Sublime Sangakkara

2013-06-15 00:00

WHILE T20 cricket sabotages the roots of the traditional game and recruits hundreds of new found “avid” fans, it’s pleasing to note there are still players who are gifted to play the game with their blessing of talent and skill.

The 20-over format has slotted into world cricket with ease, drawing thousands of spectators and offering players inflated price tags as they shed the basic principles of the game to hit and miss in what can be referred to as the WWE of cricket. It has purists questioning if it really is real, is it just for show? Ignorant fans, who suddenly have an interest in the game because of all the sixes being hit and the razzmatazz that goes with it, suddenly start slandering the purest form of the game, Test cricket, and putting forward laughable offerings such as, “Why don’t they hit like that in a Test match? It’s so boring otherwise.”

While it can generate pocketfuls of cash and create infinite interest, T20 cricket is strangling the game. Forty-two years ago, when the first one-day international was played between Australia and England at Melbourne after the first three days of the scheduled Test had been washed out, the cricket world was turned on its head. Here was something the forefathers of the game had never anticipated. Cricket was meant to be a sedate game of chess, each team trying to outwit the other with polished batting, keen fielding and tricky bowling. If a result could not be achieved, it was honourable to share the spoils and appreciate both teams being unwilling to yield.

Kerry Packer’s World Series Cricket was the atom bomb that laid waste any misgiving about the limited overs format, introducing coloured clothing, a white ball and playing under floodlights. A World Cup soon followed and purists resigned themselves to the fact that although this was not quite cricket, it was here to stay.

Over time, limited overs cricket became the accepted poor cousin of Test cricket. Tours included a five or more one-day series contest, sacrificing a possible extra Test to get more revenue and spectators to the grounds. It’s been a successful formula until the advent of the T20 scourge which, at one stage, had people questioning whether the 50-over game would survive and the four-yearly World Cup tournament become a memory and a statistic.

Fast forward to the present day and it’s no bias to say that the current ICC Champion’s Trophy in England and Wales — bar the weather — has revitalised the one-day game and given those who are starved of Test cricket something a little more than decent to watch. With the top eight Test-playing nations all capable of holding the trophy aloft, the matches have been riveting, with the formbook thrown away in disgust as teams cause upsets and individual performances turn matches.

Both groups A and B are being fiercely contested, with even the Proteas having to dig deep to avoid the now stale “choker” tag being thrown at them once more. A loss to India in the opening game and a more than spirited defence of an average 234 against Pakistan has kept the flag flying and yes, for the purist, there have been moments to savour.

None more so than Sri Lanka’s Kumar Sangakkara, who stroked the second century of the tournament in making an unbeaten 134 from 135 balls to see his team home by seven wickets against England, chasing a challenging 294 to win. Here was a master at work, a batsman blessed with grace and timing that were brilliant to behold, a man who knew his capabilities, kept his composure and hardly raised a sweat as he went about his business. He came in when the first wicket fell at 10, played himself in and produced one of the finest one-day centuries seen at the Kennington Oval, perhaps in one-day cricket.

There was no rashness, no rushed strokes, no irresponsible wild swings of the bat. Like a sculptor bringing life to what he holds in his hands, so too did Sangakkara wield his bat like a chisel, punching holes in the England attack, bringing beauty to the overall picture as he executed proper strokes, playing each ball on merit, playing the game how it should be played.

Sangakkara, at 35, is still a class player and he proved it in this game. He grew in stature and confidence as his innings progressed, treating the England bowlers with disdain toward the end, as the target drew nearer. He had a strike rate of 99,95, nearly a run a ball, which suggests he got on with the job and swung his bat lustily. It wasn’t quite like that. He just took charge of the situation, playing each ball, each bowler on merit, picking the right ball to hit, working it around into empty spaces, taking charge and, like a dog with a bone, never letting go.

Sri Lanka won comfortably with 17 balls, nearly three overs, to spare, such was Sangakkara’s dominance. Toward the end, he was playing with England’s attack, making runs at will and the way he dispatched Stuart Broad’s first ball of the 48th over with a swivel and a sweet pull through mid-wicket for four and victory was reminiscent of a victorious gladiator surveying all he had conquered on his journey to glory.

Despite this being a limited overs match, Kumar Sangakkara reminded the cricket world that decent, proper cricket has a place on any stage. May the T20 mercenaries sit up and take note.

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