It is finally here. I have spent days, months even, pretending that it wouldn’t come, hoping that if I believed it wasn’t happening, maybe it wouldn’t, and yet it is here.
There is no time left to be in denial, his final innings has come and gone, and by the end of the day he will have walked off that park as a ‘Sri Lankan’ cricketer for the last time…I had hoped the day would never come, wished on falling lashes, and yet, Kumar Sangakkara’s last day of international cricket is finally here, there is no running away from it anymore, so here I write…
Kumar Sangakkara. The name alone stirs such emotions of admiration, love and pride, memories of matches won, hearts lost and achingly beautiful cover-drives, and from now on, perhaps, pangs of melancholy, sentimentality and wistfulness.
It is not just the cricket-minded he has locked in his fan-vault, his universal appeal has seen fans from all walks of life, countries and ages fall prey to his charm, intellect and eloquence. It is an appeal that has stretched far beyond the boundaries of the cricket field, the borders of this nation, and in some cases (mine included) the limits of sanity.
Yet, the road to the hearts of the people hasn’t been an easy one. The impact he has had on the game, the country and its people is as indefinable as it would have been unimaginable in those early days of his career.
Days that saw the twenties and thirties go unconverted, the barbs against opponents speak louder of his temperament than his bat and, even, public protests against his inclusion in the team ahead of crowd-favourite ‘little Kalu’. I’ve always wondered if those years of speculation and doubt ever got to him, if he heard the whispers, if it were those very whispers that gave way to the relentless trainer, the consummate professional, the batting colossus.
Watching the final day of the Galle test, after I had bribed and blackmailed my way there in a bid to savour every last bit of what was left of his international career-even despite the seeming inevitability of an embarrassing loss-it was hard not to marvel at how those whispers had turned into shouts of adulation that had grown in both voice and volume over the years.
As we inched our way to an improbable win, and each wicket found me more conflicted than the last, not only, bringing us closer to victory, but also shortening his career, the crowd realised these would be their last ‘Sanga Moments’ and began to chant his name.
As he came to field near the boundary line below us, the chants only grew louder and the crowds flocked towards him, while limbs flailed this way and that as one and all clamoured to get a picture of him, the man himself remained as unflappable as ever.
An amused glance back and an almost imperceptible nod-wave combo, were all the acknowledgement the gaggle would receive and he was back focused on the game, tuning out the ruckus behind him.
I’m not one to lend my voice to that sort of thing, and this gave me the opportunity to lean back and revel in the love that emanated from each and every person at the ground that day, all directed at this one man.
‘Sanga. Sanga. Sanga.’ As I looked around and saw the little boy excitedly waving his flag as he bounced on his chair, the group of young guys waving their hands and hailing their hero, and the little foreign man almost begging Sanga to look his way ‘just once’, I let myself be wrapped up in the music that was the chant of his name. ‘Sanga. Sanga. Sanga.’
And then, I looked over at him, and there he was, still, so nonchalant and I couldn’t help but wonder if he heard it. Did he hear the love, admiration and pride that dripped off of every chant, that I could feel, as I let myself be carried away on those chants, reverberate right down to my soul? Did he hear it? Or did he just hear his name?
He’s not one for the fanfare, as much as he might love the limelight, and even thrive in it, he will deflect admiration and compliments with sheepish humility and the skill of the good batsmen he is. He sees no beauty in his cover-drive and insists Mahela is the better batsmen of the two, even when his statistics beg to differ.
In him the everyday fan found inspiration. Hope that if you worked hard enough, the results would follow. A living example that hard work could and would pay off, and Sri Lanka embraced him with open arms.
He is authentically Sri Lankan and he wears his Sri Lankan identity with great pride, his Cowdrey lecture proves, if nothing else, that, and yet in so many ways he was so un-Sri Lankan. He was a smooth-talker, never afraid to give back as good as we got (even in those early days), his flawless English has been the envy of even the English, he thrived on the faster, bouncier pitches, so often the Achilles heel of subcontinent batsmen.
Here was a fundamentally western player of our very own, one who embodied all that we aspired to be. Here was our very own fairytale, complete with prince and all.
For a generation of us, seeing Sanga leave, also means letting go of the last remnants of our childhood. As I say goodbye to him, I will say goodbye to a part of my childhood, my teenage years…a part of myself.
As unimaginable as cricket without him or a team without him is, so too, for most of us, is a life without him, I think. He’s been such a large part of Sri Lankan cricket, and for so long. It’s been 15 years…do you remember a team before him? Do you remember life before him?
Cricket has always been the place I escaped to when I needed a break from the world, my hiding place when things got too much. I’d drown what trivial sorrows I had in rants against the selectors or if there was no other rant-worthy person at the time, my old favourite, Rudi Koertzen, in conspiracy theories involving Dilshan, in statistics and team combinations, in victories and losses, in memories and daydreams.
Cricket became, both, my addiction and my lifeline, and Sanga coming into the team right around the time of my cricket awakening played no small part in this. He became synonymous with cricket, an extension of the word.
There have been delirious, unimaginable highs, and yes, devastating lows (four in particular), and yet, cricket, and so often Sanga, got me through the bad days and gave me some of the best days.
And now, ‘his’ day is here, and I wonder what it will be that I will miss the most.
Will it be the astute thinker and sublime batsmen? Will it be the distinct, almost anguished ‘ahhhhh’ from behind the stumps? Will it be the fire in his eyes or the sheepish smiles? Will it be the almost bashful raise of the bat upon reaching a hundred, common in recent years, or the more rare little leaps and jigs that accompanied a long-awaited one? Or will it be those glorious, down-on-one-knee, cover-drives? Or will it be the way he made me feel…inspired, hopeful…’better’?
It is here. And sri lanka cricket will hurt as a whole to see him go, but he seems at peace with his decision, he is ready even if we’re not..and so I will go today, but not to say goodbye…instead to say thank you, thank you for some of the best moments of my life.
I wonder if he heard it…as he walked back from the crease for the final time yesterday, I wonder if he heard it..our hearts breaking?
24/8/2015, 03.17 a. m.