Tillakaratne Dilshan belongs among Sri Lanka cricket greats with Jayawardene, Sangakkara
Mahela Jayawardene was the kind of captain you wanted leading your side. He was on the right side of restless on the field, dexterously moulding himself to each situation, or to the mind of every opponent. Not often could you say of him that he got a move wrong and on the rare occasions that you could, still his intent could not be questioned.
Off it he managed to retain the hard edge that Arjuna Ranatunga instilled in Sri Lankan cricket but without quite the abrasiveness. “You have to be aggressive,” he once said, “but you can do that without getting ugly.”
One day though — because he is, after all, human — he got something wrong. This day came over seven years ago. Sri Lanka were in Pakistan in January for the first leg of the infamous tour in which they would be eventually attacked by terrorists in Lahore.
Sri Lanka had just levelled the three-match ODI series with a thumping win in Karachi. One of the architects was Tillakaratne Dilshan, whose 88-ball 76 had set up Sri Lanka’s total.
Dilshan had been pushed up to open, for only the fourth time in a 152-ODI career until that point. He was only doing so because Upul Tharanga, who would have opened in that series, had an injured finger. Dilshan, who had hitherto been seen as a late middle order finisher, had been scoring runs domestically and had to be in the XI.
Sri Lanka had lost the first ODI but Dilshan had given them an electric start, with 42 from just 33 balls.
Jayawardene was asked about Dilshan’s performance and he acknowledged that he looked comfortable in the role. “He’s an attacking batsman and he likes pace,” Jayawardene said. “He’s a good hooker and puller.”
There was, however, a “but”. Jayawardene thought, “he’s got a bigger role to play in the middle order.”
No, Mahela Jayawardene hardly got cricket things wrong and, in his defence, we can say that he may have been talking only in the context of that period, where Sri Lanka may have needed Dilshan lower down.
But how wrong Dilshan was to prove that assessment in the short and long-term. In the very next game, in Lahore, he scored only his second ODI hundred and so truly began one of the great modern day limited-over careers, one that has only just ended.
In the 178 ODIs (including those three in Pakistan) and 174 innings he played thereafter, he opened in 173 and averaged nearly 46. Before the switch, he had averaged under 30 in 152 games. Including that Lahore hundred, he made 21 more (he had just one before it). His strike rate shot up by nearly nine runs per 100 balls.
And in hindsight, it seems remarkable that Sri Lanka ever thought he should be anything but an opener. He had opened for his school side after all, and schools cricket in Sri Lanka is more competitive and organised than elsewhere in the subcontinent. It seems remarkable that Sri Lanka felt like he was an everyman ODI player, who could bat a bit anywhere, bowl a bit of his offspinning darts, even keep wickets a bit, but field a lot.
Everything about his game was hard-wired for modern opening: the fighting pace with his own fire; the range of his stroke-play, from those whiplash cover drives and pulls to the audacity and invention of the “Dilscoop”; the hard running; and of course, there was the bling of those beards and hairdos, in sync with the general bling of his persona.
In hindsight, ask yourself: were there any better emblems of Jayawardene’s brand of non-ugly aggression than the second-career Dilshan?
It is easy for this last age of Sri Lankan cricket to be consumed by the legends of Kumar Sangakkara and Jayawardene. But Dilshan has been every bit a part of Sri Lanka’s successes. How many times, for instance, did he make the job of his middle order easier with the starts that he provided?
“Dilshan has been an absolute brilliant servant for Sri Lankan cricket over the past 17 years,” Angelo Mathews, his current captain, said on his retirement. “I think he has equally done the service that Mahela and Sanga did, and we’re going to miss him a lot.”
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Published: September 11, 2016 04:00 AM