Wednesday 7 May 2014 

Kumar Sangakkara - Exceptional Player, Or One Of The Greatest Ever?

Kumar Sangakkara
Kumar Sangakkara - an exceptional player or one of the greatest ever?
© REUTERS / Action Images
 

There is little doubt that Kumar Sangakkara is one of the most outstanding batsmen of his generation, yet when it comes to assessing where he sits in the all-time world order there is one blot on his copy book that is persistently quoted – that the Sri Lankan arguably in comparison to his overall record has a poor return outside of Asia. So the question is whether this is indeed a fair criticism?

Basic analysis against the batting icons of the game

Before we run through the 36-year-old's performances outside of Asia with a fine toothcomb, it is worth briefly outlining just how exceptional his overall career return actually is.

Sangakkara currently occupies ninth in the leading Test run scorer table, at the same time in terms of average runs per Test his tally of 91.4 is superior to any other batsman in the leading top 50 with only Brian Lara - a player regarded as a superstar of the game - also able to boast an average in excess of 90.

Further outlining his status amongst the greats in terms of numbers alone is that Sangakkara’s average of 3.5 Tests per century betters every other player in the top 10 and with the exception of Matthew Hayden betters anybody else in the top 50 leading run-getters.

Breaking down Sangakkara’s runs

Finally, before addressing the crux of that perceived weakness outside of Asia, it is worth taking a glance at the breakdown of Sangakkara’s record against each Test-playing side, where only against England does he average below 40.

It is worth mentioning here that very few players do not have such an anomaly statistic against a certain side - in many cases this can be merely down to form at the time side rather than it being a genuine flaw.

The most notable point here though is that Sangakkara’s highest two averages come against Bangladesh and Zimbabwe, with 25 per cent of his Test centuries being scored against these two weaker nations – compare that to just five per cent of Ricky Ponting’s and nine per cent of Jacques Kallis' centuries.

In defence of Sangakkara Sri Lanka have played a greater percentage of Tests against the minnows with 16 per cent of his caps against either Bangladesh or Zimbabwe, contrasting to just four in Ponting’s case and seven for Kallis – highlighting it is not a surprise for Sangakkara to have a greater percentage of runs against these sides.

Asian batsman outside of the sub-continent

It is worth outlining that being tarnished by his record outside of the subcontinent is not something unique to Sangakkara, given that it is an accusation held against the majority of Asian batsman.

Undeniably very few will average higher outside of the continent - over the last 15 years only three Asian batsman can boast averages in excess of 45 when combining records in Australia, England, New Zealand and South Africa.

In reality we shouldn’t be startled by this, taking into account just how differing conditions in the likes of England and South Africa are to those found in Asia. When the ball is swinging around as it tends to do in these countries, it can be tough even for the native batsman never mind for those who are alien to such conditions.  

Learning to handle these conditions takes time and consistent exposure, something which the hectic international schedule hardly affords. Sangakkara for instance has played only 21 per cent of his Tests in the countries mentioned above and the majority of those in series that have not exceeded three matches – which makes adapting to these conditions extremely difficult for batsmen whose technique has been ingrained from an early age on immensely contrasting surfaces.

Sangakkara outside Asia

That 21 per cent correlates to 26 Test matches, in which Sangakkara averages just shy of 42 – 16 runs short of his career record which perhaps hints that there is more than a smidgen of truth in the argument.

Australia and New Zealand have not presented a problem as averages of 60 and 67 respectively prove, however it is an average of just 31 in England and 36 in South Africa where the real issues lie.

As mentioned earlier players will inevitably have certain black spots but that return from nine Tests on English soil is hard not be disappointed by, however there are extenuating circumstances when it comes to assessing Sri Lanka in England.

Primarily being that on each occasion the Sri Lankans have toured England it has been in the early stages of the English season, where pitches and the elements are at their most volatile for batsmen.

It is no shock that his first experience of England was frustrating, considering Sangakkara was in the fledgling stages of his Test career and therefore being faced with such an unfamiliar bridge to cross was always going to be unlikely – so it proved with an average of just 21 from that tour.

Second time round with that experience behind him, Sangakkara faired significantly better however Sri Lanka’s most recent tour was more contentious, nonetheless a superb century in the final Test answered a substantial amount of doubters who suggested he could not cut it such conditions.

His returns in South Africa are somewhat more curious where Sangakkara averaged close to 40 on each of his first two visits but struggled somewhat in terms of statistics on Sri Lanka’s most recent trip - although in the second Test of that series he scored a century against a pumped Dale Steyn that was a significant contributor to Sri Lanka winning their first ever Test in South Africa.

Undoubtedly Sangakkara’s numerical record outside of Asia doesn’t do his talent justice, however there are more than enough examples where he has produced pivotal innings to suggest the Matale-born player is more than able to supply game-changing innings anywhere in the world.

Incidentally, outlining the view that it takes noteworthy time and exposure for Asian players to become adept in such foreign conditions is that having not scored a single century in his first six series in either of the four locations being analysed, Sangakkara has since scored five centuries in his last 11 Tests in either Australia, England, New Zealand or South Africa.

Comparisons with other Asian batsman

As was highlighted earlier Asian batsmen do tend to struggle away from home, however when analysing data of the last 15 years Sangakkara actually only ranks ninth in terms of combined average in Australia, England, New Zealand and South Africa – taking into account only those players who have played in at least 10 Tests.

Sachin Tendulkar leads that list, with, considering the issues indicated earlier with regard to adapting to conditions, a quite remarkable average of 52, he is then followed by Rahul Dravid, Younus Khan, Mohammed Yousuf and Inzamam-ul-Haq.

All five are players of the highest quality but it cannot be denied that not to be among them is a blemish on Sangakkara’s record – even if he only trails the majority narrowly.

That record in England is again the most significant stumbling block with Sangakkara ranked a lowly 22nd when analysing Asian batsmen on English shores over the last 15 years – the stout risk-free technique of Dravid is furlongs clear on that list with an average of 69, which suggests just the type of skills needed to consistently succeed in England.

You can argue Sri Lanka have persistently had to deal with the worst of the conditions but that Tillakaratne Dilshan – hardly a player you’d expect to excel in England – sits seventh on the list somewhat belittles that, although Sangakkara’s long-time partner in crime Mahela Jayawardene has also struggled persistently in England.

Interestingly it has actually been England where Asian batsmen have excelled most when compared against South Africa and Australia - seven Asian batters average over 50 in England compared to just Tendulkar and Sangakkara in Australia.

Without the gloves

One final factor worth mentioning is Sangakkara’s differing record without the gloves – so often when assessing his merits it is overlooked that for large chunks of his career the Sri Lankan has been a more than competent Test keeper.

When not behind the stumps his Test average is a stunning 69, whilst he averages a century every 2.6 Tests. Unfortunately that nagging record in England isn’t boosted here, although his returns in Australia, South Africa and New Zealand all are enhanced – so much so that performing the same earlier analysis of Asian batsmen outside of the subcontinent nobody can better the gloveless Sangakkara’s average of 55.

The verdict

The sheer weight of the numbers alone mean that Sangakkara is more than worthy of being ranked among the game’s elite and that is without even judging the elegance and class which he has showcased to achieve his monumental runs total.

In many ways there is justification in the brush that has attempted to tarnish Sangakkara in relation to his record in seam-friendly conditions, like almost all sub-continental batsmen his average naturally takes a significant hit outside of the subcontinent and arguably more than most – although his record without the gloves should not be ignored.

A meagre return in England is the one significant imperfection, yet thankfully for Sangakkara he will over the coming months get the chance to put that right and if his decision to find form with Durham in preparation is anything to go by then the Sri Lankan stalwart is determined to do just that.

© Cricket World 2014

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