550 games and now it’s over. After adding 13,368 international runs, with 36-century stands and 62 digs of fifty or more, the most trusted partnership in cricket has finally been broken. With Sri Lanka crashing out of the World Cup, the curtains have been drawn on the ‘Sanga-Mahela’ show.
Not the ending they wanted but in today’s world, fairy tales are rare. They batted together for 293 times in international cricket. They dug Sri Lanka out of trouble on more than those 293 times. On Wednesday, they batted together again. They scratched, scraped, fought but failed. Their failure was ugly. The word ‘ugly’ has never been used as an adjective to describe a ‘Sanga-Mahela’ show.
At Sydney it was.
The world has hardly seen Sanga and Mahela struggle on a cricket pitch. They even walked back to the hut with grace and elegance. At Sydney, they struggled. They struggled to gauge the bounce, to master the pace, to manoeuvre the singles and to read Imran Tahir.
They struggled to score but they did it together.
Two men from a small island, born five months apart, became the world’s most respected cricketers, torch bearers of the sport and healed a wounded nation with their velvet-tipped willows. They became the glue that held the Lankan middle order together for more than 15 years. They went on to become the greatest batsmen in the history of cricket, each scoring more than 10,000 Test and ODI runs. They tumbled milestones on the way and even added a record 624 runs against South Africa in 2006 — the highest partnership in Test cricket. They did it with utmost ease and most importantly, they did it together.
However, those stats mean nothing and the 37-year-old duo cannot be judged on mere cricketing achievements. They were survivors. Growing up in a hostile country, they witnessed war as five-year-olds. They survived a 26-year-long conflict between Tamil separatists and the Sri Lankan army that killed over 80,000 people.
They witnessed devastation again in 2009 when a group of armed gunmen attacked the Sri Lankan cricket team bus in Lahore. The policemen escorting the bus were killed, while several players suffered physical injuries. Mahela was the skipper then and Sanga was his deputy. They themselves had injuries but shielded the team like war veterans.
As usual, they did it together.
Not only off-the-field, Mahela and Sanga were tough nuts to break on-field as well. They might have had the reputations of being statesmen cricketers but when the time came, Mahela had no qualms about refusing a handshake while Sanga taught Shehzad a lesson or two.
Though similar in nature but as cricketers, Mahela and Sanga were a study in contrast. Mahela, the right-hander, was all about elegance — a natural stroke-maker, who believed in the theory of playing it straight and playing it late. His batting was a free soul that painted the canvas with the colours it loved. The drives through cover and the whipping flicks past mid-wicket were hallmarks of a master artist, while the cut behind point, played at the last possible moment when the ball was almost in the keeper’s gloves, was the personification of languid grace.
Sanga, the lefty, had to work harder for his runs. Technically more stoic, Sanga put the science into Mahela’s artistry. He devised the mathematical model to Mahela’s theoretical works. His batting evolved with hard work and his ‘going-down-on-one-knee’ cover drive was a result of long practice sessions. A severe cutter and puller of the ball, Sanga was better against pace and hence, boasts of a much greater record outside the subcontinent.
They were poles apart technically but it worked for Sri Lanka. Batting at three and four, they tore apart bowling attacks and became pillars upon which the foundation of every Lankan innings was built. They fought battles on the cricket ground and won wars for a country stricken with poverty, war, corruption and natural calamity.
Needless to say, they did it together.
They failed in four ICC limited over finals but tasted glory together when Sanga led his men to a six-wicket victory over India to win the World Twenty20 in Bangladesh, last year.
They wanted to do it again in Australia. Mahela got the first hundred; Sanga got back-to-back-to-back-to-back hundreds. The team didn’t have enough fire power but it had Sanga and Mahela.
Then, Sydney happened.
Star Sports has played the re-runs of Sri Lanka’s defeat against South Africa in the quarter-finals of the World Cup thrice already. Pathetic batting, impotent bowling, South Africa breaking their knockout jinx — nothing has stuck except a special moment. Quinton de Kock slapped a boundary through the covers. Sanga hung his head, nodded a couple of times and looked up with a faint smile on his face. Mahela, standing at cover, threw his head back in despair and looked back at his trusted partner-in-crime.
Their stares echoed the same story — it’s all over mate!