Saturday, 21 December 2013 00:00
Kumar Sangakkara says he owes a lot of his success to his father, who wants him to strive for a standard of consistency only matched by Don Bradman
By Andrew Fernando
ESPNCricinfo: “My father, without the slightest doubt, was the most marvellous and exciting father any boy ever had,” says Roald Dahl’s Danny, in Danny, the Champion of the World. Almost everyone who remembers their father can recollect a time growing up when he stood at the centre of their universe.
Kumar Sangakkara does too. When he was a child, his father, Kshema, would throw him balls and instruct him on technique in the backyard of their beautiful hillside home in Kandy. Kumar would move on to badminton and tennis with great success, before eventually circling back to cricket, but in countless hours of conversation and batting drills, for a long time he clung to every word his father spoke. When he won last year’s Cricketer of the Year, Test Cricketer of the Year and People’s Choice awards from the ICC, he recounted fondly the long days spent, just he and his father in the backyard, putting the building blocks of a famous technique together.
Engeltine Cottage, as their home was named by the original owners, 81 years before the Sangakkaras bought it, is exactly the sort of place you would expect a man like Kumar would be made. The gated driveway opens up into a substantial, impeccably manicured lawn, with fruit trees and flowers skirting one side, and the gracefully colonial, unmistakeably Sri Lankan bungalow rising up on the other. White pillars hold up a veranda that shades a few pieces of outdoor furniture and a vehicle.
Inside, the walls, the artwork, the door frames and the wooden furniture filled in with rattan weave, exhale old Ceylon. Kumar’s old room is at the front of the house, facing the garden, and it was here that his father would rouse him on weekend mornings for hours of throw-downs and shadow-batting.
Kshema would drop a book on the wooden desk and ask his youngest of four to read it in the next few days, because a quiz on its contents would follow - or so the story goes. Kumar was the top all-round scholar in his year at Trinity College, in addition to becoming the school’s greatest sportsman.
A harsh critic
Warmer in person and more gently spoken than the stories suggest, Kshema arrives home from a long day at court. Kumar calls his own four-year-old son from his play area on the lawn outside and leads him into the house with his grandfather. Kumar and his family stay with his parents when there are matches in Kandy, and a T20 against New Zealand looms the next day.
“One of the judges stays late,” Kshema says in half-apology, with that easy Sangakkara smile - softer and less practised than his son’s. Maybe an inch or two shorter than Kumar, Kshema is a well-known figure himself in Kandy, where he has been an exceptional civil lawyer for over four decades.
He remains engrossed in his work at 72. Kumar had designs to follow his father into the profession before cricket called him properly, part-way through law school, at 22.
“You’re going to be interviewed now,” Kumar says, once inside, a little gleefully. They sit across from each other in the living area, but before I can begin, Kshema has beaten me to the opening gambit. It’s a good one.
“Actually, he has never reached my expectations,” he begins, slowly at first, pausing every few words, as if testing the strength of the next phrase before committing to it. “That’s what I say, and any day I will say that.”
He needs little prompting to explain. “A batsman has certain basic attainments. You see, now, for example, Don Bradman was one person whose every other match gave him a century. A top-class bat must always reach that standard. According to Bradman, it is he who gets out - the bowler can’t get him out. So Kumar must perfect first the art of not getting out, and the balance will work for itself.”
It’s a daunting yardstick to be measured by, but in fewer than five minutes in his father’s company, it is clear why Kumar is so well renowned for holding himself to the highest standards. A meticulous planner and an indefatigable trainer, he has been known to test the coaches’ patience at practice. But it was his father who exasperated them first, Kumar says.
“It hasn’t just been me that’s been frustrated by the things he says, all my coaches have had it as well.”
From theory to practice
Kshema had played only at only a modest level in his youth, so as Kumar grew into his early teens, the lessons his father provided on batting - themselves largely gleaned from books - became inadequate. Perhaps more crucially, Kumar had grown more impervious to his father’s instruction. The pair set out and found local coaches with whom Kumar began to train.
“I used to go and watch him at his practices. When I saw a wrong movement, I went into the nets and corrected him,” Kshema says. “I think every stroke he plays, I must have worked on and corrected. But he did well. He got into the national Under-15 and U-17 teams.”
Such compliments from father to son are rare, and often arrive with a qualification. A hundred or a dazzling fifty might not inspire a “well done” from Kshema, but a well-made 15 would. Runs were no consideration. Kshema’s appreciation began and ended with technique and improvement therein, which is why his daughter is an object of adoration.
At 15, Saranga Sangakkara won the women’s National Tennis Championship, before repeating the feat four more times. Even now, two decades later, her name inspires admiration in Sri Lanka’s tennis fraternity.
“His sister was a born loser, in the sense that she had no talent at all for a racquet game,” Kshema says. “But through her own effort, she ended up as a top-class tennis player. No one could come close to her. Even when she started playing badminton, she used to hit the forehand with one hand, and the backhand with the other.”
“She was extremely clumsy,” Kumar chimes in.
“But somehow she followed Kumar to tennis practices and became very good. Her forehand was devastating. I don’t think even a man could take it, in Sri Lanka. She was a girl with tremendous determination.” Kshema turns to Kumar. “If you had her personality, nobody could have reached you. You would have been better than Bradman.”
Eventually the discussion snakes its way towards Kumar’s last dismissal in an ODI in Dambulla, two days prior. Spotting a short-of- length delivery from Nathan McCullum, Kumar had tried to pull, but lost his off bail when the ball kept low. It had been his second ball at the crease.He was out for a duck.
“Getting your eye in on the pitch is one of the basic things in cricket,” Kshema explains, as animated as he has been at any point so far, before shooting off on a minor tangent. “I have seen him since his 13th year. I know him by heart. When he makes the wrong movement, I see it. It’s not just the stroke, it’s the natural move he makes - how he gets into line, whether he plays forward or back to a certain ball.” He turns to his son again.
“Kumar, I want you to know two things. That you should experiment with your backlift, and with your stance, have the front hip open so that you can play the on drive without effort.”
Kumar wrinkles his nose slightly, unwilling to concede the point. “In T20 you can do that,” he replies.
“No, not in T20, even Test matches. That last match was a damn shame, the way you got out. I don’t know what you were doing. You wanted to pull, but you should have known that on an uncertain wicket, you don’t know if the ball will come this side or that side. With these little mistakes, how much have you destroyed your average?”
Kumar absorbs the lecture pensively. There are brief seconds when an objection bubbles up in his expression, but he shuts the thought down before his mouth can form the words. He knows which battles to pick. He has too much respect for his father to tug on every point.
And that is perhaps what binds the two so tightly together. “How can I try to explain / When I do he turns away again,” howls the son in Cat Stevens’ “Father and Son”, and while Kumar understands those frustrations as well anyone, immense esteem for his old man helps him see beyond differences in opinion.
At his Cowdrey Lecture at Lord’s, Kumar spoke reverently of his father’s heroism during perhaps the most defining week of Sri Lanka’s post-colonial history. When mobs scoured parts of the nation in late July 1983, hounding Tamils, killing them and burning down houses in retaliation for an LTTE ambush on troops in the north, Kshema and his wife, Kumari, rallied around 35 Tamil neighbours and friends, providing refuge at Engeltine Cottage, at great personal risk.
Peter Roebuck called Kumar’s lecture the “most important speech in the history of cricket”, because it grounded the game in Sri Lanka’s story, and implored administrators to safeguard cricket for its immense social value, if nothing else. Kshema, typically, doesn’t think much of the speech: “He can do better.”
Sri Lankan Tamils have not forgotten what brave Sinhala men and women like Kshema and Kumari did in those dark times, however. Their story certainly hasn’t escaped denizens of the once-embattled northern city of Jaffna, where Kumar is wildly, unreservedly popular; every kid’s idol, every coaches’ favourite exemplar.
“What his father did for Tamils in 1983” is rarely far from northerners’ lips when Kumar comes up in discussion. Fittingly “what my father did for me” is rarely far from Kumar’s, when he publicly reflects on success.
So Kumar can laugh when I ask him whether his father’s instruction has mellowed over the years, and Kshema takes the chance to launch another tirade. “He comes to a level where he doesn’t listen to me. In the papers I read that he practises for hours and hours, but if he’s practising the wrong movement for hours and hours, it’s useless.”
“I’ve learned what to listen to from him and what to, kind of, disregard,” Kumar interjects.
“You know, the things he does not listen to are the most important.” Kumar laughs again.
Yet, respect clearly flows in the other direction as well. At the end of one of Kshema’s unforgiving comparisons between Bradman and his son, I ask him if he knows that as a specialist batsman, no man, not even Garry Sobers or Graeme Pollock, stands between Bradman’s average and Kumar’s.
He breaks into the kind of twinkling smile every boy yearns to see on his father - an unmistakeable brimming-over of pride. “He can still do better,” Kshema says. Eventually he yields just a little more. “He has achieved a lot for a Sri Lankan.” Kumar is not in the room at the time, but nevertheless Kshema can’t help but add a caveat. “But what he has achieved and what he can achieve are different things.”
Kshema has already set his mind on training the next generation of Sangakkaras. He has eight grandchildren, four boys, four girls. Saranga and her family live in the USA, but the rest of his flock remain in Colombo - a city he hates.
“This fellow won’t listen to me,” Kshema says, with a half-smile, looking at Kumar’s son Kavith.
“But already there is a chap I know I can train. My daughter’s second son, Methvan. He will do very well in cricket and tennis. I expect him, if he follows seriously, he will play cricket for Sri Lanka and he will play tennis for Sri Lanka, both.”
“Or end up in therapy,” Kumar says.
So many discussions between father and son take this basic form. Kshema speaking professorially on one subject or the other, Kumar sniping snidely in response.
“Andre Agassi says his father gave him everything,” Kshema says.
“Agassi’s father was a druggie - before games, he would give him pills to take. Performance-enhancing drugs.”
“No, he didn’t. Have you read Agassi’s book? I’ve read the whole book over and over again. You should read it.”
And so it goes on. Still, out of such conflict is Kumar’s most fruitful professional partnership born. He complains only a superhuman could achieve what his father has laid out, but whenever there is a glitch in his game - a lean patch, or a repeated mode of dismissal - Kshema is his first port of advice. Kumar counts consistency among the best virtues of his game, and his father, more than anyone, has lit his path to sustained excellence.
For the next 15 months, though, which is as long as Kumar expects to stay in the game, he will have to be content with having the nation at his feet and the cricket world in admiration. He knows by now, that the critic at home, and in his heart, will probably never be sated.