Reed on IPL: Captain Fantastic leads the way

Kumar Sangakkara has excelled at every level of cricket, and may face his greatest challenge yet as captain of Sunrisers Hyderabad. (AP/Eranga Jayawardena)

He is constantly watching. His focus never wavers. With eyes like a hawk, he sees everything. He wants to be constantly involved – he must be totally immersed.

Cricket captaincy can be an onerous task. It may not win you friends or favour. Your decisions directly impact the outcome of the game. In the abbreviated Twenty20 format of the Indian Premier League, one wrong choice can spell disaster.

Kumar Sangakkara does not do things in half measures. Decisive, deliberate and detailed, the Sri Lankan veteran treats cricket like a game of chess. He always wants to be one or two moves ahead of his opponent, forever pressuring and continually posing questions.

At 35 he has seen it all. Sangakkara has been a leader for most of his professional life. He led his country in all forms of the game before standing down following the 2011 World Cup Final, acknowledging the role is one “that ages you very quickly”.

The burden of international responsibility may be behind him but the instincts are undiminished. His latest challenge is to captain the IPL’s newest team – Sunrisers Hyderabad – the replacement franchise for the defunct Deccan Chargers, and make them competitive from the get-go.

So far, so good. First, they successfully defended a modest total to beat the Pune Warriors, then kept their collective nerve to see off Royal Challengers Bangalore in a Super Over – only the third in IPL history, after the scores were tied in regulation.

For all his experience and ability, Sangakkara was not the star in either victory. But, without doubt, he was the brain behind the operation. One can almost see the cogs turning as he obsesses over saving runs – a wave here, a gesture there as he motions teammates to adjust their field position – sometimes by only a yard or two.

Then of course there’s the little matter of who bowls and when. Against Pune, he opened up with Dale Steyn. The South African paceman was given two overs and then withdrawn having conceded just four runs. Steyn did not reappear until the fifteenth over, which was economical but, again, failed to produce a wicket.

Sangakkara took Steyn off again and bided his time. Only when he smelled blood and sensed a knockout blow did he toss the ball again to the South African. This time Steyn went for the kill – brilliantly grabbing three wickets in four deliveries to end the contest.

Stopping Chris Gayle is virtually impossible. Restraining him twice in the same game is akin to asking for miracles. Yet Sangakkara’s shrewd captaincy first trapped him cheaply, and his choice of batters in the rare Super Over was too much even for the big Jamaican to overcome.

He backed Cameron White to come through when it really mattered. White had scored only five in the run chase but Sangakkara trusted the Australian’s ability to shoulder the responsibility in an emergency. Two towering sixes and 17 of the 20 runs later, the skipper’s decision was fully vindicated.

It’s early of course in IPL6, but not too many pundits believed the Sunrisers would win their opening two games. Sangakkara has been around long enough to know not all his decisions will pay such handsome dividends, but for the time being there are plenty of happy faces in Hyderabad.

IPL fans in general are getting their money’s worth. Four of the opening seven games have been decided by last ball finishes which may suggest a narrowing of the gap between the perceived haves and have-nots. If so, the traditionally strong franchises may have to reassess their respective game plans to hold on to power.

Delhi may be a case in point. The Daredevils, who topped the standings in 2012, have lost their opening two games, while rather more predictably the Pune Warriors are struggling again may already be a lost cause in 2013.

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