November 22, 2007

Kumar Sangakkara – on way to being the greatest ever

By H Natarajan

Is Kumar Sangakkara the finest batsman among specialist wicketkeepers in the history of Test cricket? The replies may be guarded at this point of time, but if Sangakkara sustains his batting brilliance of a very high order, the day is not far off when the world would be spontaneous in anointing the classy Lankan with that accolade.

Sangakkara was keeping wickets till recently and has played the vast majority of his Tests - 48 out of 68 – as a keeper. In fact, he has scored eight of his hundreds as a keeper.

If one takes 30 innings as the minimum qualifying base, his average of 55.74 is staggeringly close to the highest - West Indies’ Clyde Walcott average of 56.69 from 74 innings - among all wicket keepers from any country in the history of Tests. Zimbabwean Andy Flower (51.55 from 112 innings) is some distance away in third spot while Adam Gilchrist has slipped considerably since his pomp and is outside the elite club with 50-plus average in Tests.

Sangakkara has six double hundreds to his credit in 68 Tests so far. Only Sir Don Bradman (12 double and two triple), Brian Lara (nine double and two triple), and Wally Hammond (seven double and one triple) have crossed the two hundred mark in a Test innings more than Sangakkara with only the incomparable playing fewer Tests than the Lankan.

Sangakkara has a penchant for monstrous scores. In the last three years, he has twice raised visions of scoring a triple with innings of 270 against Zimbabwe and 287 against South Africa. During the course of his 287 last year, he featured in a jugalbandi with Mahela Jayawardene that realized 624 runs –the first time a partnership reached the 600-mark in a first-class or Test match innings.

Sangakkara’s class and consistency in Test cricket is acquiring magical proportions. And his innings on Tuesday in the backyard of the most feared team in the world would go down as one of Test cricket’s unforgettable classics. It was a master class performance reminiscent of Sunil Gavaskar’s magnum opus 221 against England in 1979. He was within two blows of becoming only the sixth player in history to score a double hundred in the fourth innings of a Test - a feat last achieved 23 years back.

Not many would have the mind, will and stomach to chase a fourth innings target of 500 after five top order batsmen are sliced in quick time for as little as 25 runs. But Sangakkara is a player with a granite mind and divine skills. Like Abhimanyu in Mahabharata, he waged a battle against unbelievable odds before his heroics met with an unfortunate end – umpire Rudi Koertzen erring in declaring him caught at slip by Ricky Ponting. The Australian captain is no Gundappa Vishwanath when it comes to showing sporting compassion so there was no chance for Sangakkara and Lasit Malinga to string together a match-winning display like Ian Botham and Bob Taylor in the Golden Jubilee Test at Bombay in 1980. Australia won the match while the martyr won the hearts - and the Man of the Match award.

Sangakkara has now scores of 287, 100 not out, 156 not out, 200 not out, 222 not out and 192 in his last eight Tests. It’s the kind of sequence one would associate more with The Don than anyone else.

Sangakkara is accomplished behind the wickets, too, which is indicative of the fact that he has twice kept through a 500-plus innings without conceding a bye. And keeping to a magician like Muttiah Muralitharan requires tremendous concentration and skill.

But it is as a batsman that makes him such a compelling watch. The aggression that he packs in his approach is more in tune with the modern era in which Gilchrist set new standards. Sangakkara has already scored more runs than Gilchrist playing lot fewer innings and his tally of 5741 runs is second only to Alec Stewart, who played many Tests as a pure batsman. Stewart’s career is over with 133 Tests; Sangakkara’s is still blooming with 68. At 30, Sangakkara can hope to enjoy many more years of Test cricket and create a place for himself as the finest ever bat among those who have kept wickets – even if he does not keep wickets again.

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