Former great Kumar Sangakkara has moved from batting to commentating like a duck taking to water. The transition has been so smooth. Not that he has lost the golden touch with batting or anything.

Courtesy The Island by Rex Clementine

He made five First Class hundreds in a row and nearly got a World Record sixth before falling short by 16 runs. Sunday Island sat down with the former Sri Lanka captain for a chat during the Champions Trophy. In this candid interview, he gives his opinions on the state of Sri Lankan cricket, his exploits in county cricket and why Graham Ford is the best man to take Sri Lanka forward. He also responds to criticism of retiring from international cricket in 2015 and reveals the difficulties of leading the team.

Here are the excerpts.

Question: Sri Lankans are thrilled with what you have done for Surrey this season. Obviously they are top of the table thanks to your outstanding efforts. Apparently during the Sri Lanka versus South Africa game at The Oval last week, one Sri Lankan fan walked up to a steward and asked, ‘Where is the Kumar Sangakkara stand?’

Sangakkara: (Laughs) It has been a great experience playing at The Oval for Surrey. It is a ground with lot of history. Lot of people forget that the first ever Test match in England was played at The Oval and not Lord’s. From Sir Jack Hobbs to Douglas Jardine, all were Surrey men. A proud line of cricketers from then to now to represent the County. This is my third season here and I have enjoyed it.

Question: Last year around the same time when we met, you said, let’s give the team one more year and then assess how they have done before making a call on the direction we should move. How do you feel now?

Sangakkara: In T-20s we have done fairly well having beaten both South Africa and Australia away from home which is a fantastic achievement. Of course in Tests and ODIs we have suffered some losses. That was to be expected when playing countries like South Africa. Of course it was very disappointed losing to Bangladesh in our own conditions. But having said that, Bangladesh have shown much improvement and they were definitely the side that had much experience coming into the series. Sri Lanka were left with Rangana Herath and Dinesh Chandimal as the most experienced payers as Angelo Mathews didn’t play. Bangladesh had a core of senior players who were able to play very well. Having said that, Sri Lanka would have looked at the strategies that were put in place for the development of their players quite critically as to why a rapid improvement has not happened. I think Sri Lanka has one of the best coaches in the world in Graham Ford. They have some of the most talented players that I have seen. They have senior players like Rangana Herath and Angelo Mathews. Rangana is a legend in world cricket. But I think looking from the outside, it’s very important that the Head Coach has the complete freedom and authority to decide the path of progress for the team and that path is mirrored by the ‘A’ side and then all the way down to the Under-19 set up. There is a clear pathway to cricketers to progress and a structure to progress. Enough has been spoken about First Class cricket and the need to revamp it and improve it. If and when that happens, it will help this process along. But the players themselves will have to look at their individual games and see whether any improvement can be made. The Sri Lankan team is at a cross road right now. There are two ways to go about it depending on the outcome of the Champions Trophy. You can go one extreme and say we are changing everything. We are changing personnel, this that and other and shift blame to various different people and different paths of the process. Or you can be realistic about what really is going on and address the problem in a positive manner. The positive manner is identifying who the players for the future are. Who the main core of this team is and provide them with an environment that challenges them and improves them and also gives them an assurance that hard work and commitment to the team and performance will be valued and demanded. We have a coach of the caliber of Graham Ford to set that blue print down firmly so that it is followed. There are lots of well-intentioned and capable people in our set up travelling with the team in the coaching set up or advisory roles. All their views must be aligned to that of the Head Coach and the Head Coach’s path for progress and improvement must be one. That has to be adhered to by everyone. These are important factors in considering where we want the Sri Lankan team to be when it comes to a World Cup in two years time. Looking at the performances, I don’t see any lack of talent. We have abundance of it. The real problem is horning that talent into ability and having a side – not only a side that is consistently performing, but a consistent side as well where you are backing the talent and the potential of players. I believe this is going to be a very important stage for Sri Lankan cricket. Not the time for complete disregard of realities. Not the time for shifting blame or pointing the blame. It is time to take stock and take good positive decisions with a view to improve.

Question: There is some criticism that you should have perhaps continued with Sri Lanka for another year or two as you were top of your game when you left in 2015. Your thoughts.

Sangakkara: There will always be different of opinions, but the fact that our times were coming to an end was no secret. There were various criticisms when we were playing as well saying that we were playing for too long. Some would say why they were still playing at number three and four. There are various opinions that come through. You can argue for or against. I have always looked at things pragmatically when I have seen something. Yes you can hang around for some more time; yes you can go down the order. These are things we can argue. But 2015 at the end of the World Cup was the ideal time for transition and to build a new side. That’s why First Class cricket becomes so important. To have that second string ready. If you take the ‘A’ side, cricket is not always a place where everyone gets to play. There are 11 slots available and 15 players in the squad. You can’t say that this one is okay and that one is nice or we will try this one. The best players need to represent the country. You must have a First Class system that gives you those players. The best players will play in the national side and the next best 15 will be in ‘A’ side. You can’t have 50 to 60 players swirling around the ‘A’ side and another 30 odd players coming out of the one-day side. These have to be guys who have experience in playing very tough First Class competition. Without it, you will always have troubles in transition. In Australia, all the senior players left at the same time. They struggled for a year, but because of the strength of their structure, their transition period is very short. They adapt quickly and they rebuild very quickly. That’s why they are ahead. Take the England one-day side, last year and half, they have been such a good outfit. But they have had a dismal performance three or four years ago. But now they are one of the leading one-day sides and one of the leading contenders in Champions Trophy. Change of thinking yes, but they had the players who were of highest quality. Those are things we have to be mindful. In presenting these ideas and opinions, you must have a structure to back that up. That is something that we unfortunately do not have in Sri Lanka at the moment.

Question: Let’s talk about captaincy. When you stepped down as captain in 2011, you had a tremendous record. You were the first Sri Lankan captain to win a series in Australia. Your captaincy stint unfortunately lasted only two years. Some influential people both at SLC and Sports Ministry were going after you and even implied that you were in secret talks with the US embassy in Colombo and was going to be the Presidential Candidate! Did that play any part in you quitting early?

Sangakkara: I still keep hearing these things you see. At the end of a World Cup is the right time to go. The team and I got on very well. It was great two years but the constant head banging and differences of opinions and ideas with the administration was quite hard. When you do that for a long time, you reach a limit and you don’t want to play cricket and you tend to be bitter and angry. Then it’s the time for one or the other to go and in Sri Lanka the easiest thing is for the captain to go as you have seen over and over again. That is one of the major reasons why I gave up captaincy. I had absolutely no political ambitions then or now. I was very flattered when everyone thought that I was contesting from Kala Wewa or Anuradhapura to become the President. I was called a CIA agent at sometime. Various things were spoken at that time. I used to sit down with my wife and have a good laugh. At the same time, I had a very few people that I had differences of opinions with. I have had lot of support and love from the public in Sri Lanka. Every player who plays this game should be grateful for that support. There are other sides that are more glamorous than us and that have different lifestyles. But we are extremely fortunate to be born in Sri Lankan and represent our people. Win or lose, millions of Sri Lankans adore the game with so much passion. It’s’ been amazing playing for Sri Lanka, something that I will be always grateful.

Question: How did you foresee that Chandika Hathurusinghe will be a great coach and what made you to obtain his services to the national team?

Sangakkara: The way he handled the ‘A’ side, there were a lot of positive feedback from players. Hatu was a nightmare to play with when he was a player. But he completely changed his personality when he became a coach in a sense he understood how to manage people and how to get the best out of players. That’s the best characteristic of a coach. As Graham Ford would say, you observe, communicate and connect. That was spot on with Hatu. Murali has had lot of experience with him playing for Tamil Union. Murali and I went to the board and we really wanted him involved in the national side. Trevor Bayliss and Paul Farbrace, Coach and Assistant were very happy to have him on board. We are very lucky that D.S. de Silva as the Chairman allowed him to leave the ‘A’ side and join the national side. We saw firsthand what his thoughts were. He was very good with strategy; he was very good with what players needed to do to improve. He treated everyone the same. He was tough when he needed to be tough. There were no excuses with him and every option he gave was a positive one which will enable you to improve. Unfortunately we lost him to Bangladesh and hopefully he will be available at some point for Sri Lanka. He has done such an amazing job with Bangladesh.

Question: Given the amount of politics involved at SLC, do you think even someone like Hathurusinghe will succeed coaching Sri Lanka?

Sangakkara: There are politics in every cricket board and every organization. The key is to ensure that whatever it is not to upset the performance on the field. People who are experts in their field need to manage those fields that they oversee. When you are the Head Coach of a team, you should be given freedom of your field of expertise. His future, his pay cheque and everything depends on how he gets players to respond to himself. Without trying to interfere with his work, you need to give him that freedom. At the end of the day, any coach who is not given that freedom will be unable to stand up and be held accountable for the performance of the side.

Question: We know lot of information about your dad. That he was a lawyer, your first coach and says that you batted ‘like a donkey’ even when you get a double hundred. But there’s very little information about your mum?

Sangakkara: My mother was born in Colombo. She was Miss Welaratne. She taught at Musaues College before she got married. My parents met at Peradeniya University. She has been an amazing woman. In this day and age there is so much talk on gender equality and female empowerment. I was very lucky that in my life I was surrounded by some amazing women. My mother, my wife and my sisters. My mother singlehandedly moulded our character and the fabric of our personality. It’s amazing how much of herself she had to sacrifice. Her career and her interests for the four children and to run a house. Sometimes two houses when my two sisters were schooling in Colombo. She is an amazing person. So much of love and gratitude from all of us the four children. I think anyone who has met her gets that same feeling. She is such a strong figure. I was very lucky.