The ‘sport’ in business

Wednesday, 24 April 2013 00:33 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

One of Sri Lanka’s most highly respected cricketers Kumar Sangakkara addressed a gathering of business leaders at a power evening organised by the Sri Lanka Institute of Directors (SLID) earlier this month. The event brought about a welcome change to the formal seminars organised regularly by SLID on corporate governance, adding a much lighter tone or ‘twist’ as some may define it, to a congregation of over 150 directors and senior management.

Sangakkara was interviewed by Janashakthi Insurance PLC Director Ramesh Schaffter, an accomplished public speaker and former Sri Lanka Cricket Secretary, a post he held for a period of six years. Given this overall experience and charisma Schaffter and Sangakkara continued with their conversation, interrupted time to time by a member of the audience with questions which were fielded by both speakers eloquently.

Commencing the discussion Sangakkara spoke of his childhood and of his father whom he considered as his role model and support behind his cricketing career; one which he entered quite late, at the age of 13 to be precise. Sanga fondly reminisced of the days his father would wake him up to practice early morning saying: “If you are doing things for fun you waste half an hour on it, but if you are training for two hours then you got to do whatever you do really well.” Even today, he still receives messages and faxes from his father on ‘how to play the game’ even on overseas tours.

Having made the decision to play cricket, he joined the Nondescripts Cricket Club (NCC) until he was eventually called up for the national side after the 1999 ICC World Cup, through a combination of both ability and luck. In his own words: “I was there at the right time when the right changes were happening and I got pushed through to the A side and a year later I was playing for Sri Lanka.”


The topic of fitness is nothing new for sportsmen. Sangakkara went on describe the important role played by former team physiotherapist Alex Kountouri, in bringing about a high level of fitness to the team. “Well, your food is not controlled unless they see it as a problem. We had a couple of players in the side where the trainer had written against their names on the big white board, to eat and eat again, but for others like me who eat quite a lot of junk food, the warning was, you can eat whatever you want, but if when they test you and your are overweight, then you will have to exercise and get rid of it. So that’s not a pleasant thought.”

Moving on next to the sport itself, Schaffter inquired on the ‘behind the scenes’ action that goes on in preparations for an ODI. “The most important time for us, for me personally is the week or two or the month leading up to a series. We have our video analysts coming in with all the footage we need. We sit down and analyse the opposition bowling and batting and we try and formulate plans and practice conditions to try and counter those challenges.  Everyone will have their plan as a bowler or a batsman and then we start working.”

Sanga attributes his success as a batsman to hard work as opposed to pure ability or skill. A typical practice day will involve a session at the gym or running in the morning for about two and a half hours which will then be followed by a session of batting in the afternoon, where a session planned for 2 hours inevitably goes on for four to five hours much to the frustration of the management. According to him the real trust is built during preparation. “It’s not just your own confidence but by seeing your team mates doing the same thing, going through the same rigorous training, you acknowledge it and on any given day, even a mistake on the field may be overlooked because you know how hard each player trained,” he said.

“Cricket is a lot about execution. It doesn’t matter who the captain is or what decision he takes, the decision is vindicated through execution, nothing else. There is no right or wrong decision that a captain can take because it all depends on the person he chooses and that person’s ability to execute his skill according to what is required in that moment. Understating that is really important at training,” he explained.

We all know about Sanga, the batsman but what we don’t know is that he likes bowling too. “I think all wicket keepers try and bowl in the nets to certain batsmen. We’ve bet a dinner on my ability to get someone out and you know we don’t really watch whether we bowl no-balls or not in the nets so I get a couple of yards of extra pace. However, it was a lot of fun and I love bowling but I’m terrible at it and I don’t expect an over or two in a match, but once in a while the captain feels charitable enough to throw me the ball.”


Breaking world records is never easy but breaking record after record is exceptional. Sangakkara isn’t new to the record books. Speaking on his record breaking test partnership with fellow team player and close friend Mahela Jayawardena, Sanga related the experience as both ecstatic coupled with and a touch of sadness. “When you break a record, especially when it’s a Sri Lankan record, there is a tinge of sadness but you also feel very proud and very happy that you have both no. 1 and 2, both for the same country. That was a wonderful partnership and I love batting with Mahela because when we know our own games as well as each other’s games, we understand when to reverse the pressure on bowlers and fielders and when to accelerate. When someone is accelerating the other will rotate the strike so that the guy who’s in rhythm and form will always be on strike. So we work very well together in those situations and this was an exceptional one,” he explained.

Their relationship is by no way restricted to the middle of the pitch. The cricketers are partners together with Dharshan Munidasa in running the popular restaurant ‘The Ministry of Crabs’. “Dharshan is a restaurateur by trade but I know nothing of restaurants other than that you go eat and enjoy, pay the bill and then walk out. But I love watching cookery programs and opening a restaurant had been one of my dreams.” In the Caribbean during 2007 it was an American Andy Haguer who was a huge supporter of Sri Lanka’s cricket and food, who came up with the initial idea. When he pulled out of it due to personal reasons, Dharshan was left to man the project alone and called in his close buddy Kumar, and subsequently Mahela and a year later, the restaurant was in full gear.


A leader is expected to make the right call, be it sport or in business and at the end of the day it is your call that can either bring your team to the top or else drop you to the bottom of the pit. It is equally important however that you acknowledge the entire team in victory and use the words ‘we’ and ‘us’ as opposed to ‘I’ or ‘me’. “When you lose, that is the time a captain has to say ‘I’, because you have to take responsibility for the decisions and what happened on the field and that is how a team would continue to play for their captain, trust their captain and to understand that their captain supports them a 100%,” the former Sri Lankan captain stated.

“Leadership itself is not about being a captain, in cricket especially, it is situational. You will find that you are the nominated captain. You may not be on the field because when you are batting you have got to trust the two batsmen in the middle. You only put on the captain’s hat on when you are fielding and you are trying to develop the leadership skills of ten other players in your side so that when tough times come around these guys can make those instant decisions themselves and they don’t have to come running to the captain for every single guidance. We want them to be proactive, think and strategise on their own. So we try and have that culture.”

He also felt that a sports psychologist should be a must for building player’s confidence and mental strength. Sri Lanka did have this fortune temporarily with Australian Sandy Gordon before the 2007 ICC World Cup; a world cup final many of us would like to forget. The audience was given a glimpse of the thoughts in the dressing room just after the match that day; a day where many of us witnessed disappointment and anguish even in our own living rooms. “I don’t think there is anything that can be said to get someone out of that and sometimes you don’t have to say anything because I think everyone in the team understands exactly how disappointed everyone else is. But at the same time, I think you need to take some time after that to recover. It’s no use making a big inspirational kind of talk to the players because at that point you just need space, you just need time. I always think that character is tested fully only during failure and not during success. Success is the easiest wave to ride with everyone happy and praising you but when you fail everyone feels very alone. Not just the team, within the team the individuals feel very alone. You miss a catch, you miss a run out or you play a bad shot, all of these you think contribute to the end result.”

Sledging, Sri Lankan style

There is this clip taken from a stump mic on a tour in South Africa back in 2002 of an enthusiastic Sangakkara talking to Shaun Pollock. It was the first time some of would have heard a Sri Lankan sledging the opposition. Reminiscing on that incident, Sangakkara spoke of the coming of age of Sri Lankan cricketers in being verbal on the pitch. It was a time in which the opposition’s mindset of Sri Lankans changed. “They used everything possible, our families, our grandparents to the tuk-tuks in our country and the weather, everything was fair game. Just before the second test started Marvan (Atapattu), one of the gentlest players in our side sat us down and said, “Guys, I’ve had enough. If they say one thing, we say three things at them and we’ve got to make it a point that we don’t back down and we make sure that verbally we are right up there with them.” It seems as though the team never looked back after that.

Kumar the Batsman

Last December Sangakkara reached 10,000 runs in test match cricket; a figure attained in 195 innings which saw him join both Brian Lara and Sachin Tendulkar as the fastest to reach that figure. “When I first started playing test matches, everyone asked me what my target was; I wanted to score 10,000 runs and score 30-plus hundreds. I thought that was the benchmark. There is always going to be that defining point in someone’s career where you are slightly better than good and I think, now that you reached it, you should shift your goal again and try to get that next hundred and you try to get that next thousand runs and end your career on a high,” he emphasised.

Motivations and bearings

Speaking about his family Sanga claimed that he actually saw them more on tour rather than in Sri Lanka. SLC maintains a ten-day rule which prohibits cricketers taking their families with them on the first ten days of a tour; a system viewed as a practical policy to ensure than the players are able to focus completely on settling down and adapting to the conditions of the particular country. “I’ve been very fortunate in having kids. It changes your life so much for the better. It completely puts the game you’re playing in the correct perspective. You can really forget about that hard day in the field and be inspired to go out and try again, because one of the reasons why play the game when you have a family is to provide for them and that is another motivation.” Getting serious on the whole topic of motivation, he went on to comment on the difficulty that sometimes arises when one is asked to explain the individual reasons that inspires them to keep on playing. “In Sri Lanka these days it’s a bit dangerous or sometimes not accepted to talk about motivations that are not considered noble. I think playing the game for the sake of your family is fantastic but if you ever mention the word money, that’s the worst thing. Being realistic, when I’m playing cricket, the fact that I’m going to be paid a salary for my services is an important part. For me, I’m lucky it doesn’t have to be the only thing but I think whatever motivates the cricketers to do their job for their country properly and do that job well and do it year after year, whatever it is, you shouldn’t be embarrassed to talk about it.”

Schaffter then moved onto a more pressing and serious topic constantly being talked about, the Cricket Board. On being asked about his relationship with the board, Sanga had the following to say: “It never becomes easy, especially in a Sri Lankan sense. I think the players, not just the current players, but specially the players who have played before us, we are carrying their torch. We’ve got to do justice to that legacy that they have left behind. Times may change. A cricketer ten years from now might drive a Ferrari after his first tour. So be it. I should be proud of the fact that I’ve been a part of a journey where I have contributed to someone’s life being so much better because I played the game. I think that the administration themselves need to understand the value of cricketers and the value they bring as persons and as characters. There doesn’t need to be a conflict, but at the end of the day our job and any administrator’s job is to ensure that the game is healthier for us, having administered it or us having played it.”

On politics and background matters that bring pressure on the players, he went on to explain: “It always does and we always say it never does. We always try and ignore it, but when the administration is shaky, the team is insecure. You can’t play cricket in an environment of doubt. The players will continue to make mistakes, the administration will continue to make mistakes, but I think the important thing is that those mistakes are made with the right intensions and towards improvements. If that’s the case, everyone can move on.”


Moving on to lighter topics and much to the enjoyment of the audience, Sanga spoke quite affectionately about one of his closest buddies, Muttiah Muralidaran. “He knows everything about everything. He fancies himself as an expert on everything. He is the one indispensable character. Forget his bowling and his 800 wickets, but the amount of joy he brings and the frustration and the anger he produces in the dressing room is huge. He is lovely because he has no ego so he just gravitates towards the younger guys in the team, the guys who are making the first tour. He’ll be going around saying, if you want dinner, I’ll bring dinner for you.”

“The other part is he talks non-stop and he is always negative. I think that’s how he motivates himself. “Oh I can’t do that.” It will be a tail-ender, and he will be dead scared that the guy will hit him for a four or a six. We will keep on telling him it’s OK and he would say ‘it is not OK, I need a fielder here and I need a fielder there,’ and if we were going to declare he would say, ‘That’s nonsense! Declare at 600, and then I will bowl,’ and constantly question the theory of sporting declarations.”

“Once I was going in to bat against India in a second innings in Asgiriya, Kandy and he came and said ‘Sanga, remember don’t drive, don’t cut, don’t pull, don’t hit across the line, don’t hook,’ so I looked at him and asked him ‘So basically I have a forward defensive and a back foot defensive only?’ to which he then says ‘Yeah, but be careful on the back foot defensive as well.’ He left me with one shot!” The audience erupted with laughter.

“Once we were on a bus to Kandy and we timed Murali saying ‘let see how long you can stay without saying a word?’ His record was four seconds. We have a team rule with Murali, we don’t ever invite him for some team meetings, because when he comes in, it’s very hard to get certain things done. He’s would usually make comments such as ‘What is this theory? What is this video? Forget it, you just go, you bowl, you score runs, you win. These meetings are useless!’”

Moving onto another friend, former cricketer Ruchira Perera, most often than not referred to as ‘Udurawana of Cricket’, Sanga was more than happy to describe the various antics played by Ruchira in the dressing room as well as on the pitch.

The fans

Being asked on the matter of publicity and handling fans, Kumar stressed on the fact that at the end of the day even though the love for the sport keeps you going, their roles as entertainers depended on the spectator such as the kid who bothers his father to buy a ticket to watch a game. People from the boardroom to the marketplace are passionate about a sport that transcends boundaries such as race, colour, caste and religion. “In the larger scheme of life, this is a game, it’s a sport. It’s a wonderful game, but it is still a game. We will play it for a few years and then we have to face real life,” he added.

Schaffter then moved on to the subject of IFRS, the new accounting practice introduced in the country which broadly categorises assets as those held for maturity and those available for sale, a question related to some cricketers, especially when it comes to corruption and match-fixing. Kumar believes that it was indeed an important topic for discussion. Having just submitted the papers for the World Cricket Committee meeting in New Zealand on the topic of corruption, he believed that corruption itself is not necessarily tied up with the players but may spread beyond and involve anyone from coaches, to selectors to even ministry officials. “The real onus is on the ICC, the Cricket Board, and the players themselves to continuously educate themselves and others about the threat of corruption. It could be very simple things that we’ve put in place such as banning player’s cellular phones or wireless internet devices in the dressing room. Then you have the post-match parties, where you meet so many people and you don’t know if someone is a match-fixer or not. You have to be very careful who you meet, what you talk about regarding cricket. So it’s a continuous education that needs to be put in place. We don’t have a prominent domestic, anti-corruption unit; which we need to establish. We have an anti-corruption security code of the ICC which we need to implement fully to our entire cricket system but unfortunately from time to time you will see corruption popping its ugly head up. I think Cricket will survive it and will move on. You won’t reach a day where people won’t try but hopefully we will reach a day when players are completely above and beyond corruption,” he added.

Being asked about his views on university sports in Sri Lanka, he felt that university sports which were once the pinnacle of sports in Sri Lanka have now taken a backseat due to various reasons. “College sport is going great, but I think we sometimes get a bit too carried away with college sports and lose focus on bridging the gap between college and international level, especially in cricket. We celebrate big matches, we celebrate achievements of younger cricketers, but you find most of these cricketers get lost in the system by the time they are 19, between the ages of 19 and 25. So we need to pay a lot more attention to that age group,” Sangakkara opined.

A question was asked on judging the greatness of a batsman, on whether is it the amount of runs he scores or is it based on the impact he has made on the team in terms of victories and scoring when the chips are down. Kumar emphasised that it was a combination of both, with each batsman’s value being different. “In each side you will have different batsmen, those who are accumulators and those who are impact-players who produce innings once in a while that change and win games. Consistency is usually the hall mark of a great batsman, whether the chips are down or whether the going is good. If you have two or three such players then you have a good side but once in a while you will have on each side, batsmen who will have the ability turn the games on at the right time. Anyone who does that is great, whether they win a match by one run or whether they do it by scoring a hundred. There was a match against Bangladesh in which we were nine down with 32 runs to get in the finals and Murali hit 20 plus runs in one over of a fast bowler and we won that game. That to me is the most significant innings of the year by a batsman. That was great, it was a great knock but I think that greatness comes with a lot of consistency,” he added.

Summing up the contents of their conversation Sangakkara was finally inquired on the advice that can be given to a businessman to which he had the following to say. “When we returned from Pakistan, after the shooting, we had a swami from the Art of Living Institute who would come and conduct a three to four day workshop with us and our families on yoga and breathing exercises to try and get our minds around or over the trauma. One day he asked us a question which was when do you think you are going to be happy? And there were lots answers such as when you score 10,000 runs, when you win, when you win a World Cup etc and he replied, ‘when you are born, your parents send you to school and when you are with your friends you think you are happy but then you have an exam, then you think if you pass the exam you will be happy. You pass that and you think after that you are going to be happy. Then you think getting into university will make you happy and then that transfers from getting a job, a promotion, a better salary, marriage, having children and your goals become a continuous.’ At the end of it, all he said was simply ‘just make sure you are happy now.’ That was the most impressive thing that I’ve heard in a very long time,”

The ‘sport’ in business was held as a fund raiser for both SLID as well as the ‘Foundation of Goodness’, which is a charity supported by Sangakkara and several other national cricketers. SLID which was formed almost 13 years ago organises many programs focusing primarily on the topic of corporate governance. These programs are held on a monthly basis mainly for the corporate fraternity of Colombo. However with the growing disparity between corporates in the Western province as opposed to the others; SLID has begun to expand its target group by conducting seminars on ‘conducting business responsibly’ in other provinces as well. To-date the institute has organised four such seminars in Kandy, Ratnapura, Trincomalee and Hambantota, free of charge over the last two years. The profits of this event will be utilised to further this initiative of the institute. The event was sponsored by EGB as well as IronOne Technologies. Partnering SLID in this endeavour was Bates Strategic Alliance as communications partner, and LBO and LBR as media partners.