The cricketing summer of 2019 has witnessed some truly astonishing moments and in turn has prompted debate over whether some of these moments are the ‘greatest’ in the long history of cricket. Was the World Cup final the ‘greatest’ ever game of white-ball cricket? Probably. Was Ben Stokes’ unbeaten 135 at Headingley the ‘greatest’ test match innings of all time? Possibly. In Steve Smith, are we watching the greatest player to ever play the game? On that last question, Smith is near peerless. Only Don Bradman has averaged more, and amongst his contemporaries Smith towers above. He may not have the grace or aggression of Virat Kohli, or the calm and poise of Kane Williamson, but the numbers do not lie. However, Smith is not the ‘greatest’ of all time. To be the greatest, by definition you have to go above and beyond the other greats. You have to be better than that best, and one man has done so. That man is the new incoming president of the MCC, Kumar Sangakkara.
Firstly, let’s turn our attention to his playing career. 134 tests, 404 ODIs, over 28,000 international runs and 63 international centuries. He sits at number six on the all-time leading test run-scorers with only Alistair Cook, Rahul Dravid, Jacques Kallis, Ricky Ponting and Sachin Tendulkar ahead of him. All of them have played more games and none average more than Sangakkara. These numbers alone propel him into the conversation of ‘greatest of all-time’. He retained relevance as the importance of One Day cricket and T20 cricket increased. He played in two World Cup finals and three World T20 finals, passing 50 in three of those games; most memorably in 2014 where he led his side to their first global triumph since 1996 with a Man of the Match performance. He was as much a white ball titan as he was a traditional red ball great. Additionally, he was not merely a great batter with his wicket-keeping ability often overshadowed by his batting mastery. 678 international dismissals place him up with the best of glovemen, and none of them have claimed as many as Sangakkara’s 482 in ODI cricket. It is therefore indisputable on statistics alone that Sangakkara is in the conversation for the greatest player to ever play the game.
It would be wrong however to assess greatness on numbers alone. Cricket is a sport which stimulates many emotions from pain to pleasure, to frustration and anxiety. Sometimes it is how you feel watching that really matters. My dad still purrs to me about Vivian Richards flicking the ball through midwicket or David Gower caressing it through the covers in the same way I marvel at Jos Buttler ramping the ball for six or Ben Stokes reverse-sweeping Nathan Lyon into the grandstand with a mixture of awe and wonder. In a way, Sangakkara’s 147 at Lords in 2014 – the 36th of his 38 test hundreds – was his career in a microcosm. He scored all around the ground off the front and back foot, on his way to etching his name onto the most famous of honours boards at his last attempt, with all his usual grace and elegance. He got off the mark with a clip through midwicket, scored heavily square of the wicket cutting and pulling anything short and reached the moment he’d long sought by crashing Joe Root to the cover boundary. He celebrated his moment with the dignity fitting of a batter of his class and was embraced by his long-time partner Mahela Jayawardene as Lords (including the English contingent of fans) rose to applaud greatness. As well as being a joy to watch, there is a romantic element in the way Sangakkara continued to play first-class cricket after his international retirement regardless of the fact he had nothing left to prove. One can only presume he played for no other reason than for the love of playing. It’s not like he waned on the pitch either as he lashed 8 centuries for Surrey in his final season, fittingly ending not out in his final first-class innings. Sangakkara was not only a great by numbers. He appealed to the cricketing purist as much as the statistician. He was a man for every type of cricket lover.
Finally, it is important to consider how Kumar Sangakkara has used his status as a cricketing great. For me, it is here where Sangakkara promotes himself from a ‘great’ to the ‘greatest’. How great players conduct themselves as people on and off the pitch does matter. Brian Lara clashed with the West Indies Cricket Board over a sponsorship deal, Steve Smith was wrapped up in a ball-tampering scandal that brought national shame and Virat Kohli constantly antagonises the opposition through verbals. In contrast, the number of people to applaud Kane Williamson in the aftermath of the World Cup final highlighted the importance and the power of the behaviour of leading cricketers. In 2011, Sangakkara was tasked with giving the MCC ‘Spirit of Cricket’ lecture, and he used the platform to speak passionately about his country. He spoke of his upbringing and how cricket united a nation divided by religion, politics and civil war. Throughout, he underlined thoroughly what it meant to be Sri Lankan, how this inspired the cricket team in 1996 and the power cricket has to achieve great things in Sri Lanka. He did not shy away from the harder issues criticising power politics in Sri Lankan cricket, the government and its levels of corruption. In short, he used his status as a national icon and global star to advance the cause of millions of ordinary people. He concluded by saying: ‘I will… play the game hard and fair and be voice with which Sri Lanka can speak proudly and positively to the world’. He spoke with eloquence rivalled only by his batting when he said: ‘I am Tamil, Sinhalese, Muslim and Burgher. I am a Buddhist, a Hindu, a follower of Islam and Christianity. I am today, and always, proudly Sri Lankan.’ It is fitting therefore that a man so aware of both his personal importance and the importance of the sport as a whole has been chosen as the first non-British president of the MCC as he continues to go above and beyond what is expected. He is admired around the world – especially in Asia – and is not tarnished by the rivalry between India and Pakistan. He is an excellent choice to lead the MCC as the game continues to expand into countries all over the world and one would expect that he will lead with the grace, poise and dignity he has shown on and off the field throughout his cricketing career.
Kumar Sangakkara. The greatest of all-time.