Emperor of Surrey

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AFP
 

There are lots of reasons to love The Oval in London, Surrey’s home ground. One thing is that it is easily accessible. The Northern Line and Victoria Line tubes will get you to the ground and once you emerge out of the station, you just have to use the zebra crossing to get to the ground. That station itself is named after the ground. The Oval also staged England’s first ever Test match although a lot of people tend to think that Lord’s, situated in the more affluent part of the same city, owns that distinction. Also, The Oval is a special place for Sri Lankans as the nation’s first Test win in England came at this iconic venue.

We were at The Oval for Sri Lanka versus India encounter of the 2017 Champions Trophy when we spotted a group of Sri Lankan fans who were asking the stewards at the venue directions for the Kumar Sangakkara Stand. The steward didn’t get the joke but the message was that given the prolific season the former Test captain had for Surrey that season, the county should put up a stand in honour of K.C. Sangakkara!

A BBC poll conducted last week saw him emerging as Surrey’s best overseas player. Given the long association former Pakistan skipper Intikhab Alam had with Surrey, you would have expected him to be chosen as the county’s best overseas player but the participants picked Sanga’s elegant batting over Intikhab’s wily leg-spin. Since the doors were opened for overseas professionals to play County Cricket in 1969, many international stars have gone onto represent Surrey. Sanga nailed it given not only his prolific run scoring but the way he carried himself as well. 

What mattered most of course was the numbers. They were quite stunning – Bradmansque indeed. In 2017, Sanga was the first player to cross the 1000 mark in the County circuit and he finished with 1491 runs in 16 innings with eight hundreds and an average of 106. He turned 40 later that year and yet finished as the highest run scorer for the season. Truly remarkable. 

His stature mattered that it helped the development of several young players. Sam Curran was just 17 when he made his debut for Surrey in 2015. There were other young players such as Ben Foakes and Ollie Pope, who have gone onto become England players and all three have credited Sanga’s influence on their careers during their time at The Oval. 

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There’s more to Sanga than just runs, catches and stumpings.  Well read, he is able to capture the admiration of the audience whatever the subject that is being discussed be it Coronavirus, spy movies, world wars, US Presidents or whatever. The time young players spend with him will enable them to widen their knowledge beyond the game of cricket.  

Sanga was recommended to Surrey by their then coach Graham Ford, who was Sri Lanka’s Head Coach from 2012 to 2014. 

With him quitting international cricket after the 2015 World Cup, Sanga was expected to play the full season for Surrey but those plans were interrupted as he consented to a request by SLC to delay retirement. He returned home half-way through the County season to honour his international commitments during the Test series against Pakistan and India. 

It was during that time he was offered the post of Sri Lanka’s High Commissioner to Great Britain by President Maithripala Sirisena, who attended his farewell Test. Sanga politely, declined the plumb diplomatic post. Perhaps diplomacy wasn’t his forte. 

Sanga was again approached by SLC to convince Graeme Ford to return to Colombo for a second stint. This he did reluctantly knowing too well the fragile relationship his home board had with cricket coaches. A decision that he regrets to this date. 

Sanga completed his three year stint with Surrey with flying colours. In three years of County Championships, he scored over 3000 runs and averaged a remarkable 63. The highlight during his stay with them was the twin hundreds he made at Lord’s against Middlesex in 2017. 

Surrey was in doldrums when Ford took over in 2014. They had been relegated to Division two after finishing bottom of the table. The first man Ford picked to start the rebuilding process was Sanga. They made tremendous progress finishing top of the Division two in 2015 and that earned them a promotion to top division. In 2016 they finished fifth and in 2017 they claimed third place behind Essex and Lancashire. The following year Surrey went onto become County Champions.  Surrey’s investment was worth in gold. 

Surrey wasn’t Sanga’s only county stint. He represented Warwickshire in 2007 and had a brief time with Durham in 2014. 

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Other Sri Lankans like Aravinda de Silva, Muttiah Muralitharan and Chaminda Vaas have played County Cricket in the post Test era with remarkable success. Only Aravinda was shortlisted in the poll for Kent and he eventually lost out to Asif Iqbal of Pakistan.