HOOK SHOT: Surrey start their first game at The Oval since their return to the County Championship top tier this weekend. Here, MARCUS HOOK interviews one of the biggest stars in the all-star dressing room
When Kumar Sangakkara speaks, you listen. It’s not difficult to see why: when Sangakkara announced his retirement from international cricket last August, the President of Sri Lanka promptly offered him the post of his country’s High Commissioner in London.
Smart, insightful and articulate, even when Sangakkara resorts to sledging – “What’s it like to be hated by both teams?” he once asked Nasser Hussain during a Test against England – he gets his point across as incisively as when he’s easing a full-length delivery on leg stump through midwicket.
The 38-year-old’s influence off the field and his seemingly relentless quest for perfection will ensure that newly promoted Surrey – who start their first home game of the season against Somerset this weekend – continue on an upward trajectory following more than a decade of under-achievement.
“It’s a great dressing room to be part of at Surrey,” Sangakkara said. “They’re a lovely bunch of guys. I was actually surprised. It can be cold in April and I wondered whether I’d be thinking: ‘What the hell am I doing here?’ But we achieved quite a lot last year and it now means we’re in Division One, which is a fresh challenge for everyone.
“My aim, as ever, is to enjoy it as much as I can. It’s a great opportunity for me to keep testing myself and to make sure that my game is up to standard.”
There speaks a man who, less than a year ago, was officially ranked the No1 batsman in the world and who averaged 57.40 in Test cricket. Ignoring the Tests in which Sangakkara kept wicket, his average as a specialist batsman was 66.78, which would put him third in the all-time list.
Paul Farbrace, prior to becoming England’s assistant coach, was in charge of Sri Lanka. In this year’s Wisden, he says of Sangakkara: “Nothing distracted him from his practice. There were times when, frankly, this made him a pain in the backside. Net sessions could last anything from 20 minutes to an hour.” Indeed, last summer, even when Surrey had a day off, Sanga would be at The Oval, facing throw-downs from Graham Ford.
“I enjoyed my season with Surrey last year and I’ve been looking forward to coming back,” said Sangakkara. “It also gives me an opportunity to keep playing the game at quite a high level and stay in touch with what’s going on, because I play franchise T20 cricket around the world.
“Going out there and not just batting, but batting long, that’s the ultimate isn’t it?
“There’s no substitute for that and that’s something I’m going to miss at international level. But life moves on and you have to move with it. I’ve accepted the fact that my international career is done, but maybe I’ve another year or a year and a half of cricket left in me. I’m very content with the decision I made. I miss it but, at the same time, I knew it was time to move on.
“The thing I love about the County Championship is it retains the traditions of English cricket. The level of excitement, and mindset in a way, is different with less spectators coming into the ground. But there a lot of diehard cricket fans in England who like watching the longer version of the game. But I also think it’s important that the players themselves play exciting cricket.
“Playing a full county season is not easy, especially on the bowlers. But a county professional has to be admired, because of the commitment shown, the sacrifice and the skill on display. If you speak to former players all of them say that this is the best place to continuously fine-tune your skills and challenge yourself to be better.
“I think you’ve seen that. In the last two or three years the County Championship and the way it’s structured has really impacted positively on English cricket. You can see the results in the Ashes and in one-day cricket now, and you could see the results in the World T20.
“A lot has been done to change player attitudes and I think that’s important. The game needs to keep growing and keep evolving. Attitudes can sometimes hold things back and I think one of the great pluses of county cricket is this continual evolution.
“England played so well to get to the final of the World T20, but the plus side is the T20 season is just a month away. The County Championship is not as high-profile as a World Cup, but it’s still very important for players and spectators alike. It’s about learning to apply your skills in a very tough environment.”
Perhaps it is Sangakkara’s regard for the game, and all its facets, that the fault line threatening to hold England back at international level, namely a lack of spin, troubles him. While the new rules relating to the toss in County Championship matches, whereby the visiting team can bowl first should they so choose goes against the Sri Lankan’s philosophy, he hopes the move will give spinners a new lease of life.
“It’s not strange that the home side will try and gain an advantage on their home ground,” said Sangakkara. “But that’s the challenge for the visiting side, isn’t it, to go away from home and win games?
“There is a marked difference between a Test pitch and a county pitch. Test pitches are designed to produce really good cricket on all five days, with the pitch showing natural wear and tear natural variation comes into play.
“County pitches tend to give a lot more help to the seam bowlers. So one positive thing that might come out of this is there might be a little more help for the spinners if it means they prepare better wickets, where it’s not weighted towards batting or bowling.
“The lack of spin in England has been a cause for concern. You have Moeen Ali and Adil Rashid, but at the end of the day you need the spinners to bowl more overs and actually play a bigger part in deciding what happens in four-day cricket.
“If you are playing Test cricket the spinners play a huge part, wherever you go. Even in T20 cricket the spinners play a huge part.”
Surrey’s leading spinner last season was Zafar Ansari, who was unlucky to miss out on England’s Test series against Pakistan in the United Arab Emirates because of injury.
Sangakkara is convinced the 24-year-old all-rounder will force his way back into the international reckoning. “It was unfortunate for Zafar, getting his call-up and the same day breaking his thumb,” said Sangakkara. “It must have been devastating for him, but at the same time Zaf’s a pretty pragmatic guy who looks at things in a very realistic and practical manner.
“I think he’s going to keep knocking on that door until he gets a look in again. He’s wonderfully organised, he knows his strengths and I think this setback is another opportunity for him to keep growing.
“For Zaf, it’ll be a case of trying to understand where he fits into the England side as a batsman, while, at the same, exploring how he can improve his bowling by bowling at different angles, over the wicket and around the wicket, especially in one-day cricket.
“You need to keep challenging yourself. Complacency and being in a comfort zone is a very dangerous thing. But Zaf’s one guy who keeps pushing himself. I think he’ll be great for England.
“He’s more than capable of opening the batting and bowling the overs he does. He’s done wonderfully well for Surrey as an opener and he’s done an amazing job in the middle order in the shorter versions of the game.
“Coming in at No6 and No7 is one of the toughest places to bat. I just think he needs to keep accepting that responsibility. He likes it as well. Responsibility sits quite lightly on his shoulders.”
The hope is that Ansari will make his first appearance of the new season against Somerset this Sunday. But with all of Surrey’s top order having made runs against Nottinghamshire or, before that, Loughborough MCCU, it will be interesting to see who misses out.
One thing is for sure – it won’t be Sangakkara.
- Marcus Hook has reported on Surrey county cricket since 2000. Last year, his column for the South London Press was commended in the ECB’s County Cricket Journalism Awards
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