Kumar Sangakkara: from sportsman to statesman

Much drama has transpired in the world of sport over the past few days.

Novak Djokovic’s latest triumph probably ought to take pride of place in the weekly round-up of things.

 Kumar Sangakkara: from sportsman to statesman

Sangakkara offers an insightful critique of the Sri Lankan cricketing and political system that draws equally from historical and personal narratives. Philip Brown/Reuters

On the women’s side of the draw, who would have thought Sharapova, a former Wimbledon champion, would fold so completely?

In cricket news, the West Indies managed to hold on for a tension-filled draw against India in the second Test. But personally speaking – and as a rabid Laxman fan, I can’t believe I’m saying this – I was even more taken up with something that happened outside the confines of a stadium.

I am, of course, referring to Kumar Sangakkara’s stunning speech at Maryleborne Cricket Club in London, otherwise known as the high table of cricket. Here’s the first of several parts that has already received several thousand hits on YouTube:

In the past, much has been made of Sangakkara’s academic achievements, his law degree, his ability to articulate what he thinks which many would say is fairly unusual by the standards of most sportsmen. It was hard to gauge whether he was a throwback to the era of the gentleman cricketer or just a humbug. My own conclusion was that he was a bit of both, going by the evidence of his fantastically cheeky sledge against Shaun Pollock – a video that has long gone viral.

But on Monday, we experienced the full blast of his intellect. The speech – assuming he wrote almost all of it himself – gives us an insight into the mind of the former Sri Lankan captain – and what a sharp mind it is!

Sangakkara offers an insightful critique of the Sri Lankan cricketing and political system that draws equally from historical and personal narratives. He discusses everything from the effects of the tsunami that hit Sri Lanka in 2004 to the psychological state of the team after their bus was attacked a couple of years ago in Pakistan, before launching into the state of cricketing affairs in his country.

It’s all done with skillfully interspersed jokes; he almost rivals Stephen Colbert in the capacity of truth-telling to power.

Like many fans, I have grown weary of empty celebrity endorsements, the fakeness of the glitz and glamour. We have all come to expect so little of our sporting heroes. A courageous stand such as this makes us remember that cynicism is for those who are afraid to believe in all that should be.

Only a pedant would argue that Sangakkara’s opinions contain barely a single original criticism. Even if he didn’t quite toss out any names or implicate anyone in some clear-cut scandal, his larger point is worthy of debate: cricket is tainted to an extent even beyond the sordid imagination of the paying public.

I have to confess I was at once shocked and satisfied by how idealistic Sangakkara sounds. His intellectual voice has a rare sincerity to it; his vignettes are amazingly relatable.

It used not to be so hard to think of Sangakkara as gifted in his batsmanship, but insufferably arrogant, someone who was as flashy as his teammate Mahela Jayawardene was classy. But it is clear that those of us who thought Sangakkara was quite far from achieving his true potential had misjudged his depth.

Perhaps because he was delivering this speech to bigwigs at the MCC – the sort of thing that comes attached with the guarantee of global media hype – Sangakkara will find he has made one of the most important speeches of the past decade.

The timing of this seemingly radical call for reform is, in fact, perfect. Words like “change” have caught on around the world and international politics is in a state of flux. Whistle-blowing has taken on a deeper meaning in popular culture over the past decade. Satyendra Dubey, Julian Assange and WikiLeaks have helped bring the idea into the mainstream consciousness in South Asia and elsewhere. Within the cricketing fraternity, players like Manoj Prabhakar, Hansie Cronje and, more recently, Hashan Tillekeratne, have made dark insinuations regarding corruption with varying results. It is against this backdrop that Sangakkara’s speech must be given due consideration.

Sangakkara’s own position in all of this is a curiously compromised one: a 97-Test veteran with over 8000 runs to his name, he is nevertheless not above censure for his actions, and unless someone of unimpeachable standing intervenes, the end of what has been a magnificent career in many respects could be near. According to reports trickling in, the batsman is in trouble with his Board for expressing perfectly sound opinions in so outspoken a fashion.

Let it be said however, that there are times when the obvious thing must be said, loud and clear. Social media have done little to keep lies and disinformation from circulating. In testing times, it takes intellectually honest people to keep things real.

There is at least a chance the sport will be pressured to introduce sweeping institutional changes. Through his actions Sangakkara, the player, has reinvented himself as a statesman.

Read Sangakkara's entire speech:
Sangakkara Colin Cowdrey Lecture 10641

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Updated Date: Feb 03, 2012 14:32:07 IST