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Kumar Sangakkara: ‘Cricket was the panacea that healed us’

Kumar Sangakkara’s life changed on March 6, 1996. Nearly two decades before he would retire from international cricket as one of the world’s finest batsmen and Sri Lanka’s most accomplished run-scorer, the 18-year-old sat in the stadium terraces in the hillside city of Kandy, a short walk from his childhood home, as the national team prepared to play Kenya in a group match of the Cricket World Cup.

The game nearly didn’t happen. Sri Lanka was in the midst of a civil war that pitched Tamil separatists against the country’s Sinhalese-dominated government. Following a bombing in the capital Colombo earlier that year, two of the tournament’s teams had forfeited early matches, refusing to visit the country over safety fears.

But the team that took the field that day was a living rebuttal of the conflict dragging the country towards the abyss: a mix of Tamil and Sinhalese, the players were picked from across the country, irrespective of class, ethnic or religious background.

It was a moving display of unity. But what really captivated the young Sangakkara — and what made him resolve to pursue cricket as his profession — was the way the team played: aggressive, unorthodox and expansive. It felt, for the first time, inimitably Sri Lankan.

“[It was] the delight they took in having their own brand of cricket, [their] own way of competing,” he says. “The exuberance, their sense of comfort in their own skin, [it] embodied Sri Lankan values, a Sri Lankan way.”

Kumar Sangakkara shot at home in Sri Lanka. with  Charles and Ray Eames chair. Painting by Nuwan Nalaka
Kumar Sangakkara in his house in Galle. Photographed for the FT by Jonathan and Ryan Wijayaratne

Sangakkara, 44, is recounting the story via Zoom on a Sunday afternoon in January from his home in Galle, Sri Lanka’s southern city. Between answers he takes me on a shaky mobile phone tour of some of his stylish home, which is more than a century old and the product of a six-year renovation before he and his family moved in.

A compact, muscular 5ft 10ins, Sangakkara has an easy charm emanating from his handsome, smiling face. His answers are measured and thoughtful, becoming more animated when they concern cricket or Sri Lanka.

Prior to 1996, Sri Lankan cricket had been hobbled by its history. “Cricket was a colonial heirloom,” he says. “For a long time, we played the way the English had taught us to play, afraid to veer away from the spirit of cricket and sportsmanship as taught to us by our colonisers.”

To Sangakkara, sport is shaped by its social and political context. “If you don’t understand the culture and history of the game, as it applies to you in Sri Lanka or to the world — if you don’t read about it — you’re never going to be a complete cricketer.”

Few players can claim as complete a career as Sangakkara. Of the handful of batsmen ever to reach 12,000 international runs in Test cricket — the longest, oldest form of the game, still viewed by many as its ultimate examination — he did so in the fewest innings and with the highest score per innings (cricket’s precious “batting average”).

Sangakkara is the second highest run-scorer in the history of one-day cricket, and holds the record for the most dismissals by a wicketkeeper. As a captain and player, he helped steer Sri Lanka to five World Cup finals across both one-day and Twenty20 cricket, the newest, shortest form of the game that has become its commercial powerhouse. In 2014, he finally led Sri Lanka to victory in the T20 World Cup final, and was named man of the match.

Sangakkara’s belief in the foundational link between cricket and society was nurtured by his father as part of an exacting sporting and intellectual education. At the start of each week, he would give the 11-year-old Sangakkara a book to read — Tolstoy, Gogol and Wilde were favourites — and fire questions at him on the Friday to test his comprehension. Often, he would wake his son before breakfast for a two- or three-hour cricket practice in the rear porch with a tennis ball, the clients of his legal practice kept waiting until the session was complete.

Their relationship was both combative and constructive. “If you don’t question, debate, if you don’t have that butting of heads at times you can’t reach a [worthwhile] agreement,” he says. “Even though we argued for an hour of a two-hour session, the next hour was super-productive.” Years later, on international tours, he would be woken in the middle of the night with a fax from his father containing extracts from a classic batting manual, exhorting some technical correction.

The master bedroom with artworks by HA Karunaratne. and a duvet by batik artist Sonali Dharmawardena
The master bedroom with artworks by HA Karunaratne and a duvet by batik artist Sonali Dharmawardena © Jonathan and Ryan Wijayaratne

Even as a boy, Sangakkara knew how dangerous the war’s bitter conflict could be. In 1983, when anti-Tamil pogroms by Sinhalese mobs marked the start of the conflict, the family offered refuge to Tamil friends. Returning from playing in the backyard one day, the young Sangakkara found his parents considering which cupboards to hide the children in should the mob come calling.

“[Cricket] was the panacea that healed us,” he says. “[People] could escape from the real world and watch this micro-representation of how Sri Lanka should be: different ethnicities, religions, backgrounds all playing together for one cause, one country.”

Despite this optimism, there are limits to how much cricket can heal the wounds of the war. In 2013, the Indian state of Tamil Nadu, home to IPL team Chennai Super Kings, refused to host matches featuring Sri Lankan players, citing alleged human rights violations of Sri Lankan Tamils. Earlier this month, news that the Chennai Super Kings had purchased Maheesh Theekshana, who was once part of the Sri Lankan army, was met with an angry backlash on Twitter and calls for a boycott.

Last year, a resolution led by the UN Human Rights Council accused Sri Lanka of “obstructing accountability” in the process of investigating alleged war crimes.

Sangakkara himself rejects a personal religious identity. In 2011, he was invited to give the prestigious annual lecture at Lords. A passionate account of how cricket had unified Sri Lanka, he ended it: “I am Tamil, Sinhalese, Muslim and Burgher. I am a Buddhist, a Hindu, a follower of Islam and Christianity. I am today, and always, proudly Sri Lankan.”

Peter Roebuck, the veteran commentator and former player, called it “the most important speech in cricket history”. The audience of Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC) members gave him a standing ovation. In 2019, the club — the heart of the cricketing establishment in England, famed for its decades-long waiting list and red and gold “egg and bacon” ties — elected him its president, the first non-Englishman to hold the position.

Today, five months after he stepped down from the post, English cricket is in turmoil, engulfed in a race row that reaches to the highest echelons of the game. Former club captain Azeem Rafiq has branded Yorkshire County Cricket Club institutionally racist, triggering investigations by England’s governing body and a British Parliamentary committee. Several Yorkshire officials, including the club’s chair, have resigned. Former England captain Michael Vaughan, awarded the OBE by the Queen for his services, was accused by Rafiq of making a racist remark (an accusation Vaughan denies) and later dropped by major broadcasters for the recent Ashes series.

A painting by Sri Lankan artist Chathurika Jayani
A painting by Sri Lankan artist Chathurika Jayani

The upstairs walkway with two paintings, including the work in white by the artist Mahen Perera
The upstairs walkway with two paintings, including two works by Kasun Chamara (front) and Mahen Perera © Jonathan and Ryan Wijayaratne

Does English cricket have a race problem? I put the question to Sangakkara, who, aside from his role at the MCC, played county cricket for Warwickshire, Durham and Surrey.

“Personally, I never, in a county dressing room, experienced anything negative in terms of discrimination or racism,” he says, evading the wider issue. Sport cannot be relied upon to drive the change, he continues: “forget cricket or sport, I think people have to start changing their mindsets.” Given his eloquent defence of cricket’s healing power, it feels non-committal.

Neither will Sangakkara — now a member of the Sri Lankan government’s national sports council — be drawn on the state of cricket today. His 2011 speech was a broadside to the commercial and political forces imperilling the game in Sri Lanka and beyond, lamenting “a mad power struggle” in Sri Lankan cricket from the late 1990s that opened the door to “partisan cronies that would lead to corruption and wanton waste of cricket board finances and resources.” It earned him immediate censure from his country’s sports minister.

Over Zoom, the call to prayer from a local mosque drifts in through an open door from the streets behind the house. On the table in front of him, a half-empty wine glass has been left out, a reminder of a recent visit from friends, part of the procession who call whenever Sangakkara’s family, which includes two children, comes to visit from their main home in Colombo.

The home flows easily between internal and external spaces — there are several open-air internal balconies and three outside courtyards — and between old and new, lending a casual easy feel to its meticulous decoration. New stone floors contrast with sections of distressed, puckered wall, stripped back to their original brick and stone.

A painting by Nuwan Nalaka and an original Eames La Chaise chair
A painting by Nuwan Nalaka and an original Eames La Chaise chair

Upstairs, overlooking the central courtyard with a sculpture by Prageeth Manohansa entitled ‘The Spectators’
Upstairs, overlooking the central courtyard, with a sculpture by Prageeth Manohansa entitled ‘The Spectators’ © Jonathan and Ryan Wijayaratne

Impressive objects are carefully placed. A Le Corbusier chair in the bedroom; pristine mid-century furniture in the open plan dining room — which opens on the kitchen and the lounge. In one room a baby grand piano, below an ornate glass chandelier.

Art and sculpture — all by Sri Lankan artists, all imbued with personal meaning — fill the house. The pieces have nourished Sangakkara through a highly peripatetic career: with individual games taking up to five days, Test match series can keep players away from home for months. Art helps settle him on his return. “It grounds you in the space,” he says. “Someone’s passion and creativity, expression, ideas and thoughts, [give] rise to [personal] inspection.”

Watching Sri Lanka that day in Kandy in 1996, the young Sangakkara could not have imagined the impact the team would have on the sport. Sri Lanka dominated the tournament, beating Australia comfortably in the final to record the country’s first ever World Cup victory. Their pioneering new batting style — hyper-aggressive in the often-plodding opening period of a game — brought new entertainment to fans, helping pave the way for the formation of the Indian Premier League in 2007, a T20 competition that has become the game’s dominant force and a multi-billion-dollar industry. The country that, until then, had not even reached a semi-final of a world cup could rank as the major force shaping the modern game.

Sangakkara has been rewarded heartily by cricket’s modern commercial alchemy, first as a player, and today as director of the Rajasthan Royals. Few players can boast the same mastery in all forms of the game: England’s captain, Joe Root, who spent most of last year as the world’s top-ranked Test batsman, does not play in the national T20 side.

Kumar Sangakkara batting for the Hobart Hurricanes against the Adelaide Strikers in January 2017 in Australia
Kumar Sangakkara batting for the Hobart Hurricanes against the Adelaide Strikers in January 2017 in Australia © Daniel Kalisz/Getty

As a partner in local private equity company, Atman Group, Sangakkara has invested heavily in Sri Lanka’s burgeoning postwar economy. Many of the group’s investments — which include hospitality, agriculture and commercial fishery — channel much-needed capital towards the rebuilding of the country’s north, where he is also the trustee of a local charity.

Recently, Sangakkara turned his hand to property, financing a nearby apartment development. It capitalises on the boom in Sri Lanka’s southern coastal property market, which has included Galle Fort, where Sangakkara’s house is located and where homes for sale are as rare as hen’s teeth. Sangakkara was looking for eight years before he found this one, which he bought without even looking inside.

Has Galle’s breakneck development dulled some of the historical charm that lured him there in the first place? He answers with conviction. “Life doesn’t conform to what you want it to be — especially the lives of others — so you have to be very happy being part of whatever it may be and create your own little haven if that can be possible,” he says. It feels typical of the man: tolerant, optimistic and, you suspect, a little diplomatic.

My favourite thing

The house’s central courtyard with the original textured walls, and an iron pot sculpture by Sri Lankan artist Prageeth Manohansa
© Jonathan and Ryan Wijayaratne

Entering from a bustling street in Galle, visitors must pass first through an elegant open-air lobby. At its centre, on a plinth emerging from a bath of water, is Sangakkara’s favourite thing: a sculpture of a large rusted pot by the Sri Lankan artist Prageeth Manohansa. Its surface is composed of overlapping mammoty blades, from the giant garden hoes used to dig everything from vegetable patches to roads. To the owner it is an allegory for personal identity. “It’s a vessel,” he says. “It signifies the legacy that we all carry from our past history.”

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