There was a moment early in the Sri Lankan innings on Thursday (March 16) that suggested it was the day of the defending ICC World Twenty20 champions. Tillakaratne Dilshan, he of the much-maligned recent form, deployed that most effervescent of all unorthodox shots – the Dilscoop. It only comes out when a statement needs to be made.
Dawlat Zadran sent it in the blockhole, Dilshan read him like an open book and went through with that pompous stroke. The arc the ball sailed in was a thing of beauty in itself, before it fell several rows back in the stands at fine leg. For a team in transition, whose seniors were struggling to provide moments of inspiration, there it was.
Afghanistan had fought valiantly in the first innings, Sri Lanka having started well with the ball. Asghar Stanikzai’s blitzkrieg 47-ball 62 undid all their good work though, as Afghanistan posted a tricky 153 for 7, on a track that would get progressively slower. For Sri Lanka, it was tougher ask than it seemed. But Dilshan brought all his experience to the fore, and more or less single-handedly completed the chase, his unbeaten 56-ball 83 doing more than just giving Sri Lanka a six-wicket win. It could be the tonic for a side that was in much need of it.
One of the problems that have ailed Sri Lanka in recent times, a struggle especially evident during their Asia Cup campaign when they won just one of four matches, was that the senior members of the squad weren’t contributing in a team that is still struggling to find its feet since the retirements of Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara.
In the 14 T20Is they played since winning the 2014 World Twenty20, they have lost ten. With seniors like Dilshan and Angelo Mathews struggling to contribute, the batting was undercooked, while the bowling was heavily reliant on Lasith Malinga, who has been more out of the side than it due to injuries, and Rangana Herath. Sri Lanka have been like a spotted deer separated from its herd, wandering around aimlessly. This was a team crying out for leadership.
So much so, that when they lined up for their first task at defending their title, it was Afghanistan who were touted as marginal favourites. Perhaps that lit a fire in Dilshan. The spotlight was always trained on him, even before the match had begun. There he was, lined-up alongside his teammates during the rendition of the Sri Lanka national anthem. It was a solemn moment, jarred by his flaming pink hair.
Then, early in the Afghanistan innings when he was fielding at point, he suddenly burst into life, despite there being no evident threat of a run, when he charged and threw down the stumps at the non-striker’s end. He has always been a standout fielder, but this was evidence of how pumped he was.
So it was always going to be Dilshan who ensured there was no upset. His batting was multi-faceted. In the first five overs, he attacked the pacemen, along with Dinesh Chandimal, and the two put on a quick 41 to ensure there was no early sluggishness in chase. Once the spinners – Mohammad Nabi and Rashid Khan – were introduced and Afghanistan started chipping away, he was more prudent. He ran the singles and doubles, occasionally putting away the boundaries, if only to keep the required run-rate realistic. And in the death, with Afghanistan beginning to panic, he shifted gears again, finding the fence with regularity to seal victory with seven balls to spare.
Perhaps the fire was lit because, realistically, this may very well be his last major global tournament. But when the question was put to him, the response was one of surprise. “If I am batting like this, if I’m playing like this, I don’t think there will be any retirement at the moment,” he said. “I’m really enjoying my cricket. I’ve not decided anything yet on retirement. But you never know. If I get up tomorrow morning and think I want to retire, the next day I will retire. But I’m not really thinking about that now.”
Mostly during his interaction with the press, he was insistent on the need to help the youngsters in the line-up with the transition. “Every team must have seniors putting their hands up and doing the job for the team,” he said. “We have a lot of youngsters in the middle order. If one senior guy can bat as long as possible, they can bat around the senior guy. The youngsters have talent. They need experience, in every single game they are improving, and we’re looking forward. We know overall series performances-wise, we had a bad Asia Cup. But we clicked (today), and when you get on the winning road, you can go a long way.”
If there is more of the same from Dilshan, Sri Lanka can indeed go a long way in this tournament.