Farewells are always tough to predict, but seldom more difficult than in sport. A grand finish at the individual or team level will leave an indelible mark and embellish the athlete’s performance through his or her career while failure will provide a painful reminder of waning abilities on the field with an entire life ahead.
There are several instances of a perfect ending. Pete Sampras signed off after extending his record Grand Slam title hauls to 14, with a US Open final victory over great compatriot Andre Agassi, for one. On the other hand, the peerless Don Bradman suffered a blip in his final outing, dismissed for naught and an average just short of 100. Few talk about Australia crushing England at the Oval in that game in 1948.
Sri Lanka are in the grip of both welcoming and bidding farewell. In the middle of a campaign for parliamentary elections on August 17, they are braced for the retirement of arguably the biggest player to emerge from the country — Kumar Sangakkara.
An all-time batting great, Sangakkara’s brilliance extended to wicket-keeping and as an articulate skipper. His batting partnerships with Mahela Jayawardene are comparable to some of the great combinations in the game.
Sangakkara wanted to sign off after the World Cup, where Sri Lanka were eliminated in the quarter-final. He and Jayawardene had ended their Twenty20 careers after the victory over India in last year’s World T20 in Bangladesh. However, he was persuaded to carry on and the Test series against India will see him end his international career after the first two matches.
However, not all retirements have the same effect. Some are perfect occasions to celebrate as the team moves on, others to indulge in nostalgia for fans and teammates. Sangakkara’s quitting falls into a third category, with a genuine concern sweeping the island over the future of Sri Lankan cricket.
Defeat in all three formats against Pakistan in the recent home series has accentuated that gloomy outlook, with Sri Lanka not discovering any player who can go on and fill the shoes of some of their great players.
Local media has looked back at Sangakkara’s career, his being tutored as a boy by his father, a respected civil lawyer, in the backyard of their Kandy home, highlighting how he always asked questions, and found his way of doing things. That did help him score a whopping 11 Test double centuries, one short of Bradman’s record.
Sangakkara’s love for literature, his giving up ambitions to get a law degree to pursue a cricket career has been recounted. At the same time, current skipper Angelo Mathews and the board also have faced questions over the team’s poor performances. Sri Lanka Cricket (SLC) is treading cautiously over his farewell, as he believes any hoopla will distract him from the prime objective --- doing well with the bat and helping Sri Lanka win against India.
Former Sri Lanka batsman Sidath Wettimuny, chairman of the Sri Lanka Cricket interim committee, feels Sangakkara’s retirement will be a big loss as it follows the exits of the likes of Mahela Jayawardene, Muttiah Muralitharan and Chaminda Vaas. "It’s a huge occasion, and in a way a sad one as we will lose possibly our most prolific run-getter. What he has done is simply phenomenal. He has raised the bar from Sri Lanka’s point of view," Wettimuny told HT.
"One only hopes his achievements inspire the younger guys. A fabulous player, but there comes a time, and you have to respect his decision to retire while at the very top."
Although SLC is quietly going about plans to lay out a farewell at the P Sara Stadium --- the Colombo venue of the second Test --- they are anxious not to upset the player. "Sangakkara doesn’t want much fanfare, and we are going to respect that sensible thinking. The best of farewells would be doing well in the Test series and he does not want to be distracted."
There will still be a heavy dose of sentiment when he takes guard at Galle for the first Test, where he scored his first Test century against India in 2001.
Wettimuny admitted farewells were always complicated affairs. "Farewells in general, it is an awkward thing; the occasion, the team you are playing for — each occasion just finds its own sort of flavour."
Indian fans would surely know. While Sachin Tendulkar’s retirement was a grand occasion in world cricket, Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman quit in the quietest way possible, during the break between series. This, when their stature would have enabled to bid adieu to their fans on the field of play.
The Sanga legend will endure with a hoarding on a busy Colombo road featuring him and Jayawardene looking at life beyond cricket, declaring: Gentlemen Beyond Boundaries.