Shotmaker with licence to thrill

wristy: Tillakaratne Dilshan has stood out in the Sri Lankan ranks with his innovative batsmanship. AFP

In some ways, Tillakaratne Dilshan is a throwback to the amateur days when cricket was played more for the love of the game than for the trappings that go with it these days.
He brings a certain refreshing carefreeness with him that ensures not one dull moment when he is at the batting crease, decimating bowling attacks with a breathtaking fusion of bludgeoning strokeplay and cheeky innovation.

The 32-year-old from Kalutara is also the quintessential team man, willing to do whatever it takes in the interests of the side. Perhaps unprecedentedly, he has opened the batting and the bowling, and kept wickets in Test cricket; a part-time stumper, if that, he has donned the big gloves in all three formats at the highest level with reasonable efficiency, the ultimate tribute to his versatility.

The Sri Lankan’s greatest impact, however, has come as a destructive batsman in his latest calling as a regular opener, a task he performs with intrepid aggression and gay abandon. For effect at the top of the tree, he belongs to the same league as Chris Gayle and Virender Sehwag; for cheekiness and improvisation, he stands in a class of his own, as he has shown repeatedly over the last several months.

Dilshan’s has been anything but a fairytale journey, even if he got his international career off to a dream debut with a blazing unbeaten 163 against Zimbabwe in his maiden Test series in November 1999.  Youthful impetuosity and the consequent inconsistency forced him to spend a large part of the next many years on the sidelines, but when he returned to the national team, it was obvious that the lessons had been well learnt, that time away from the international game had hurt his pride and stoked his hunger.
Today, despite the seemingly high-risk approach he brings with him, the right-hander is the epitome of consistency, scoring attractive runs at a spectacular rate even in Tests,  where he doesn’t so much as give even the first over to the bowler.

Traditionally, a Test opener has been associated with seeing off the new ball, getting his eye in, tiring the bowlers out and cashing in when the shine goes off. In his own inimitable manner, Dilshan has rewritten those tenets by throwing the rule book out of the window and batting on his own terms, preferring to take the shine off the red cherry and demoralising the bowlers with one bludgeoning stroke after another.
“One of the main reasons why he has been successful is he’s matured as a player and realises how good he can be,” skipper Kumar Sangakkara pointed out. “There’s a lot more we can get from him. He does lot of things for us -- scores runs at the top of the order, bowls and takes important wickets, fields brilliantly and keeps wickets when necessary. He’s the kind of player every side wants, we have the luxury of having him. As long as he can keep his enthusiasm up, he’s going to do well.”

There is little indication that any of that enthusiasm is on the wane. Already this year, Dilshan has made six international centuries – four in Tests and two in one-day internationals, including a blazing 106 in the Champions Trophy opener against South Africa – apart from picking up the Player of the Tournament award in the World T20 n June following a brilliant run for the Delhi Daredevils in IPL II.
“I know Dilshan is looking to work harder, get better and brush up on areas that need looking into,” Sangakkara said of his go-to man. “If we can brush up those things, he’s going to be unstoppable.”
Dilshan’s strength is his imperious back foot play, characterised by a touch of disdain as he despatches the ball from his presence with beefy cuts and thumping pulls. Aware of the perils of feeding him thus, teams are starting to ask different questions by pitching the ball up, like South Africa did the other day, and still finding that he has all the answers!

Like Ranjitsinhji to the leg-glance, Rohan Kanhai to the falling sweep, Andy Flower to the reverse sweep and Kevin Pietersen to the switch hit, Dilshan holds the patent to a most unique and dangerous shot that has gone into cricketing lexicon as the ‘Dilscoop’. It is a stroke that necessitates tremendous hand-eye coordination and oodles of courage because the execution involves thrusting a bent front leg forward and across, getting one’s head out of the way and shovelling the ball directly over the ‘keeper’s head.
You can look silly when it doesn’t come off, but when it does – and it often does when Dilshan attempts it, because he backs himself to execute it perfectly every single time – the effect is magical. Dilshan wears a look of smug satisfaction but no more, as if to him it is no great surprise; the bowler stands with hands on his hips, eyes boring holes into the ground, a picture of misery and humiliation.

“I usually decide to play that shot when the bowler is halfway through his run-up,” said Dilshan by way of explanation. “I know that if that shot comes off, then the bowler will have to think twice before bowling the next ball.”
Method to his madness, then. The original Mad Max, Aravinda de Silva, will no doubt approve!

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