Caricature- Vasim Maner
Illustration- Vasim Maner

What Kumar Sangakkara has accomplished is so discernible with the naked eye, what could we at Impact Index bring out to surprise anyone?

Despite how misleading batting averages and conventional methods of number analysis are in cricket, Kumar Sangakkara’s average of 57.4 in 134 Tests is awe-inspiring, given that he was a top-order batsman. Sure, there are five batsmen who averaged more than him (minimum 50 Tests; Bradman, Sutcliffe, Barrington, Hammond and Sobers) but Sangakkara played 44% more Tests than any of those. Sure, there are three batsmen who scored more hundreds than him (Tendulkar, Kallis, Ponting) but Sangakkara played 32 fewer Tests than the next highest. Or six who scored more fifties than him (Tendulkar, Kallis, Ponting, Dravid, Chanderpaul and Border) but Sangakkara played 22 fewer Tests than the next best. This itself reveals quite a bit.

Sure, he played for Sri Lanka, and as their greatest-ever batsman by a distance (followed distantly by Jayawardene, who had 11% lower impact than him), got the opportunity to score a high proportion of runs, especially at home, buoyed as his team was for most of his career by the presence of the highest impact spinner to play the game – Muttiah Muralitharan. But Sri Lanka has never been among the best Test sides; their away record is not great by any standard. Yet, Sangakkara averaged 53 in as many away Tests.

And when you consider that Sangakkara kept wickets in 48 Tests, or for 36% of his Test career, you don’t need much else to pronounce him as one of the greatest men to walk on a cricket field.

And despite that, Impact Index manages to find reasons why he was even greater.

AMONGST THE HIGHEST IMPACT IN THE WORLD DURING HIS CAREER

Between July 20, 2000 and August 24, 2015, the period during which Sangakkara’s career ran, he was the fourth-highest impact batsman in the world (min. 50 Tests) after Inzamam-ul-Haq, AB de Villiers and Younis Khan.

But it was not a smooth rise to the top. In fact, he was still finding his feet in the first third of his career. He was not amongst the twenty highest impact batsmen in the world (min. 20 Tests) till 2004 – he had played 40 Tests by then. For Sri Lanka, Jayawardene was a higher impact batsman than Sangakkara in that period, with a higher Runs Tally Impact (proportion of runs scored giving context to every innings).

Final, the Asian Test Championship, Lahore, 2002: Pakistan, put in, were cleaned up for 234. Sangakkara came out at 0 for 1 and put together a double century stand with Jayasuriya before joining hands with Jayawardene for another 150-plus partnership and was finally dismissed for 230 after spending 8 hours at the crease. The next highest score in the innings was 88 as Sri Lanka amassed 528. Pakistan fared better in the second-innings but could still only manage 325. Sri Lanka won by 8 wickets.

Despite some brilliant performances such as these, Sangakkara was inconsistent then with a failure rate of 55% – Jayawardene, Atapattu, Samaraweera and Jayasuriya were all more consistent with the bat. It is important to remember here that Sangakkara was the designated wicketkeeper in most of these matches.

And then it all changed, even though Sangakkara kept for four more years.

Second Test, Sri Lanka vs South Africa, Colombo (SSC), August, 2004: South Africa were the second-best Test team in the world (considering the win-loss ratio of the last 5 years), only after Australia. The first Test in Galle had ended in a draw.
In the second and deciding Test, as Sri Lanka batted first, Sangakkara walked out at 4 for 1 and in partnership with Jayasuriya and Jayawardene and later Samaraweera, helped Sri Lanka post a massive first innings total of 470, 232 of which were scored by the Sri Lankan number three.
South Africa were skittled for 189. Sri Lanka did not enforce the follow on and declared their second innings at 211 for the loss of four wickets. This time, Sangakkara scored a quickfire 64 in just 58 balls. Vaas and Malinga wrapped up the visitors for 179 and gave Sri Lanka a whopping 313-run victory.

It was Sri Lanka’s second Test win over South Africa in 15 Test matches (they had lost 8). But more importantly, it was their first Test series win over the Proteas in six attempts.

Kumar Sangakkara registered his first series-defining ( SD ) performance in this match.

This performance appeared to completely transform his career.

He emerged as the second-highest impact batsman in the world (only after Younis Khan) from here on till the end of his career – a period of 11 years during which he played 94 Tests.

Sangakkara was the second-highest impact Test batsman in the world after Younis Khan between 2004 and 2015.

He had the third-highest Runs Tally Impact (after Younis Khan and AB de Villiers) and the highest Partnership-Building Impact in the world during this time-frame. His failure rate of 39% was a huge improvement and made him one of the most consistent batsman in the world during these 11 years (only Jonathan Trott – 35% and Jacques Kallis – 37% were more consistent).

And most significantly, he gave six more series-defining performances with the bat till he retired – his total of 7 was the maximum in the period.

AMONGST THE BIGGEST SERIES-CHANGING BATSMEN IN TEST CRICKET

Sangakkara is one of the greatest big-match batsmen in Test cricket history. He rose to the occasion and performed in the matches that mattered – moments that ultimately decided the fate of many series, which is what Test cricket history is fundamentally made of (which conventional statistics scandalously neglects, as we at Impact Index strenuously point out regularly, even at the cost of being shrill sometimes).

Overall, his seven series-defining performances (SDs) – in 134 Tests (purely on batting merit) are the joint-second-highest for any batsman (alongwith Jacques Kallis – in 166 Tests and Graeme Smith – 117 Tests) in the history of Test cricket. Only Inzamam-ul-Haq – 8 in 120 Tests and Rahul Dravid – 8 in 164 Tests have  registered more.

Sangakkara’s frequency of registering an SD every 19 matches is also amongst the best of all-time.

Not surprisingly therefore, Sangakkara’s rise as the world’s leading batsman coincided with Sri Lanka’s best period in their Test cricket history (in terms of series wins against quality opposition).

Sri Lanka’s most successful era in Test cricket was from August 2004 to August 2009. During these five years, Sri Lanka played 20 Test series, won 11, lost 4 and drew 5. Though nine of these series wins were at home, (and a couple in Bangladesh), they also included victories against visiting South African and Pakistani sides. Also, there were two away fightbacks, one each in England and New Zealand, where Sri Lanka came back from behind to draw level in the series – the first particularly a landmark result in Sri Lankan Test history, and the second wasn’t exactly a common occurrence either.

Third Test, England vs Sri Lanka, Nottingham, 2006: Sri Lanka had just a solitary Test win in England (in 1998) in nine Test matches.
The first Test of the 2006 tour ended in a draw while England won the second by six wickets.
In the third Test at Trent Bridge, Sangakkara made 36 (from 2 for 1) in Sri Lanka’s first innings score of 231 and 66 – the highest score in the match (from 6 for 1) in their second innings total of 322. England, set 325, fell well short and were bowled out for 190, with Muralitharan picking up 8 wickets.

Sri Lanka came from behind to level the three-match series 1-1.

Interestingly, this was Sangakkara’s only SD performance where he was also the designated wicketkeeper of the series. He relinquished his wicketkeeping duties post this match. It is not a coincidence that his Batting Impact saw a significant rise of 42% hereafter.

Sri Lanka in New Zealand, 2006: Sri Lanka had just won one Test series (and a solitary Test match) in New Zealand in 1994-95. They had lost their previous two Test-series there.
Sangakkara scored a masterclass second-innings hundred in the 2006 series opener in Christchurch (from 18 for 1, which worsened to 44 for 2, 45 for 3, 46 for 4, 46 for 5), absorbing pressure (of falling wickets) brilliantly, as he so often did, even as New Zealand won the match by five wickets. 

In the second Test at Wellington, Sangakkara came out to bat at 0 for 1. Wickets continue to tumble (27 for 2, 41 for 3 and 81 for 4) before he and Chamara Silva put together a century-plus stand for the fifth wicket. Sangakkara again carried his bat through the innings and remained unbeaten on 156 in just 192 balls. Sri Lanka posted 268. New Zealand were dismissed for a paltry 130. Chamara’s second-innings heroics (152 not out from 100 for 4) helped the visitors to 365. New Zealand, set 504, were wrapped up for 286.

Sri Lanka come back from behind to level the two-match series 1-1. Sangakkara earned an SD for his performance in the second Test and was the highest impact batsman of the series.

He got two more SDs in this period – against England in 2007 and against India in 2008, both at home.

In 2009, Sangakkara was also the highest impact batsman in Sri Lanka’s first home-series win against Pakistan – curiously the only side to have had their measure in Sri Lankan conditions.

In terms of win-loss ratio in Tests, Sri Lanka were only second to Australia during this period (2004-09). They played 46 Tests, won 25 and lost 11 for a win/loss ratio of 2.3.

Sangakkara was the highest impact batsman in the world during this period too.

He enjoyed a dream run from May 2006 to August 2008 during which he registered 4 SDs in 8 series – 2 away and 2 at home – the maximum by any batsman by a distance. He was by far the highest impact batsman then in the world with a 37% higher Batting Impact than the second-highest, Graeme Smith – which is pretty jaw-dropping.

HIGH STANDARDS TILL THE END

Sangakkara did not show any major dip in form for the last third of his career (September 2009 to August 2015).
In fact, he was amongst the ten highest impact batsmen in the world during the last six years (45 Tests) of his career.

Sri Lanka in England, 2014:
Sri Lanka had just won a one-off Test in England in 1998 and another in the drawn series in 2006.
In 2014, Sri Lanka had saved the first Test at Lord’s by a whisker (one wicket). Sangakkara had scored a ton in the first innings and 61 in the second.
In the second Test at Leeds, Sangakkara came out to bat at 37 for 1 and top-scored for Sri Lanka with 79 even as wickets continued to fall at the other end. Sri Lanka made 257. England replied with 365. Sri Lanka posted 457 in the second innings thanks mainly to a brilliant 160 by Angelo Mathews and important contributions  by Sangakkara (55) and Jayawardene (79). England were bowled out for 249. Sri Lanka won by 100 runs.

Sangakkara earned an SD for his twin fifties at Leeds. He was the highest scorer and the highest impact batsman and player of the series.

It was a historic moment for Sri Lanka as it was their first series-win in England. Sangakkara could tick this off before he retired.

THE COMPLETE PLAYER

Even though Sangakkara was not an opening batsman (but usually came in at No. 3), he had the highest New Ball Impact (the ability to see out the new ball) in Sri Lankan Test history. This also tells you why Sangakkara’s Pressure Impact is so high.

In fact, when it comes to absorbing pressure (of falling wickets), only Angelo Matthews has absorbed more pressure than Sangakkara in Sri Lankan Test history. This is remarkable because Matthews is a middle-order batsman with this quality as his strongest suit, whereas Sangakkara was a top-order batsman with several other strings to his bow.

When it comes to Runs Tally Impact (runs made in proportion to runs made in every match played), Sangakkara is higher impact than any other Sri Lankan. And these runs were not expressions of rampant bullying under favourable conditions – in four of his seven SD performances, he had the highest aggregate runs in the series, for example.

Add to all this his ability to consistently forge partnerships (second-highest Partnership-Building Impact after Rahul Dravid amongst Asian Test batsmen) and Sangakkara’s ability to concentrate and stay at the crease finds quantitative expression. It is not a coincidence that he has the second-highest number of double hundreds in the history of Test cricket (11), after Bradman (12).

When it comes to consistency , Sangakkara’s failure rate of 42% is the second-best in Sri Lankan Test history – marginally lower than Jayawardene (41%) . Keep in mind that this includes those 48 Tests when he was wicketkeeper and that relatively high failure rate (for a batsman; as a wicketkeeper he was way above par) he had roughly in the first third of his career.

THE THIRD-HIGHEST IMPACT ASIAN TEST BATSMAN

Younis Khan is the highest impact Asian Test batsman ever. He is followed by Inzamam-ul-Haq and Kumar Sangakkara.

Younis Khan’s is still an ongoing career, so he may well have a shaky end that Sangakkara didn’t. It doesn’t diminish anyone’s impact when one looks at these great players side-by-side.

Sangakkara’s is on slightly more predictable lines, already explained in the introduction. After all, he is the fifth-highest run getter in Test history, with the highest batting average in the 10000-plus club and the fourth-highest number of Test tons. His ‘left-hander’s elegance’ left the Romantics satisfied too.

It is not necessarily an aside to point out that he is Sri Lanka’s highest impact ODI batsman as well, as well as the most consistent. And, since he kept as often as he did in this format, also the second-highest impact ODI player (after Sanath Jayasuriya) of all time for Sri Lanka.

All of that falls entirely in its place. What is not quite as predictable is how well-rounded Sangakkara is as an individual. During his student days, he was awarded the highest honour for the best all-round student in his year, at the elite Trinity College. He has been an esteemed ambassador for Sri Lankan cricket, which has produced some memorable moments. He is apparently an avid reader, with a fondness for poetry and a mean chef as well, with a fondness for Pasta. And he has done humanitarian work that has touched many.

Which is why the following bewilders.

A BIT OF A BLOT 

In his farewell season, it is bizarre that Sangakkara chose to cherry-pick matches within a Test series and the Sri Lankan board allowed him to. In his final two Test series, against Pakistan and India, the third Test (which Sangakkara chose to miss both times) was set up as a series-decider. Sri Lanka lost both the first series.

It’s strange on a personal level – for a cricketer who must have yearned for more 3-Test series right through his career (given how many 2-Test series Sri Lanka were subjected to), he chose to opt out of two such moments.

On the impact front, if by some superhuman effort (which is not misplaced hope in his context) he had registered 2 more SDs, it would have made him the third-highest impact batsman in the history of Test cricket. He actually denied himself that opportunity.

More significantly though, his team lost him when they needed him the most. The act let them down and also perhaps showed a disrespect to Test cricket’s DNA – which is the complete series.

It could only have happened in the personality cult-mad subcontinent. Perhaps it is not surprising that there were hardly any murmurs in the media about this.

What a relief to spot a foible in his context – it was all getting too flawless for comfort. As imminent imperfection goes, this is not a bad trade-off.

A once-in-a-generation cricket player hung up his boots today. Till the next twenty years then.

 

 

Jaideep Varma/ Nikhil Narain

NOTE: Impact Index has undergone an upgradation in November 2015, and though 95% of its findings remain the same, there have been some minor shifts. This piece was updated post that, and is up-to-date as of August 2016.