What were your first impressions of Kumar?
In school cricket, I think. He was a bit of a character even at that time. I don’t think he showed at school level that he wanted to play cricket. It was just a fun thing for him. I don’t think he had direction when he started playing for Trinity College, in the under-15s and under 17s when I played against him for the first time. He had talent, but he came off sometimes and other times he didn’t. He was still probably hoping to play tennis and also running after Yehali.
When you walk into the Sri Lanka dressing room for the first time – you have to find yourself. He wasn’t sure whether he belonged in that Sri Lankan dressing room in that first year. He wasn’t sure whether he was going to play as a wicketkeeper or as an out-and-out batsman. It took him some time to find his feet and understand how good he was.
That knock in South Africa – that first 90-odd he scored – really gave him confidence to know that he belonged. With Sanga the thing is that once he is prepared and has a gameplan, he’s so methodical. It’s sometimes frightening how serious he is. He’s made so many changes in his batting over the years.
Was he a bit of a nerd in the Sri Lanka dressing room?
He was definitely a nerd in the dressing room. He knows all, so he’ll contribute to every conversation whether he’s right or wrong. It was quite funny when he goes after Murali, because Murali knows everything as well. These two would go at each other about different stuff – politics and stuff that happens around the world. That’s his personality. You can always have a good conversation, and he won’t give up an argument. He was studying for law and he still hasn’t graduated, but he was practising that in the dressing room quite a lot. It was good fun. He fitted in well.
For me it was quite good to have him around because he was the first guy who walked into that dressing room who was my age, in 2000. I had somebody to relate to and go out for a meal with.
We’ve all made fun of his accent. Especially when he goes overseas and speaks to people he gets that strong accent. When he’s in Sri Lanka talking to us, it’s not like that at all
He copped a few fines for sledging in the early years. Any memorable occasions?
He would keep on going at guys until they get out. Sanga won most of those battles. People realised that the one person they shouldn’t mess with was Sanga. I think in that South Africa series in 2002, we all had a huge go at the South Africans because they started everything. Kumar was the guy who carried the entire fight for us. It was funny to see the way he went after Shaun Pollock, Mark Boucher and Herschelle Gibbs and all those guys. Sanga fights for the team whether it’s right or wrong. The lawyer in him comes out. If he says a wall is black, the wall will be black whether it’s blue or white. That’s Sanga for you.
What was he like with dressing room hijinks?
We had a few pranksters in the dressing room: Murali, TM Dilshan and Russel Arnold and some others. He was involved in that and sometimes he was the victim. We also had some really big name players in that dressing room as well, and so you had to be very careful when you do those pranks that you don’t get into the bad books of those guys.
What have you made fun of him for over the years?
We’ve all made fun of his accent. Especially when he goes overseas and speaks to people he gets that strong accent. When he’s in Sri Lanka talking to us, it’s not like that at all. But as soon as he goes to England, Australia or somewhere else and starts speaking to someone, that strong accent comes out. I would always point that out to him. Even if you speak to his family, they’re all quite normal when they speak. But in Sanga the accent comes out strongly sometimes.
But then he’s very articulate everywhere he goes and we admire that. He takes Sri Lanka cricket to a new level because people listen to him when he speaks.
Is there an innings he has played where you thought, “This is a special player”?
One of the special ones was the hundred he scored against Australia in Hobart, when we almost won that game from nowhere. He’s always batted in tough conditions quite well. In Pakistan on a few occasions he has batted through. Whenever the conditions are tough, he always found a different gear.
Anything you have learned from him in your career?
The training and the mindset when he goes overseas, the way he prepared and the gameplans that he comes up with, was what I got from him. We have quite different techniques, but the way he formulated plans against certain bowlers on certain tracks helped me understand things a bit better. Kumar plays pace quite well. He’s developed a very good technique against that. So it helped me to feed off him overseas and work out how to adjust my game.
Any instance that comes to mind when having him at the other end helped you get through a tough spell?
Many a time that’s happened, all over the world. I remember at Lord’s in 2006, he didn’t get that many runs, but we were batting together to save the Test. Kumar only got a 60-odd, but he looked really solid. Andrew Flintoff and James Anderson were bowling and he saw them off quite well. I wasn’t getting the strike against them often because Kumar was in a bit of a groove. He gave me that extra bit of time. He got out, but then I went on to get a hundred. There were quite a lot of times when he bailed me out and bailed a lot of other guys out by seeing the tough bowlers out. It’s a crucial position that he batted in for almost 15 years.
What about occasions you were annoyed at him for getting out?
The first thing that comes to mind is the World Cup final in India. He got out to Yuvraj Singh trying to cut the ball. He went through all the tough bowlers, got a good 40 and we were just building a partnership. Then he got out to Yuvraj, who was a part-timer at the time. I was very pissed off. He knew that as well. When he passed by me, he put his head down and walked off.
But that happens to everybody. We do feed off each other and take risks against certain bowlers. The thinking behind the shot was good, so we don’t mind that. There are times when you lose concentration and get out.
Do you think either of you have scored as many runs without the other guy in the middle order?
We do put bowling attacks under pressure together and feed off each other. Because of that we’ve probably scored more runs. We understand each other’s roles, and because of that we’ve probably scored more runs together, having batted together for a long period of time.
How was he different from you as a captain?
He was an aggressive captain as well. His thinking was quite out of the box. He always tried new things and didn’t let things drift. Unfortunately he had quite a few problems with the administration and various other people while he was captaining. That was a constant battle for him. I had it as well towards the latter part of my captaincy and then I had to let it go. Kumar took the burden. I felt that he would have been a much better leader if he had been given the freedom to do what he wanted. That probably restricted him because he didn’t want to make so many mistakes by taking chances, because that would give ammunition to people who were outside. That said he was a fantastic captain anyway. We got to a World T20 final and a World Cup final under him. We got to the business end of a lot of good tournaments.
I’ve made fun of the fact that he’s got all these expensive watches but can’t be on time. Whenever I ask him to come to something I tell him it’s half-an-hour earlier than it is. Then he rocks up 10 minutes late rather than 40 minutes late
Was there a shot from his locker that you wanted a right-hander’s version of?
There were a couple. One was that punch off the back foot. It’s quite easy to do for a left-hander off a right-arm fast bowler. They are taking the ball away from you, and the right-handers don’t really get that opportunity unless there’s a left-armer in the opposition. Kumar was a great back foot player and an artist at that shot. The other shot was the legside flick off his hips. Mostly, his ability to change his technique and become such a compact player, was something special.
Was there something in his cricket that you definitely didn’t want?
The thing I wouldn’t like would be his sweeps and his reverse sweeps. I think he’s the worst reverse-sweeper I have ever seen, and possibly with the same with the sweep. He has a good sweep but he never backed himself to play it that often, so he got himself into trouble when he does that. If I saw anything ugly from him it would be the reverse sweep.
He wasn’t a batsman who dominated attacks until recently. What do you think allowed him to expand his game the way he has in the last few years?
I think when he gave up the captaincy he realised he had more potential in the one-day game. The role he was given was to consolidate the batting and make sure he bats through the innings without taking many risks. But it came to a point – maybe when he played T20 cricket as well – that he could be an aggressive no. 3. He can be someone who can control the innings and change gears rather than waiting till the end. After captaining the side he probably realised that he had about three more years, and wanted to express himself better.
You have a lot of engagements together and he’s known to always be late. How have you spent all those empty minutes?
I’ve got used to that over the first few years. I’ve made fun of the fact that he’s got all these expensive watches but can’t be on time. What I realised was, that I have to give him a half-an-hour early start. Whenever I ask him to come to something I tell him it’s half-an-hour earlier than it is. Then he rocks up 10 minutes late rather than 40 minutes late.
What has it meant to you to have someone like him, whether at the other end of the pitch, or in your tussles with administrators?
You feel very confident because you know there is someone to look after your interests and back you to the hilt. You also know that he’s not going to be a yes-man to me, and will always point out the wrong things that I do. We’ve both been open about it. It’s also a lot of fun. We have interests on and off the field and are very competitive, so that’s helped us grow as a partnership. For you to be part of a team for such a long time, you need someone like that. We’ve both enjoyed the company.