The Reawakening of Tillakaratne Dilshan

He wasn’t the first batsman to move up the Sri Lankan lower middle order and transform himself into a destructive opening batsman, but Dilshan has taken to the new role better than Sanath Jayasuriya or Romesh Kaluwitharana. There were no teething problems here. Where Jayasuriya and Kaluwitharana took several games to acclimatise, Dilshan has taken to opening like a duck takes to water.

In October and November of 2007, Dilshan was relegated to captaining the Sri Lanka-A side for a series against minnows Zimbabwe instead of touring Australia for a two match Test series (Warne-Muralitharan Trophy). According to local media reports, the selectors complained of Dilshan’s form, focus, and concentration as reasons for dropping him from the national side.

“When I was dropped from the team on the tour to Australia I phoned Mahela Jayawardene, who was then captain, and told him that if we went as openers I could contribute more to the team, ‘what do you think?’ He told me if I had the confidence, to go and open for my club. That’s where it all started,” Dilshan told reporters when asked about how it all began.

It wasn’t the first time Dilshan had been dropped from the Sri Lankan side, but something about his omission this time inspired sensational change.

Dilshan scored 111, 78 and 31 and captained Sri Lanka-A to a 3-0 victory over Zimbabwe. Back in Sri Lanka a few weeks later, as an opener, Dilshan was pummelling bowlers to all parts in the domestic scene. He was Bloomfield Cricket Club’s most prolific scorer in the Premier Limited Over Tournament that season and the tournament’s highest run scorer. Although Sanath Jayasuriya was in the side, it was Dilshan’s brilliance that saw Bloomfield into the 2007/08 Premier Limited Over Tournament Semi Final.

In his very first appearance in the season as opener for Bloomfield, Dilshan launched a mind numbing assault against Colts CC scoring 188 off 135 balls. He was brutal, hammering 12 sixers and 14 fours. It was sheer carnage. By no means was Colts CC a substandard bowling attack, their bowlers included the likes of Angelo Mathews, Nuwan Kulasekara, Ruchira Perera, and Ishara Amarasinghe. Dilshan finished the tournament with an average of 58.37.

All of this flew under the radar of the average Sri Lankan cricket fan as all eyes were on the Test series unfolding in Australia. Most of us were preoccupied with Mahela Jayawardena’s decision to leave out Sri Lanka’s fastest bowler, Lasith Malinga, in the very first Test match of the series and his decision to send Australia in to bat after winning the toss.

Dilshan in the meantime had a point to prove.

Tillakaratne Dilshan
Tillakaratne Dilshan poses for a photograph before departing for the ICC T20 Cricket World Cup Final, England 2009. Photo: S DESILVA/ISLAND CRICKET.

Sri Lanka’s tour to Australia was strangely split. Sri Lanka played their two Tests in November and returned in January for the Commonwealth Bank Series (a tri-series featuring India). In between the Test tour and the ODI tri-series in Australia, Sri Lanka also played host to England for a three match Test series.

It was in this series that Jayasuriya retired from Test cricket and Dilshan was recalled back to the Test squad.

In the third Test of the three match series, Dilshan replaced Mubarak. He couldn’t have picked a better match to make his comeback to international cricket. It was a special Test match with cricket returning to Galle for the first time since the Tsunami. With Jayasuriya retiring after the second Test in Kandy, there was finally a spot available for an opening batsman, but Sri Lanka failed to send him up the order, choosing to go with Vandort and Tharanga instead.

Aravinda De Silva, apart from his skill as a batsman, is a player who has a good understanding of the game. Nothing flies under De Silva’s radar. In his column for a prominent Sri Lankan newspaper, De Silva wrote, “I actually would have liked if we had tried out someone like Dilshan to open the batting as we did with Roshan [Mahanama] at one time. Dilshan is a good player of fast bowling and a fighter.”

With Dilshan now back in the national side, it wasn’t long before Sri Lanka tried him at the top. His first match as opener for Sri Lanka came in the Commonwealth Bank series in January of 2008. A blistering 62 runs off 59 balls at a strike rate of 105.08 from Dilshan saw India crash to defeat at the Manuka Oval in Canberra. But shockingly Mahela Jayawardena chose not to gamble any further after Dilshan’s next two innings resulted in low scores and Sri Lanka lost two consecutive games. Dilshan quickly found himself back at the number six position.

Almost a year went by before Sri Lanka chose to send him up the order again. In the eleven months that Dilshan was wasted in the middle order the Sri Lankan selectors and Mahela Jayawardena tried out three different openers to partner Sanath Jayasuriya. Warnapura, Sangakkara and Udawatte all failed to secure the top spot. It is unclear what prompted Sri Lanka to go back to Dilshan as the opener for their 2009 ODI tour to Pakistan, It may have been the fact that Sri Lanka were struggling against weaker times like Bangladesh leading up to the tour, but this time Dilshan was not going to squander the opportunity.

Dilshan’s second coming as the opening batsman in ODIs paved the way for him to secure the opening spot for both T20s and Test cricket. In his customary carefree style Dilshan flayed the opposition attack in the powerplays to give Sri Lanka a rollicking start. Although he had a reputation as a reckless batsman, this time Dilshan knew the price of failure all too well. He changed his game to incorporate singles and twos which helped him rotate the strike and cool off when he needed to. This slight adjustment as well as the faith shown in him by the selectors has paid off richly.

TM Dilshan
Tillakaratne Dilshan seen here wearing a pink uniform for the Northern Districts Knights. Northern chose a pink uniform for New Zealand’s domestic T20 season in support of the New Zealand Breast Cancer Foundation. Photo: Simon Watts/PHOTOSPORT. This image has been cleared for use on Island cricket by PHOTOSPORT and may not be reproduced without specific consent from the copyright holder.

Tillakaratne Dilshan’s sensational year won him the Twenty20 International Performance of the Year award at the ICC Awards 2009. He was also the player of the tournament in the 2009 World Twenty20 in England.

Awards aside, he scored 1097 runs in Test cricket in the 2009 calendar year at an average of 64.52. His ODI performances have been equally outstanding, a 1000 runs at an average 55.55. To top it all off, he scored 10 centuries last year, six Test hundreds and four ODI hundreds.

Unlike other batsmen from the subcontinent, Dilshan’s success isn’t just limited to flat Asian batting tracks. His century against South Africa, an opposition with a potent new ball attack, at the Centurian in South Africa, showed us that he had the ability to make runs anywhere in the world.

His achievements have not gone unnoticed.

Dilshan is now one of the hottest properties on the market and one of the most wanted players going around.

Recently the Northern Districts Knights, one of New Zealand’s top domestic sides, flew him in via helicopter just hours ahead of a domestic T20 in the HRV Cup.

He has ushered in 2010 just where he left off last year. His first knock for Sri Lanka this year resulted in a century. 2009 was most certainly Dilshan’s year, and with the IPL, the ICC World Twenty20 in the Caribbean and a lot more cricket coming up this year, 2010 may well be his as well.

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