Kumar Sangakkara is 39-years-old, almost 40. He is also, still, one of the best batsmen in the world. The Sri Lankan recently had a purple-patch of form playing for Surrey in the English first division. In 10 matches, he racked up a season-best 1491 runs at an astonishing 106.50 average. He struck eight centuries and three half-centuries in just 16 innings. Mark Stoneham, who is next on the most centuries list has four. Stoneham (1156) and Surrey teammate Rory Burns (1041) are the only other players to score over a thousand runs for the season. Sangakkara has also retired from first-class cricket. He should probably reconsider.
There is a well-known adage in cricket, and in sport, that the champion should go out while he’s at the top. It is one that makes little sense. A player in top form should seek to maximize it for as long as he can. A batsman should seek to gather as much runs as possible while the gathering is good. And a bowler must try to eke out every scalp he can while he remains a complete master of his craft.
Sportsmen should hang up their uniforms when their skills are waning, not while they’re still amongst the best in their field. Michael Jordan retired from basketball for the first time in 1993 to pursue a baseball career. Aged 30 at the time he was the game’s premier player and had recently won the NBA title for the third consecutive time with the Chicago Bulls. But baseball was a hard slog for a man who hadn’t played it seriously since his youth. Coming to his senses two years later he returned to basketball and to the Bulls and won three more titles. The popular feeling is that those years of self-imposed exile from the sport were wasted ones.
Bjorn Borg left tennis much too early at the age of 26 after failing to win what would have been a sixth straight Wimbledon title. Eight years later, playing with an outdated racquet, he attempted what turned out to be a laughable comeback. How many more grand slam titles could he have won had he stayed in the sport while still in his prime?
Admittedly, the two cases above are somewhat different from the one being discussed, in that Sangakarra’s case is that of a sportsman approaching the end of his career rather than one exiting the sport for other reasons. The lesson, however, is that leaving your area of expertise when you’re still better than almost everyone else is sometimes lead to regret.
The decision to retire is frequently a delicate one to make. The same uncompromising confidence that propels the star player to the top of his sport can also seduce him into hanging on too long. Basketball genius Kobe Bryant said something along the lines of still being confident he’ll make the next shot no matter how many he missed before. The declining player sometimes still expects the magic to return the next innings, or the next quarter, or the next half, or the next game, even when everyone else thinks it’s gone forever.
Again, Sangakarra’s case is different. But the point is that deciding when is the right time to leave can be tricky. His age may be considered advanced for a batsman but we all don’t age at the same rate, and it is doubtful he has ever played better in his career. To watch him bat is to see a supreme craftsman at work, expertly constructing innings after innings with little fuss or risk.
One thing is indisputable, the left-hander looks nothing like someone who is ready to give up the game. There is poetry, still, in his cover drive. His footwork is as sprightly as ever and he seems to play fast bowling with the same composure and ease he did ten years earlier.
Arguments were presented — some of them valid too – that Ricky Ponting and Sachin Tendulkar should not have hung around as long as they did. Australia’s best batsman since Bradman admitted that his normally gushing run-flow dramatically slowed in his last days due to the excessive pressure brought on by Australia’s weakening batting, and all who watched Tendulkar as the end neared saw clearly that he was but a shadow of his former excellent self.
Sangakkara has, so far at least, been immune to that kind of deterioration. It comes to every player and so will come to him one day. But it hasn’t come yet. And going by the way things are looking, it won’t be here for a while still.
He is not the first to be so enduring. Sir Viv batted well for Glamorgan until he decided to call time on his career. He was 41. Younis Khan and Misbah ul Haq retired from Tests earlier this year. They were 39 and 42 respectively. And Shivnarine Chanderpaul, at 43, is still scoring runs for Lancashire.
We can’t tell the former Sri Lankan captain what to do, of course; he has to make his own decision. It is unlikely he will change his mind. He has been batting in first-class cricket for two decades and ought to know when he’s had enough. It’s just that we’d like to keep seeing him bat for a bit longer. Also, why waste such exquisite skills and such good form?