James Anderson has dismissed him more times in Tests, but no one has got the better of Kumar Sangakkara across formats in international cricket more often than Zaheer Khan and Saeed Ajmal.
Like the Pakistani offspinner, the Indian left-arm paceman, too, has had Sangakkara’s number 11 times – six times in Tests and five times in One-Day Internationals – and, therefore, it was no surprise to hear the retiring Sri Lankan legend heap unstinted praise on Zaheer, who hasn’t played for India since the tour of New Zealand in January-February 2014.
One of Sangakkara’s few perceived weaknesses is against left-arm bowlers who can swing the ball – Trent Boult has accounted for him eight times, Irfan Pathan has dismissed him six times and Ashish Nehra on five occasions. “But more Zaheer Khan,” Sangakkara tells Wisden India at the P Sara Oval as he reflects on a long career. “I remember Zaheer was a nightmare to face because he was so skilful. He has the ability to seam the ball as well as swing it both ways. He is like a Chaminda Vaas.”
Listening to him, it is obvious that Sangakkara has huge respect for Zaheer. That stems not just from Zaheer’s outstanding skills, but also Sangakkara’s recognition of what makes Zaheer tick and yet his inability to counter what the Indian threw at him. “He is absolutely sure of himself, he knows exactly what he is doing, he has got amazing control and he can bowl with the new ball, he can bowl any time of the innings, he can bowl quick if he wants to or really bowl within himself if the situation calls for it. Reverse, he was just the master. And then probably because I have quite a large trigger movement at times, it probably made it a little difficult for me to face left-arm pacers, especially guys who had the skill to move the ball both ways. Trent Boult, (there were) a couple of innings where I struggled against him and Boult’s a fantastic bowler but I think to get on top of him is a little easier than a bowler like Zaheer Khan. I have a lot of respect for Zak, the way he bowled not just to me but around the world in all conditions. I have had trouble against guys like Graeme Swann, spinners like Murali (Muttiah Muralitharan) who would turn the ball almost immediately off the pitch.”
Regarded among Sangakkara’s greatest knocks are his 192 in Hobart in a losing cause against Australia in November 2007, 147 in the Lord’s draw against England in June 2014 and a second-innings 108 against South Africa in Durban in December 2011 when Sri Lanka created history with a crushing 208-run victory. His 230 against Pakistan in March 2002, in the Asian Test Championship final in Lahore which Sri Lanka won by eight wickets, is almost an afterthought even though it was the first of his 11 scores in excess of 200 in Test cricket.
Probably because I have quite a large trigger movement at times, it probably made it a little difficult for me to face left-arm pacers, especially guys who had the skill to move the ball both ways
“It was a wonderful year for us in Test cricket, that period,” he recalls. “It was Sanath’s (Jayasuriya) captaincy and I think we won nine-ten matches continuously and our average first-innings score must have been close to 500 in all those games. That game was my first Test match against Pakistan. It was quite an impressive pace attack they had although Waqar (Younis) was not at his peak, probably at the end of his career. They had Waqar, Shoaib (Akhtar), Mohammad Sami and Abdul Razzaq in that pace attack and we’d just got them out for 234 with Charitha Buddhika (Fernando) seaming and swinging the ball to get three wickets.”
Having kept wickets for 67 overs on the first day, Sangakkara went out to face the second ball of the innings, batting at No. 3. “I remember Marvan (Atapattu) got out hooking the first ball of our innings. I had just started to put my pads on, taken my keeping pads off and I had to walk in. I played the first over – Waqar was swinging it back into me. Shoaib started, and this was the first time I had seen Shoaib bowl in a match when I was playing,” Sangakkara’s eyes twinkle as he makes the long trek back in time. “I remember he just ran in and he bowled one ball to Sanath and he hit it over point for four. Next ball again, one-bounce four.
“The third ball was a bouncer which went over Sanath. I don’t think Sanath saw it, I don’t think Rashid Latif, who was keeping, saw it, it just went over his head and went for five wides,” Sangakkara’s eyes open wide even now, some 13-and-a-half years after it happened. “And I was on the other side thinking, this is not going to be easy. But that was a day when everything fell into place. I started middling the ball almost immediately, I started scoring quite quickly and I remember Shahid Afridi came in to bowl at lunch the next day and I had gone into my 90s. He bowled two of the best balls you can get trying to get to a hundred; they were short and wide enough for me to cut. I remember getting there and Mahela (Jayawardene) was there on the other side when I got to my double hundred. I still remember flicking a ball to fine-leg for four off Sami or Razzaq. And I looked at the board and I said to Mahela, ‘I think have just scored a double-hundred’. I was really proud of that knock because it was the Asian Test Championship final, it was a good pace attack, a good wicket to play on and I was happy that I scored runs in the match we won.”
Sangakkara also made a hundred in the Test win in Wellington in December 2006 – indeed, only five times of 38 have Sri Lanka lost a match in which he has made a century. “There were two knocks in New Zealand. I had just gone to New Zealand the previous time and Stephen Fleming had this plan of trying to bounce me out. I remember I inside-edged a drive in the first Test, I got out bowled by James Franklin in the second Test and then we had a return leg. We had like three tours of New Zealand during that time, one after another.
“When we went back, it was Christchurch – Shane Bond, was it Chris Martin, James Franklin and I think Jacob Oram also played in that game [spot-on, Sanga!]. In the first innings, I got out caught third slip to Shane Bond and I thought ‘oh, not a great start to the Test series’, but the second innings knock, I was very happy. We were again five wickets down, Prasanna (Jayawardene) got a really good fifty but I managed to bat with (Lasith) Malinga and Murali and get to a hundred. And if not for that unfortunate run out at the end, if we could have another 30-40 runs, we could have actually won that game because New Zealand lost five wickets chasing down 90 or 100.”
The run out he was referring to was when, in his infinite excitement, Murali charged down the track to congratulate Sangakkara on his hundred when the ball was in play, and Brendon McCullum removed the bails to legally claim a run out even when the batsman was not attempting a run.
“We went to the second game and the wicket was strangely much harder than it was in Christchurch. I think there was an Australian groundsman, we asked him about that, looks a really good wicket and he said ‘yes, if there is pace and bounce, it is enough for a fast bowler; you don’t need the ball to seam and swing around all day’. We said ok, and we were four down pretty soon. I batted with Chamara Silva and I managed to get quite a decent hundred in that effort. And Chamara, having scored two ducks in the first Test, made a 60 and a 150 in that Test in the second innings. So that was a really satisfying effort because it was quite an attritional Test match, Test series and one-day series, and we managed to win that Test match quite convincingly.”
At the end of the day, whether it looks ugly or nice, I didn’t care as long as I managed to make an impact on the game
And, of course, the one in Durban as Sri Lanka bounced back from a pounding in the first Test to emphatically square the series. “I got a duck in the first innings, out to Marchant de Lange who was bowling quite quickly. In the second innings, I went out to bat and (Mark) Boucher dropped me when I was about nine, probably the easiest catch he is ever gonna get and he drops me,” Sangakkara almost whispers, perhaps still unable to digest his enormous good fortune. “After that, for some reason, I just found rhythm and timing. Everything seemed to hit the middle of my bat and I went on to a hundred and we won. It was those knocks that were very special because they were conditions in which I would normally think twice about when I prepare. To go there and get on top of those conditions was pretty satisfying.”
Given how voracious a reader he is, it is almost a given that Sangakkara has devoured Brad Gilbert’s Winning Ugly. “I have had my share of troubles but the real key is to try and find a way to score runs,” he agrees. “At the end of the day, whether it looks ugly or nice, I didn’t care as long as I managed to make an impact on the game. It was really interesting to try and work things out in my head as to what I should do and how I should approach an innings when I faced bowlers against whom I knew I had trouble.”
The real key is not to allow your ego to blind you to the options that you should take and to commonsense and to reality at times
Sangakkara’s mind works at the rate of knots. It’s almost as if even as you are forming a question in your head, he knows what is going to come out of your mouth. So, even before you finish asking him how important it is for a batsman to set ego aside, comes the reply, “It is important for anyone, not just in cricket but in everything you do. Everyone has an ego in the sense that they have the belief and self-confidence. The real key is not to allow it to blind you to the options that you should take and to commonsense and to reality at times. You should have room for other opinions also. And room in your life to be criticised and to be able to accept that and learn from mistakes. You can’t let your ego just ensure that you are trying to do the same thing over and over again and expecting different results when it is not working. Confidence and being really sure of yourself is a fantastic trait. Being very secure in your own abilities is great but you need to be balanced and I think that’s where even in a dressing room environment, for it to be healthy, you need egos that are constructive and that drive and push each other to achieve better things together, not just you as an individual.”