India knew Akila Dananjaya was releasing the ball, but six of their batsmen did not know what hit them after.
On record, Dananjaya is an offspinner. That is what the Indians and most not in the know of Dananjaya’s exploits were led to believe when he replaced Lakshan Sandakan for the second One-Day International at the Pallekele International Stadium on Thursday (August 24).
First signs that he was not just your regulation offie came when he unleashed a googly in his second over to Rohit Sharma. Rohit sighted an insignificant tweak in the release and played away from his body, anticipating a leg-break. The ball zipped in instead and rapped him on the pads.
Rohit shot a quick glance at the pitch and then at Shikhar Dhawan. Dhawan was just as clueless. A quick mid-pitch chat ensued and they had a laugh too as they decided to take a review. After all, the opening pair had by then taken India to 109 in 15.2 overs. In the next four overs, Dananjaya picked up six wickets for 19 runs. He was the one laughing now.
Soon after that first hint of what Dananjaya was all about, Rohit went for the sweep, expecting the ball to turn into him. Instead, he ended up trapped in front of the stumps to a leg-break. Angelo Mathews’s catch of Shikhar Dhawan off Milinda Siriwardana added a dash of spice to the contest, but Dananjaya was about to make things a lot spicier.
Dananajaya’s third over should go down as one of the finest sequences of deliveries bowled in recent Sri Lankan history. With the crowd finally getting into the thick of things, Dananjaya was feeling the moment. He looked calm on the face of it, but his delicate eyes would not hide the storm raging inside.
Only 24 hours ago, he was getting ready to drive from Moratuwa to the team hotel in Kandy. He married Nethali Tekshini on Wednesday afternoon and the newly-wed couple was already on their way to join the team. There were no signs that Dananjaya would make the grade because history has shown that he is not the most favoured of the spinners in Sri Lanka.
Spotted by Graham Ford and Mahela Jayawardene during a net session in June 2012, the son of a carpenter was suddenly on the provisional squad for the ICC World T20. The rumours grew as the 18-year-old, without any age-group or first-class cricket experience, was fast-tracked. He was in the Ajantha Mendis mould, he even looks a little like him, and could have been a valuable asset for the side, but once Ford and subsequently Jayawardene ended their careers with the team, Dananjaya fell out of favour. He was only recently called up for the Zimbabwe series and he had a four-wicket haul in the final game of the series. Not much was made of that performance because Sri Lanka had hosted and lost to Zimbabwe.
But here he was in Pallekele. On his mark and ready to bowl at Kedar Jadhav. Virat Kohli, the Indian skipper, was enjoying his black coffee in the dressing room at the time. The Indians were experimenting with the order, a luxury given their dominance. But before Kohli could fully go through his fresh brew, he had to rush in to pad up. A clueless Jadhav was undone by a corker of a googly.
Kohli jogged out, typical arrogance in his stride. The crowd had little hope of Dananjaya or any other Sri Lankan bowler getting the better of him. Dananjaya’s first delivery fell short and he paid the price with a four.
Fresh at the crease or not, Kohli is not going to miss out on those. But he does miss out on reading an offspinner bowling the wrong-un apparently.
It was too full for the drive but Kohli, not sensing any danger, went for it anyway. The result was a gap between bad and pad, followed by a manic roar from Dananjaya.
And it happened again. This time it was KL Rahul who played for the leg-break and let the ball through. No one knew how to assimilate this sudden turn of events, but the Sri Lankans were not in a mood for an investigation now.
They were reveling in their hero for the day, and they grew even fonder of this 23-year-old as the night unraveled.
Over No. 4: Dananjaya tossed it up on off-stump and Hardik Pandya ran down the track to try and stop the ball from turning either way. He was not able to make it in time and the googly kicked in. Niroshan Dickwella waited as the ball coolly nestled into his gloves. Pandya turned around but the bails were gone by then and Dananjaya was being hoisted up by his team-mates.
India were 121 for 6. Surely, unless of course MS Dhoni decides to turn back the clock, there was no way they were going to return to this venue for the third ODI with the series tied. That belief grew when Dananjaya got rid of Axar Patel with a regulation off-break. His last wicket of the day came bowling what he is supposed to be bowling.
He finished with 6 for 54 from 10 overs. His last two overs came in the 40th and 44th, but by then Dhoni and Bhuvneshwar Kumar had figured him out. Also, by then the game was out of Sri Lanka’s hands. At least this time, they did not wave the white flag before even coming on to the field.
It was not the perfect wedding gift for Dananjaya, but both Rangana Herath and Mendis, who were present at the wedding, will be proud of this young lad’s heart on a day when no one gave them or him a chance.
India might figure him out going forward and deal with him in the same way they dealt with Mendis after the initial hiccups against the mystery spinner. Dananjaya probably knows that already, but when the last 24 hours have been as memorable, it makes little sense to look into the future and not enjoy the moment while it lasts.