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Thursday, September 27, 2012
Updated: October 5, 2:40 PM ET
Kumar Sangakkara a man with a plan

By Amar Shah

Kumar Sangakkara
Sangakkara is a powerful force in Sri Lanka and also has used his profile to promote HIV awareness.

"Our cricket embodied everything in our lives, our laughter and tears, our hospitality, our generosity, our music, our food and drink. It was normality and hope and inspiration in a war-ravaged island. In it was our culture and heritage, enriched by our myriad ethnicities and religions. In it we were untouched, at least for a while, by petty politics and division. It is indeed a pity that life is not cricket. If it were, we would not have seen the festering wounds of an ignorant war." -- Kumar Sangakkara, 2011 MCC Spirit of Cricket Cowdrey Lecture

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t was a speech of Churchill in its power, King in its eloquence, Ali in its defiance. It was about cricket and country. War and wickets. The man who delivered it was on a tour against England but still managed to scribble together an hourlong rumination and articulate it as though he were a member of the United Nations. He was actually a left-handed hitting wicketkeeper from Sri Lanka with a 56.73 run average in test cricket. Kumar Sangakkara is one of cricket's pre-eminent players and spokesmen, the winner of three International Cricket Council awards in 2012, including Cricketer of the Year.

"Sangakkara is undoubtedly one of the greatest captains Sri Lanka has ever produced," said Jaliya Wickramasuriya, Sri Lanka's ambassador to the United States. "He is also a very intelligent and committed person and an excellent role model for young Sri Lankans."

He's also a renaissance man, a lawyer in training, with a gift for the cover drive who's been described as a "tough-talking, sharp-thinking, ball-bashing man with a plan." That plan also involves changing his country and the world.

As Sri Lanka continues to host the ICC World Twenty20, the country itself is still recovering from a 25-plus-year civil war that ended in 2009 and nearly tore it apart. For many Americans, the bloody ethnic conflict that arose from tensions between the Sinhalese majority and Tamil minority in the northeast part of country was something we probably heard only on the periphery, perhaps from the lyrics of singer M.I.A. or novels like "Anil's Ghost" by Michael Ondaatje, author of "The English Patient." The war claimed more than an estimated 70,000 lives, according to the BBC, in acts of horror ranging from suicide bombings to assassinations. Each side has been accused by the U.N. of war crimes against civilians. Few have been more vocal, outspoken and honest about the war and its atrocities as Sangakkara has, for it's been with him since he was born.

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"People were disillusioned with politics and power and war.
They were fearful of an uncertain future. The cycle of violence seemed unending.
Sri Lanka became famous for its war and conflict."

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Sri Lanka's history stems more than 2,500 years. One can trace its roots to the ancient Hindu epic of Ramayana. It's been colonized by the Portuguese, the Dutch and the English, who brought cricket to Sri Lanka. (Before 1972, Sri Lanka was known as Ceylon.) When Sri Lanka was granted independence in 1948, cricket was popular but in only the upper classes. Sri Lanka transitioned from an elite-led government to a socialist and nationalist party. In 1956, it passed the Sinhala Only Act, which made Sinhala the official language of the country without recognizing Tamil, which was spoken by one-third of the population. The seeds of future strife were sowed. Sri Lankan cricket was granted associate member status to the ICC in 1965. In 1972, the Tamil New Tigers militia was formed after civil unrest led Tamils with the desire to create their own independent country. Four years later, there was a name change: They called themselves the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, better known as the Tamil Tigers.

In 1983, Sri Lanka's cricket team went 1-5 and failed to make it to even the knockout stage in the ICC World Cup.That same year, the LTTE killed 13 soldiers. A Sinhalese mob responded with a two-day riot that killed thousands of Tamils. They called this the Eelam War I.

Sangakkara was 5 at the time. As a child, he witnessed race riots and communist insurgency. His father provided sanctuary to 35 of their closest Tamil friends from political goon squads. Sangakkara watched the turmoil as student protesters were gassed and his first cricket coach was shot twice by insurgents.

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"It was a bleak time, where we as a nation looked for inspiration --
a miracle that would lift the pallid gloom and show us what we as a country were capable
of if united as one, a beacon of hope to illuminate the potential of our peoples."

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In 1996, led by Arjuna Ranatunga, a Sinhalese captain with a Galifianakis girth, and Muttiah Muralitharan, a Tamil bowler with a congenital R.A. Dickey-sian elbow deformity, Sri Lanka played as the classic underdog and beat Australia to become World Cup champion. For a brief period, cricket provided a reprieve from the ongoing brutality and bloodshed. For Sangakkara, a student at Trinity College in Sri Lanka, reading Oscar Wilde and playing the violin were as important as playing cricket. He was also balancing a future law career. But cricket won out, and in 2000, Sangakkara made his test debut against South Africa. Over the next decade, he became one of the best batsmen and wicketkeepers in the world, with more than 30 test centuries and 13 in one-day internationals. He's won nearly every major award in cricket, not to mention he's one of the greatest sledgers (trash-talkers) in the game. He's also taken on a Sri Lankan cricket administration known for its corruption and incompetence.

• • •

"The emergence of cricket and the new role of cricket within Sri Lankan society
also meant that cricketers had bigger responsibilities than merely playing on the field."

• • •

Sangakkara and the rest of the Sri Lankan team were playing in New Zealand when the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami devastated Sri Lanka, killing more than 30,000 people and displacing more than 500,000. Sangakkara and his teammates went back and helped raise money for supplies and food. They visited coastal towns and camps ravaged by the natural disaster and personally delivered shipments of food.

Sangakkara also has used his profile and position to advocate for HIV awareness. He serves as ambassador for the ICC's Think Wise campaign, a partnership with UNAIDS and UNICEF that sheds light on a disease that still carries stigma in many parts of the world.

"Kumar Sangakkara is a terrific sportsman and a strong role model as an intellectually engaged athlete," V.V. Ganeshananthan, author of "Love Marriage," a novel set in Sri Lanka, said via email. "I appreciate his community engagement under challenging circumstances. He seems to understand that while history and love of cricket get many Sri Lankans excited, it's one starting point of many."

In 2009, after more than 25 years of fighting, countless cease-fires and tens of thousands of deaths, the war ended. The Sri Lanka government said it had defeated the Tamil Tigers. The Tigers agreed to put down their arms and surrender.

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"We were shot at, grenades were thrown at us, we were
injured and yet we were not cowed. We were not down and out."

• • •

Kumar Sangakkara
Kumar Sangakkara cleaned up nicely at the LG ICC Awards in Colombo, grabbing the People's Choice, Cricketer of the Year and Test Player of the Year awards.

That same year, while playing a tour in Pakistan, the Sri Lankan team bus was attacked by 12 gunmen in Lahore. Six Pakistani police officers and two civilians were killed and several Sri Lankan players were injured, including Sangakkara. After they returned to their dressing rooms, the players discussed what had happened. Then, according to Sangakkara, they laughed and joked about the irony of being targets of violence when their own country had been experiencing it for nearly three decades.

Sangakkara, who'll turn 35 in October, epitomizes the courageous strength and determination of the Sri Lankan people. "'We are Sri Lankan,' we thought to ourselves, 'and we are tough and we will get through hardship, and we will overcome because our spirit is strong,'" he said in the Cowdrey lecture.

Sangakkara's reputation has made him fans around the world. "Cricket has been a source of unity in the island, and cricketers have been a source of inspiration for the Sri Lankan people," said Vinoda Basnayake, a Sri Lankan-American entrepreneur who has traveled extensively to Sri Lanka and lobbies for the government. "In that context, Kumar Sangakkara has not only distinguished himself as an outstanding player, but also as a symbol of national unity and pride."

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"My responsibility as a Sri Lankan cricketer is to further enrich this beautiful sport,
to add to it and enhance it, and to leave a richer legacy for other cricketers to follow."

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Indeed, he has.