Good morning Doctor Kumar
I walk down a quiet, Jasmine-scented road in the early morning sunshine and through the gates of a rambling villa, set in verdant hills, its pleasant, leafy garden spreading out on all sides with glimpses of the lake below. It is the sort of place a stressed-out modern bowler ought to retreat to. I could be in New Zealand or Italy or Sweden, except that, at 9am, the temperature is already a sweaty 28 C. Infact I am in Sri Lanka, on the outskirts of the bustling city of Kandy.
I am greeted at the covered porch by a housekeeper and shown into a large, airy room with a small goldfish pond set into the stone floor. There is a familiar sound of young children clattering around in the kitchen and someone playing an out of tune piano. A friendly, middle-aged Sri Lankan woman offers me a cup of tea. Soon afterwards her son appears, looking a bit bleary eyed as if he has just got up. He probably has. He didn’t get away from the Pallekele stadium til after 10pm last night having eased the England bowling all around the park.
This is the house where the world’s number one ranked test batsman, Kumar Sangakkara, grew up and learnt to bat and still returns for a regular check up when he’s in the country. Perhaps the place should be referred to as a laboratory. Because Kumar Sangakkara has got a Phd in batting. Since his Sri Lanka debut in 2000 he has turned art into science, analyzing and adapting and fine-tuning his method to score more international runs in the 21st century (almost 28,000 in all formats) than anyone else. I came to find out how he’d done it.
Part of the answer was provided before we’d even sat down. His father Kshema, a retired attorney, emerged from his study brandishing a book. It was Bradman’s The Art of Cricket. It was open at a black and white photo-spread of the great man demonstrating the pull shot. ‘This is where you made the mistake yesterday,’ Sangakkara snr declared. ‘Look at the great man, Bradman, and how he played the pull shot!’ He points at the sequence of pictures. ‘Look, you swivel on the ball and roll your wrists to keep it down. Not like you played it!’
Using the book as a makeshift bat Kshema played the stroke as portrayed by Bradman, pirouetting on his back leg and hitting the imaginary ball along the ground. He was overlooking the fact that his son had made a previously faultless 91 the night before and, looking to accelerate in the last 10 overs, was only caught on the boundary edge when he attempted to plant Chris Woakes over deep square leg for six. Kumar smiled, accepting the criticism graciously. It was obviously a regular occurrence. (Infact there is a YouTube clip of a similar scene in the family home -https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Sdx03cSJhHc ) Son has obviously inherited one ingredient from father: perfectionism.
‘My batting starts at training, leading up to a game,’ Sangakkara says. ‘That’s where I get my confidence from. Not only hitting a lot of balls, but ensuring that when I do hit a ball my movements are easy and comfortable and unthinking. I don’t want to go into bat worrying about technique because technique is something that is a base, but when you are playing, its got to disappear – you’ve got to be instinctive, reactive, unthinking. You want clearheaded, execution of muscle-memory that you have trained your body over and over to…’ He hovers over the word ‘perfect’ and then prefers ‘do.’ ‘
‘The moment you see technique obviously in someone who’s batting I think that’s where someone’s not really flowing. When everything’s flowing you don’t see technique, you see style, you see grace, you see timing. That’s what I work towards. I don’t want to be fiddling or worrying about where my backlift is going, or whether my foot is going to the ball or how I balanced I am. I just want that flow.
‘Because timing is your body and movements being in rhythm with everything, not just hitting the ball effortlessly down the ground but in rhythm with the wicket, the bowlers run-up and the pace the ball is being bowled at. Your movements have to be synchronized. And that comes from training. Training in the days before, and on match day too, assessing conditions correctly. And if you allow your body to fall into that rhythm on the day, that is when you’re timing is really good. That’s when you’re not fighting against the wicket or the pace of the ball or yourself. Everything has to be instinctive in the match. The moment you think, it slows you down. It restricts your body and your movements and that’s when you make mistakes.’
So batting is about rhythm, and flow. I have heard this many times before, most recently from the former Kent and Middlesex batsman Ed Smith who draws comparison between batting and chopping wood. He found when he tried to be short and precise with the swing of the axe and focus on a specific point on the log, he was quite clumsy. When he looked more vaguely at the log and just let the axe swing back languidly and brought it down fluently, he was much more accurate. He equates it with batting. When you bat in a relaxed manner – intuitively – you are liable to be much more successful than if you’re anxious and intense and too conscious of everything.
This is also true of other precise sporting disciplines, like shooting. Kevin Gill, the former world champion in double trap, is GB’s head shotgun coach. He suggests that, when focusing on a target moving at 90mph (similar to a fast ball in cricket) ‘you can over-stare and focus too hard. Then you don’t react as fast and your movements become jerky. Your natural, relaxed, peripheral vision works very well.’
Sangakkara’s reliance on the body’s natural rhythms is obviously invaluable. Where did get his understanding from, I wondered?
“Much of it is from my father – I think he has a great philosophy on cricket and a very intuitive knowledge of sport in general – and Sunil Fernando [the Trinity school coach who also coached Murali.] He’s coached me since I was 13. Even today when I’m in Kandy I go and see him for a couple of hours for a few throwdowns because he knows exactly what my batting motions have been over the years. Both he and my father are quite old school in terms of actual technique but where they are also really good is in believing in that flow and rhythm to your batting. Technique is important as a foundation, but you have to expand from there.’
‘It comes from trial and error too. You watch other players, like Aravinda de Silva, Mahela Jayawardene, Brian Lara, Rahul Dravid, Ricky Ponting – you watch everything about them and you understand that when they do play at their best there is no stalling, no stuttering, it all flows. I tried to work out why that was and what they think about. Every player is different – the shots may be different but when they score runs there are a lot of similarities in the way those runs come.’ You could say he’s been as much a biologist as a batsman, microscopically examining every top player, dissecting their skills and adjusting his accordingly.
Sangakkara deserves to be bracketed with any of the great players from cricket history. Never mind his mountain of runs, his test average (58.66) is the second highest of any batsman from the last five decades, including Tendulkar, Lara, Ponting and Sobers. And it is equally outstanding abroad as it is at home. And he has just become the first player ever to score four one-day hundreds in successive innings. Yet, unlike the others, he was no teenage prodigy. He actually wanted to be a pilot, and by his own admission, he was certainly not an exceptional player even in his early 20s. His phenomenal ability has been acquired through assiduous observation and painstaking practice. He is a great batsman who was made not born.
He started with one slight advantage. He was left handed. Left handers have more fun. Facing predominantly right arm bowlers, they get more balls to hit – either pitching outside leg or offering width outside off – than right handers. Watching Australia’s Allan Border bat, 10 year old Michael Hussey obviously realized this and turned himself from right to left hander. Sangakkara was always a left hander. But as a teenager not a particularly good one.
‘I wasn’t the best school cricketer and I wasn’t the best first class player [averaging only 26 after four seasons.] When I did get some runs at club level I was suddenly put into the Sri Lanka one-day side [as a keeper/batsman.] I had a good first series in the one-day side but when I got into the test side I played three test matches where my highest score was 25. In the last test they put me in at number three and I was out for 6. It was an eye opener. I thought “this is a bit tough.”
‘Then I went to South Africa and batted number three again and got a half century in my first innings and a 98 in my last and I thought maybe I could do this! And I had a few decent series. But gradually the opposition sussed me out and were bowling at me in a particular way and blocking off certain areas, and I struggled and my confidence took a huge dip.’ He had more than two years without a test century.
‘But at 25 I had this epiphany where I suddenly realized a lot about myself. I realised the way I thought. I had a really good idea what my motions were like when I played well and when I played badly, I really took stock of what I could do and what I couldn’t (and there was a lot that I couldn’t do!) What I could do was quite limited. So I thought I’ve got to be able to improve what I can do, or hide my weaknesses for as long as I am able to, to score the runs I need.
‘I realized I had to change my approach. So I worked for 6-8 months to reduce my back and across movement and drive a lot straighter. I spoke to Aravinda de Silva about changing the grip of my bottom hand slightly. He taught me how to watch the ball properly, and how to keep your eyes level when you’re moving, how to relax at the crease.’
‘When you speak to the best players in the world, you’re not there to become them. You’re there to take whatever can be applied to your game from them and discard everything else. Because a lot of things that work for Tendulkar or Lara, or Dravid or Ponting or Bradman, won’t work for me. You’ve got to know what you’re game is, how you’re going to expand and improve, what your limitations are. Take little bits of them, but you’re not trying to be a copy of them. Build a game that works for you. It’s very important to know yourself.’
‘Once I had that circularization about myself, and I wasn’t thinking about the opposition bowler or other players, that’s when my cricket started improving. Then I knew how to train, what to train, how to control my emotions in the middle, how to let my instincts take over and be a reactive batsman. That’s the best way to do it. How to not worry too much about technique. In training I get my rhythm and my confidence and everything is in sync so when I go into a match I’m just playing.
‘You can’t control everything about your game or what’s going to happen on the day. You’ll have your ups, you’ll have your downs. The important thing is to have a really good solid working plan, and strategy about how to practice, and then when you go in to a match your anxiety is taken away. I also understood that at certain times change is absolutely necessary. You shouldn’t be afraid of change. As long as you have a solid base you can always go back to it.’
Aha, a solid base. Where’s that when you need it…..??
This is an extract from: