Surrey 328 for 6 (Sangakkara 119*, Stoneman 51, Pope 50) lead Somerset 269 by 59 runs
They call him, simply, “The King”. And, really you can see why. For Kumar Sangakkara, in his 40th year, is lording over English county cricket like it is his own personal fiefdom.
Here, in his last ever first-class game at The Oval, and the penultimate one of his career, Sangakkara was majestic, clinical and chanceless yet again. In isolation, this was an innings to enrich any autumnal day. In the context of a magnificent career, it produced memories that many in the crowd will cherish to the end of their days.
As ever, there was a myriad of cricketing splendour to enjoy. Each spectator will have their own preferences. To some it will be any of the languid drives, stroked through the covers with no more discernible effort than a coach potato reaching for another pack of crisps. For others it will be the cut, hit late and with sumptuous precision, with which Sangakkara reached his eighth first-class century of the summer.
To this correspondent, though, the finest moment came a ball after Dom Bess, Somerset’s young offspinner, had turned one sharply past Sangakkara. As if riled by the merest hint of fallibility, Sangakkara took a couple of strides down the wicket to his next delivery and caressed Bess for a straight six. It was a shot that, delicately and beautifully, carried a simple message: Sangakkara is in charge.
All summer long, Sangakkara has played like a video gamer who has unlocked cheat mode, and found a way to bat in cricket without being dismissed. But he is not merely a brilliant player; he is also cold-hearted and utterly ruthless. And so, when Somerset decided to rest their seamers in sight of the second new ball, Sangakkara spied an opportunity to shift the trajectory of this game, perhaps irrevocably.
To see Tom Abell trundle in with his medium-pacers, while Sangakkara interspersed playing him exquisitely from the crease with charges down the wicket, was to think of the old line of cowering Christians being fed to the lions. Sangakkara’s art gave way to violence.
One of the hallmarks of sporting greatness is not merely the performances themselves, but the burden they place on opponents. The effect of Sangakkara is often to make the opposition perform worse, so flustered are players by the spectre of his excellence. In the evening sunshine, Somerset, who had bowled thoroughly admirably, rapidly began to betray the effects of being exposed to Sangakkara for too long.
Bess bowled a rank full toss, pummelled through midwicket for four, and Abell delivered too many balls of dubious distinction. Even the fielders were rattled: a cut to third man went through substitute fielder Roelof van der Merwe’s legs. When Sangakkara, on 88, scampered a precise quick single, there were four overthrows, as if he needed the help.
Perhaps the greatest testament of all to Sangakkara’s unquenching thirst for self-improvement and endless curiosity about batting is how he has bettered his first two years at Surrey. In both 2015 and 2016 he averaged in the high 40s in first-class cricket – ordinarily very good, yet scant justice to Sangakkara’s multifarious gifts.
As he walked up The Oval stairs to yet more lauding – now more resembling the fawning of rock stars than the genteel applause traditional in county cricket – his tally for the summer read 1369 runs in 13 innings, at an average of 124.45 apiece. No overseas batsman has been as dominant in a summer of English county cricket since Brian Lara in 1994, the summer of his 501.
Yet even Lara then only – and, yes, to use that word is absurd, but such has been Sangakkara’s mastery – averaged 89.82. He has scored a century against every county he has played in the Championship this summer; only Hampshire were spared, by his detour to the Caribbean Premier League. Essex are unique in depriving Sangakkara of a half-century in a match – even if he scored a double-century and 84 in the other game against them. For that alone, they deserve the Championship pennant a million times over.
Before all the felicitations of Sangakkara, Somerset had bowled tenaciously, with great accuracy and unwavering spirit. None were better than Peter Trego. Gliding in from unusually wide of the crease, his angle accounted for both Surrey’s openers, and left Surrey a round 100 behind Somerset when their fourth wicket fell. Then, Ollie Pope, industrious, enterprising and a sweet driver, came out to join Sangakkara.
Now, Sangakkara did what he has done to numerous bowling attacks over his career: he broke them. In the process, he also broke some of Surrey’s own supporters. “Four more years!” they chanted, disbelieving that he really is retiring from first-class cricket. It sure beat grumbling about the bad light that marred the day’s play. But then the best performers heed a simple truth: always leave ’em wanting more.
Tim Wigmore is a freelance journalist and author of Second XI: Cricket in its Outposts