KUMAR SANGAKKARA was at Durham Emirates ICG yesterday ahead of his planned County Championship appearances against Yorkshire and Sussex. Chief Sports Writer Scott Wilson met up with the iconic Sri Lankan and learned that his Durham debut on Sunday will complete a seven-year round trip
KUMAR Sangakkara was late for his first engagement as a Durham player yesterday morning because his SatNav initially took him away from the club's home ground.
“It told me to go on the motorway, and I didn't think that was right,” joked the 36-year-old Sri Lankan. “I rang Jon Lewis (Durham head coach), and he told me to go past the junction. I asked him, 'What's a junction?' In Sri Lanka, junctions are very different things.”
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Somehow, the anecdote seems fitting. After spending the 2007 season with Warwickshire, Sangakkara vowed to return to county cricket before his playing days were at an end. Seven years later, and via a circuitous route that has featured a number of U-turns, the left hander currently ranked second in the ICC Test rankings has lived up to his word.
“I actually signed up to play for Lancashire in 2011,” said Sangakkara, who will play two County Championship matches for Durham before linking up with the Sri Lankan national squad ahead of a Twenty20 international and One-Day and Test series with England. “But that was just preceding the World Cup and when I sat down with the selectors, we decided it maybe wasn't a good time to do that.
“That was a shame. Coming back and playing county cricket has always been of interest to me – it's something I've really looked forward to.
“I wanted to do it this spring, and Durham were one of the few counties with an opening for an overseas player. I was pretty lucky they took me on because two games is not always something that is viable for a county team.
“Coming here, the conditions are really challenging so, if you're looking to learn, this is a great place to come.”
By the time they reach their mid-to-late 30s, most modern-day cricketers are not so much looking to learn as seeking to exploit the potential riches on offer in the myriad of global Twenty20 tournaments that increasingly dominate the calendar.
Had Sri Lanka not been touring England this month, Sangakkara would almost certainly have been earning millions in the Indian Premier League. Yet for all that four-day county cricket appears anathema to the glitz and glamour of the major T20 competitions, it continues to exert a powerful hold over the cricketing romantic.
Sangakkara's flamboyant batting makes him tailor-made for shorter formats, but his greatest successes have come in the Test arena, where he stands ninth on the all-time run-making list, and he views the English four-day County Championship as the closest domestic equivalent to Test cricket, which he continues to view as the pinnacle of the game.
“People say this type of cricket is archaic, old-fashioned and not really practical for spectators,” he said. “But sometimes being archaic or old-fashioned is a really good thing. There's very little of that left, and I think Test cricket and county cricket are very refreshing for players and spectators alike.
“IPLs and T20s are a great bonus to have after a really hard season of international cricket, but to have that as your focus is wrong. Being selected into an IPL, Caribbean Premier League or Big Bash franchise depends on your work as an international cricketer, and you have to get to that level first.
“If you're thinking of a long-term career, then all the formats become important. Franchise cricket is important, especially in the financial sense, but you need to have balance, and you need to improve as a cricketer. There are certain arenas that allow you to do that, but they're not really the IPL, CPL or Big Bash.
“They allow you to display skills and be recognised and spoken about, but really, improving your skills as a cricketer only really comes with the longer format of the game.”
In joining Durham, Sangakkara is hoping to hone his skills when it comes to facing English new-ball bowlers in conditions where the ball is seaming and the pitch is doing little to help the batsman settle. So Chester-le-Street in early May should do fine.
There is clearly an element of self-interest in his decision to sign up for matches against Yorkshire and Sussex, but he is also mindful that he has joined the reigning county champions as they attempt to retain their title. World-class player or no world-class player, a couple of single-figure scores are not going to go down well.
“I'll have the preparation for England at the back of my mind, but it's important to be focused on current events and my primary focus will be on making an impact against Yorkshire,” said Sangakkara, who made a century against Durham on his Warwickshire debut seven years ago.
“Durham have got a fantastic side – they won the Championship last year and they've started off very well again. It's always a pleasure to play on a track like this alongside some very good players.”