. We have just joined hands with Hemas (a hospital) and the doctors in Ragama to try and set up a centre, the first of its kind, and it has just got underway. Hopefully, in the next three years, we will be able to achieve that. There is never enough time really and never enough that you can do but again this game has given us so much and I think the Sri Lankan team especially, I should commend everyone who has been a part of it that they have set a great example for me to follow and for others to follow after me. We have set up instances where the man of the match and man of the series cash awards that we get, we put it into a pool and that is used as a team fund for not just team-related issues but mainly to help anyone who comes and makes requests from us. We just put those cash awards into a fund, we don’t have the habit of sharing that out between individuals or the team. The manager usually has access to it and it’s to benefit people who come for urgent bypass operations or cancer-related treatment or any urgent medical help that we can them contribute towards.
You are also part of the anti-drug campaign.
I was just notified that they would like me to join the anti-dangerous drugs campaign run by the government and I think it is such an important and timely thing in Sri Lanka where we do see the devastation that drugs have wrought, especially young lives. It is something that is a very menacing and pressing problem which is being addressed as best as it could but there is a lot more than we as individuals and as society can do to support the victims of drugs and also to ensure that there is a lot more awareness especially among children and young adults of the dangers of drugs.
One of the great talking points is your friendship with Mahela, and how it has stood the test of time.
This is not a friendship where you agree on everything. We hardly agree on a lot of things. But the point is you argue, you debate things but you try and come to the best decision because you had all that information coming in and sounding boards for different opinions and different thoughts that you have. But at the end of the day, it is all built on mutual respect. The fact that everyone is trying to do the best what they can for the team, the sport and for each other, that’s something we have tried to set up in the dressing room as well, to understand that you come and you go as a cricketer but the time you are gone or when the time to leave has come, you have left the dressing room and the sport in just a slightly better place, that you have made an impact on other people around you that’s enhanced their own careers. That combination, our friendship, has always been with that in mind.
And, of course, your other partnership. Despite your high profile, your wife has somehow managed to stay away from the spotlight…
I met her in Kandy, we were in two schools that had the same founder. Rev Ireland Jones founded Trinity and then Hillwood College in Kandy. I met her there when I was about 16-17 and have been with her for well over 20 years now. And it’s been the best partnership of my life, without a doubt. We have two beautiful children and she’s a very practical, very sensible lady who minces no words in telling me exactly what she thinks of my cricket or what I do or the decisions that I make. Not in any technical sense but in a sense of whether what the thought processes are that go into making these decisions. She has been one of the most important figures in keeping me grounded and ensuring that there is sanity at home. There is order when I am playing. When I am away from home, I have always travelled with them, with my wife and my children. I have been very, very blessed to have her in my life and hopefully, she will decide to stay with me for many years longer.
You played down Lahore attack the other day in your press conference, but you were on the verge of becoming a father round about that time.
Yes, actually my wife was a few months pregnant, quite pregnant by the time we were attacked. So actually I called her and I spoke to her and I said listen, we were driving to the ground and there has been a bit of a shooting but everyone’s fine. Don’t worry about anything. That’s all I told her, I didn’t tell her anything about who got hurt, who got hit and all of this. But unfortunately, there were news items being run saying I got hit in the head and people have died and all these things and she was panicking. I got a few calls and at the end of the day I said listen, I am talking to you, so that means I am fine! But at the same time, I can understand the stress that she was going through. It was easier for us because we knew exactly what was happening but they weren’t getting the news quickly enough or clearly enough. And it was hugely stressful not just on her but all the families and you could see when we landed that the relief they had to have us back and at home in Sri Lanka. It was quite a tough time.
On to retirement. Have you spoken to some of the others who have retired recently on preparing for retirement?
I think it’s very hard to prepare yourself because I really don’t know what it will be like to actually stop playing international cricket. I think I am very, very lucky compared to earlier players because there is so much cricket that I can play around the world still to get it out of my system slowly. But guys like Aravinda (de Silva), there have been so many people who have gone from the sport, gone on to other things, who have become very successful in their own right in other fields, there are lot of people you can look around and see that life doesn’t end with the sport. But at the same time, as a structural improvement in Sri Lanka cricket, we really need to be able to do what a lot of the other countries including India have done with the pension schemes and the pension funds for cricketers so that once they do leave the game, they don’t feel that they have been abandoned and forgotten. That if they are in trouble, there is a place or an institution or a facility that they can make use of to try and alleviate some of that pressure. That’s something we must seriously look at because cricketers give a lot – they are given a lot but at the same time they give a hell of a lot in return, so they need looking after not just while they are playing but also after they are finished.
So does that mean you have given thought to being an administrator at some stage in the future?
Not yet really, no! Not yet. A few years will have to pass before I can even think of that.