Surrey title would be a fitting reward for Sangakkara’s loyalty

Sangakkara circa 2015 (Surrey’s last title in division two) – Image: SportsKeeda

In an age where most retired cricketers are pursuing the riches of T20 franchise cricket, there is something special about watching Sri Lankan maestro Kumar Sangakkara weave his magic in county cricket. His twin tons against Middlesex this week were, like every Sangakkara innings, constructed with poise and as pleasing on the eye as they were frustrating for the opposition. Most other cricketers of his age have joined the globetrotting elite. A group of cricketers who were once at the top of their tree internationally, but are now chasing multi-million dollar contracts by offering their services to the numerous franchise sides around the world. While Sangakkara has thrown his hat in the ring and played in as many of these lucrative tournaments as the next man, his artistry is suited more to the intricacies of four day cricket. An indication that, perhaps, he will be around the county scene for a few years to come.

It was fitting that, on the day of the IPL final, a tournament Sangakara could well still be participating in, he raised his bat to acknowledge a small gathering of MCC members at a ground as far from Hyderabad as you can possibly get. There was nothing overly flashy about his celebrations beyond a customary waving of the willow and subtle nod of the head; a sight we have become accustomed to witnessing yet are still gracious to receive. Though there probably should have been given that his century in the second innings was his 6th in a season that is only two months old.

The astonishing thing about these innings in particular is that they came against a quality bowling attack featuring the hero of last years title race, Toby Roland-Jones, and Steven Finn; who is still pushing to reclaim his spot in the English side after a number of failed attempts previously. Sangakara, like the consummate professional he is, punished anything over-pitched; sweated on anything short; and didn’t let the calamity of a run-out temper his spirits. There was a lesson in his innings, as there always seems to be when he surpasses another milestone – if you remain patient and play to your strengths, the only way the bowler is a chance of dismissing you is if they deliver an unplayable delivery. All the rest will take care of itself.

Amazingly, Sangakkara, like a fine wine, appears to be getting better with age. Not long ago now we were marvelling at his brilliance during the 2015 World Cup, where he scored 4 consecutive hundreds and helped Sri Lanka qualify for the knock-out stages of the tournament. Now he is retired and the weight of the world is no longer on his shoulders. He is free to cash in on his talents, like many of the players he played with and against during his time on the international scene have done, but instead insists that he continues playing for the love of the game, not the extra coin. And what a choice it has proven to be both for Sangakkara and Surrey.

This season he has played a crucial role in Surrey’s rise to the top of the championship table, scoring hundreds against Lancashire and Warwickshire in much the same fashion as the two he scored at Lord’s. Now they will be relying on him to take them all the way to a championship crown (again), just like overseas players in the IPL and BBL are relied upon to deliver their side a trophy and the accompanying prize money. Mitchell Johnson did it last night for Mumbai by taking three scalps, including the prized wicket of his fellow countryman Steve Smith, who was, at the time of his dismissal, steering the Supergiant towards victory. Kumar Sangakara is doing the very same thing now for Surrey. Though, there will no doubt be greater reward in winning a division one title, Surrey’s first since 2002, than there is in hoisting the IPL trophy after a few sleepless weeks of wall-to-wall cricket played on pitches manufactured to produce high scoring contests. Which would you rather? One is steeped in prestige and history and the other is guaranteed to make you a millionaire overnight. These days cricketers opt for the latter, and it is hard to blame them given the lack of money circulating around some of the lowly ranked nations like the West Indies and Pakistan. But for players like Sangakkara, the dream is quite evidently to win a division one title and mark yet another achievement off the cricketing bucket list; one that is shrinking with every game he plays.

Surrey have the list to fulfill this fairy tale. Stoneman, the classy left-hander who plays every innings without fear, and Borthwick, who has changed himself in to a dependable top order batsman since making a rather inauspicious appearance at international level as a fresh-faced leg-spinner, are both sorely missed at Durham and there can be no greater compliment than this. They, alongside Curran brothers Sam and Tom, as well as ageless warrior Gareth Batty – who picked up valuable experience in Bangladesh and India last winter at the ripe old age of 39 – are the kind of players that can make or break a season. They offer plenty of potential, but, at times, fail to deliver. If they can all hit their straps at once, they will convert more draws into wins and, with Sangakkara steering the ship, this is a far less arduous task than it appears. That is the value of an experienced player. He mightn’t be getting payed a quarter of what Stokes received for his services in the IPL, yet he boasts one of the finest test and first class records the world over. On top of this, he has rubbed shoulders with history’s greatest cricketers and been coached by some of them too. These experiences and his expertise cannot be measured by any sum of money, because if they were, Sangakkara would be unaffordable. Yet, a player with half his experience, talent and knowledge nets an IPL contract worth in-excess of a million pounds. This is one of cricket’s great injustices.

Day four poses a difficult task for Surrey, who have taken just a 96 run lead with 6 wickets in hand. But one man still stands in the way of a Middlesex rout. His name, like we’ve seen so often sprawled across the Lord’s scoreboard for Sri Lanka, is Kumar Sangakkara, and he remains unbeaten on 116. Can he score his first double century of the season?

Scattergun season leaves Yorkshire floundering in unfamiliar territory

Inconsistency has plagued Yorkshire’s quest to achieve a three-peat of championship crowns in 2016, as they continue to cling on to their position in the middle of the division one table by the skin of their teeth.

They say a strong Yorkshire makes for a strong England. While many whisper sceptically behind their hands, condemning any such theory, the burden of the old cliché – dated as it might be – weighs heavy on the shoulders of the playing group this season.

We’ve been reminded during this unsunny summer that sheer weight of expectations is a significant encumbrance not to be brushed aside. Before a ball had been bowled in anger during April, we were told in no uncertain terms that there was no stopping the might of Yorkshire, who were bound for yet another year of unbridled successes.

Au contraire. How four months, a coin toss and a few unanticipated departures can unhinge a perfectly architected yellow brick road. It now appears Yorkshire’s deep seated winning culture has inexplicably gone to the dogs – or at the very least – hit a significant bump in a long and winding road.

Yorkshire are not directionless, but they are at this stage in a marathon season rooted to the spot on the championship table with a formidable run home – one that includes a visit to Lord’s and Old Trafford. With Root, Balance, Bairstow and Rashid all away on England duty until at least the final round, it is left to a patchwork side to pick up the slack that flagged somewhere around mid-May.

Had it not been for some pesky South-East weather intervening on a strong Yorkshire performance against Surrey at the Oval, they might well have been able to add a win to their season tally of 116, potentially positioning them inside the top 4. But there’s no point dwelling at this point on what could have been.

All is far from lost for Yorkshire though. While they face a torrid time dealing with injury that constantly attempts to access permanent residency in the Yorkshire ranks, the likes of Leaning, Hodd and Rhodes will be asked to step up to the plate and toe the line through August and September for the defending champions.

The new toss regulations appear to have taken their toll on Yorkshire’s bowling, while their batting, led by messiah’s Lyth and Lees, consistently fluctuates between two extremes – breathtakingly brilliant and unequivocally vulnerable. A proclivity to inspire and frustrate fans in the same session is an inconsistency that must be addressed. Too often have Bresnan and Plunkett been called on to do the heavy lifting down the bottom of the order.

Their bowling performances have laid the foundations for their successes in years gone by, but the scrapping of the coin toss this season has seen Yorkshire struggle to win outright. This issue is not isolated, it is very much a competition wide epidemic brought about by flat, lifeless wickets prepared in the knowledge that the opposition side mustn’t profit from their decision on the first morning. So much so that the toss has turned into a game of Russian roulette for the foolhardy.

Yorkshire’s bowlers have toiled for days on end at stages this season, powerless to arrest fluent strokeplay, as batsmen fill their boots and plunder runs to all parts of the ground with ease. Their only reprieve from a 150-over graft, a sporting declaration from the opposition captain.

It should come as no surprise then to find that Yorkshire captain Andrew Gale was among the first to speak his mind on the new toss regulations upon their unveiling in November last year. His statement was brief but insightful: “[no mandatory toss is] Absolute madness”.

Surrey captain Gareth Batty shared a similar sentiment towards the ensuing anarchy of the new toss regulations that saw his team chase leather in the field for 210-overs this week. He too was blunt in his appraisal of the current state of pitches around the country, labelling them – rather crudely I might add – as being “very flat” in nature. This statement may have been somewhat tongue in cheek though, given that Batty was fresh from a trailblazing game that included an unbeaten hundred and eight wickets.

But I shan’t harp on about these toss regulations any longer.

Yorkshire’s Blast form is bordering on farcical, though, their mad cap style has struggled to bear fruit since even the early days of the Twenty-Twenty Cup. The absence of their England players during the period when the Sri Lankan ODI series was taking place hasn’t helped their cause either.

Any hope of a journey to Edgbaston for finals day now appears bleak, with just a handful of fixtures – and therefore opportunities – remaining in the 2016 edition. But optimism and desire so often prevail in this whimsical game we call cricket. To sneak into the top four and progress beyond the North group stage they must win their final two games, and while they’re at it, muster a genie from a bottle to grant an indelible wish. Very rarely do six wins qualify a side for the quarter-finals. Yorkshire’s Blast campaign for 2016 has all but met its maker.

Their Royal London One-Day Cup season started in the worst possible fashion, with a big loss to Worcestershire in a television game at Leeds. Since that dreary summer’s day, where their one-day season looked destined to follow suite, Yorkshire’s fortunes have experienced a dramatic revival. Back to back wins have them perched inside the top three and within striking distance of the unbeaten Derbyshire.

A last start rout of rivals Lancashire whose batting innings ended inside 18-overs – only Martin Guptill surpassed single figures – will give them the momentum they require to begin the march towards Lord’s. The RLODC is the one competition they look primed to win, but with the halfway point of the season having only just been reached, a large majority of the plot still remains. I’d be jumping the gun making any bold predictions at this point in the journey.