The two boys first met when they were both 15-year olds playing cricket for their respective schools. One lived in Kandy and the other in Colombo, so meetings were confined to matches where both schools participated.
When the Kandy boy Kumar Sangakkara moved to Colombo to play club cricket, he naturally turned to the only local boy he knew, Mahela Jayawardene for his local knowledge. A friendship began to grow as they realised they enjoyed each other’s company.
Then, their life trajectories diverged.
Mahela’s phenomenal talent was recognised early and by the time he was 17, he was already playing for the Sri Lanka A team. Kumar continued playing club cricket and slowly progressed through the ranks. By the time Sangakkara made his debut against South Africa at Galle in 2000 at the age of 23, his best friend was already a three year veteran and vice-captain of the Sri Lankan team.
By the time Mahela would hang up his boots fourteen years later in the home series against Pakistan, he would have scored 11814 runs with 34 centuries from 149 Tests at an average a shade below 50. A year later, by the time Sangakkara would lay down his bat at the same ground in a home series against India, he would have 12400 runs at a phenomenal average of 57.40 from 134 Tests with 38 centuries. Not bad for a man who started his career as a wicketkeeper who could also bat, walking in at No. 5 on debut and scoring 23 while Jayawardene compiled a brilliant 167 at the other end.
Between the two, they would play 283 Test matches and amass over 24000 runs and 72 centuries. A significant portion of the 24000 plus runs would involve the two friends batting together and tormenting bowlers at cricket grounds all around the world.
But it was over two days in July 2006 that their friendship would be truly put to test and be cemented forever on a 22-yard strip of prime real estate in Colombo.
When South Africa arrived in beautiful Sri Lanka for the Test series in 2006, they landed without two of their top players, captain Graeme Smith and all-rounder Jacques Kallis, both held back by injuries. Shaun Pollock skipped the first Test at the Sinhalese Sports Club in Colombo to be by the side of his wife as she gave birth to their second daughter. So the mantle of captaincy fell on inexperienced Ashwell Prince. To be fair to Prince, however, in light of what followed, it might not have mattered who was leading the Proteas.
South Africa win the toss
Prince wins the toss and chooses to bat first knowing that facing a rampaging Muralitharan on the last day pitch is best avoided purely on ‘mental health and safety’ grounds. A long batting line up led by Herschelle Gibbs and Hashim Amla and capable batsmen all the way down to Nicky Boje at No. 8 is a matter of some comfort when the Proteas shape up to face up to an attack led by Lasith Malinga and Muralitharan.
50.2 overs and 10 wickets later, the decision to bat first looks a bit less obvious.
With South Africa’s score at 32, Dilhara Fernando gets a fullish delivery to take the inside edge of Andrew Hall’s bat and rattle his stumps. Gibbs leaves a gap between bat and pad for Fernando to squeeze one through. South Africa is 45 for 2.
Maharoof then gets Jacques Rudolph to edge one to the keeper, and Fernando takes Prince in exactly the same fashion. Murali then joins the party and takes Amla, Mark Boucher and Boje in rapid succession. They have no idea how to handle his guile nor do they read his doosra. At 148 for 7 South Africa is tottering at the brink of disaster.
AB De Villiers is waging a lone battle at one end while the procession continues at the other, but as is inevitable in the end, he runs out of partners and perishes with his score at 65 while trying to score as many as he can. South Africa is all out for 169 in a less than ideal start to their campaign in the Emerald Isles.
Dale Steyn is breathing fire and brimstone when young Upul Tharanga and Sanath Jayasuriya open the batting for Sri Lanka. An express Stein delivery traps Jayasuriya in front of the stumps and Tharanga joins him in the dressing room soon after edging a ball down the leg side. The hosts don’t look any more comfortable than the visitors did earlier in the day, and the South Africans are at all smiles at being able to give back their own medicine to the Lankans.
Two old friends meet in the middle
The dismissal of the openers brings old friends Sangakkara and Jayawardene to the crease. A few hours later when the teams wrap up for the day, Sri Lanka is 128 for 2 and the smiles on the Proteas’ faces are beginning to wane. It is unfortunately only going to go downhill from here for the South Africans.
Day 2 dawns bright and sunny for the Sri Lankans. The pitch is slow and the bounce could not have been more different from Prince’s home ground of Port Elizabeth. All day long Makhaya Ntini and Dale Steyn run in with enthusiasm and bang it short, and not a single ball goes above stump height. Sangakkara and Jayawardene just have to pick the line early and then put the ball away in whichever corner of the field they fancy, which they do.
In the midst of this elegant carnage, as if to prove the validity of Murphy’s Law, Jacques Rudolph drops Sangakkara not once, but twice. The first time the batsman is on 28 and the second time on 99. These would prove to be the proverbial straws that broke the camel’s back.
As Anand Vasu writes in his match report that day, “When Mark Benson and Billy Bowden, the two umpires, took the players off at the end of the day it was almost an act of mercy. Sri Lanka had not lost a wicket all day, and reached 485, a lead of 316. Sangakkara (229 not out) and Jayawardene (224 not out) matched each other, run for run, stroke for stroke, and the two old friends appeared to be enjoying every moment of their stay at the crease. “When you’re in you have to make the most of it,” a tired Jayawardene said in a snap interview immediately after the day’s play. And what’s Sangakkara’s secret? “I just like batting,” he said, smile plastered across his face.”
The record books are rewritten in Colombo
By the time Day 3 comes to a close in Colombo, cricketing records are seen strewn all over the SSC, unceremoniously dumped there by a pair of batsmen who know they have a tryst with destiny.
In quick time, Jayawardene goes past his previous best of 242 and Sangakkara leaves behind the 270 which was his best thus far.
Across the Palk Strait, watching the match on their television sets, Indian fans cannot but keep the smiles out of their faces. The 8-years since 1997 have done nothing to lessen the pain of witnessing the Himalayan score of 952 for 6 by Sri Lanka thanks to a 576 run partnership between Jayasuriya and Roshan Mahanama at Colombo. This time, it is the South Africans getting the treatment for a change.
The 576 is the first record broken that day.
A ball later, the highest first class partnership of all time between Vijay Hazare and Gul Mohammad of 577 registered in 1946-47 lies by the wayside.
Later, Sangakkara recounts: “We knew it was the record – both the Test and first-class record – it’s a great feeling, to do something that nobody else has done before,’ Sangakkara said. ‘That’s what records are there for, to inspire you to try to break them. Hopefully one day someone else will break this one – that’s the way cricket should go.”
The focus now shifts to the individual scores of the two seemingly immovable objects operating with unstoppable force from two ends of the pitch.
Eventually, something gives, as it must when two players have been at the crease for nigh on two days and are tiring. When Sangakkara finally nicks one to Boucher attempting yet another drive, he barely has the energy to walk off to the thunderous applause that comes from a crowd which is on its feet. His score his 287, the highest in Test cricket by a wicketkeeper. Together with Jayawardene, who has now completed his triple century, Sangakkara has put together a partnership of 624 mind numbing runs.
The greatest partnership in Test cricket history comes to an end, and remarkably, it leaves the match in a state where a result is very possible, unlike any other marathon partnership before this.
What Happens Next
Jayawardene carries on batting with Tillakaratne occupying the other end of the crease. He canters past 340 which has Jayasuriya’s name in the record books for the highest score by a Sri Lankan and moves on to 350. Brian Lara’s 400 now seems in imminent danger, and it is almost an anti-climax when Jayawardene is bowled by Andre Nel for 374. Sri Lanka declares immediately at 756 for 5.
The South African openers negotiate the last session with a lot of difficulties but manage to avoid losing a wicket.
Over the next two days, South Africa bats with their back to the wall and puts up dogged resistance against the guiles of Murali and the towering score that stares them in the face every time they look up at the scoreboard. A fighting 90 from Rudolph, an 85 from Boucher and scores in the 60’s from Hall and Prince notwithstanding, in the end the wall is too high to climb. South Africa is all out for 434 on the final day with Murali claiming 5 wickets for merely the 54th time in his illustrious career.
Sri Lanka wins the Test by an innings and 153 runs.
The two days spent together out in the middle only strengthen the bond of friendship between two of the greatest batsmen Sri Lanka has ever produced. When asked later what they discussed over the inordinately long time spent at the crease, comes a typically disarming reply from an ever smiling Sangakkara: “We were just having a good time, talking about a lot of things, including what we would be eating for dinner I think!”
The main course for this match, one would argue, is undoubtedly South African in flavour.