Sangakkara's ton of motivation
IF INTERNATIONAL cricket was a kingdom, Kumar Sangakkara would rank among the most senior members of the royal family.
He is elegant and regal in the way and what he speaks, and is even more graceful with a bat in his hands. Behind that style there is also substance, reflected in the Sri Lankan trumping the likes of Michael Clarke, Hashim Amla and Alastair Cook to be the ICC's reigning Test player of the year and overall cricketer of the year.
He is also the winner, for a second consecutive year, of the annual fan-voted player award after averaging 60.16 in Tests and 42.85 in one-day internationals.
Despite recently turning 35, Kumar Sangakkara says he will continue to bat at one-drop. Photo: Getty Images
On Sangakkara's last visit to Hobart five years ago, he scored a masterful 192 to drag Sri Lanka improbably close to a fourth-innings target of 497, only to be erroneously given out as the target shrank to within 140. Rather than be bitter about that umpiring blunder, he insisted he has returned to Bellerive Oval with ''pretty fond memories''.
On the eve of his fifth series against Australia, his main goal relates to remedying an anomaly that despite averaging 42.71 against Australia across 17 innings since 2004, that Hobart epic has been his only century.
''The first time I played against Australia was in Sri Lanka - I was keeping and batting at three,'' he said. ''I had to keep for two 500-run innings - that wasn't ideal for a batsman against such a high-quality attack.
''I definitely should have done more [against Australia], but you've got to take what you can.''
Since Sangakkara's debut in 2000, he ranks fourth on the Test run tally for that time, although of those above him, only South African maestro Jacques Kallis boasts a superior average (60.70, compared to 55.89).
He gave up wicketkeeping duties in Tests in 2008 but, like recently retired peer Ricky Ponting, has spent the overwhelming majority of his career at No. 3, almost universally acknowledged as the toughest batting position.
In that position he boasts an impressive conversion rate, going on to make a century 29 of the 66 times he has reached a half-century. Despite recently turning 35, he said he had no intentional of shielding himself down the order.
''It really depends on the quality around you … it's really important to have a quality opening pair ahead of you who can give you a bit of a cushion … otherwise you're in in the first five to 10 overs or even fewer, so you've got to be prepared,'' he said of the challenge.
''If that [an early entry] happens consistently, sometimes it can get mentally frustrating. You've got to be very careful and keep working very, very hard at being solid at what you do, and expecting to come in even after the first ball. But it also gives you a great opportunity to score big runs.''
While Sangakkara oozes leadership, he has had no official role for the past 20 months, having resigned as captain of all three formats after Sri Lanka failed to win the World Cup it jointly hosted in early 2011 - despite reaching the final.
He was followed by all four national selectors. The veteran did not want to overstate the importance of his decision but agreed that positions of cricketing authority in Sri Lanka carried a significant burden when the team failed.
''There is a great sense of responsibility. I don't know whether it's more than in other countries. In Sri Lanka, of course cricket is much more than just a game. It stands for what an ideal Sri Lanka should be, a micro-representation of an ideal society … with all the nationalities, ethnicities, religions playing cricket.
''We go out there and represent an entire country … that's really helped the psyche of the people over there through tough times.''
Asked whether he missed the role, Sangakkara replied: ''The sense of responsibility is still always there, but of course you miss leading your side out - that's not going to change. But also, you do feel much freer and much more relaxed and open to a lot more in cricket that you're restrained [from] as a captain.''
In Sangakkara's place, the role has been assumed by his predecessor and fellow batting great Mahela Jayawardene, who is poised to vacate the role, in favour of the much younger Angelo Mathews.
Sangakkara's belief that Sri Lanka boasts a ''a pretty solid combination'' with him at three and Jayawardene at four or five could hardly be more understated. They have scored a combined 20,533 Test runs and, with no disrespect intended to the likes of Tillakaratne Dilshan and Thilan Samaraweera, are always treated by opponents as the vital scalps.
Sangakkara acknowledged he and Jayawardene spend less time together outside of touring than they used to, mainly owing to his family and charity responsibilities, but insisted he and his long-time teammate still shared a strong bond.
''We've had a really good working relationship and a really solid friendship on and off the field … that's been one of the cornerstones that's allowed us to do what we've done. I enjoy batting with the guy. We know each other, know about the way we think. That makes it easy.''
This tour, possibly the last Test tour of Australia for each, will belatedly allow both players the opportunity to play a Test match in Sydney and Melbourne, something denied to them for the majority of their careers because Australia has typically prioritised bigger cricketing nations such as England and India to play in its two biggest cities.
''At least in the back-end of our careers we get an opportunity to do that,'' Sangakkara said.