Until that fateful day, until that dreadful tragedy, Dinesh Chandimal hadn’t even heard of the ‘T’ word. He was an average teenager, a young lad obsessed with cricket but happy to allow life to take him where it wanted. Then came the tsunami of December 26, 2004, and it turned his world upside down.
‘The devil’, he shudders, as he reflects on the events of 12-and-a-half years ago that have catapulted him to where he is today – captain of the Sri Lankan Test team, leader of a side struggling to live up to the glory days of the past.
Dinesh Chandimal is a very likeable 27-year-old. He smiles often, and he smiles like he means it – not a cosmetic, cursory twitch of the facial muscles but with genuine warmth. For all the maelstrom of emotions that must be swirling inside his head, he is a picture of composure and confidence. He has experienced first-hand the worst life has to offer; everything else after that has to be a breeze, no matter how daunting the challenge.
Chandimal goes back in time, to the morning of that terrible post-Christmas day when he was at home in Ambalangoda, just outside of Galle. He was preparing for an Under-15 selection match in Colombo the following day, his kit neatly packed, his heart singing with delight, his excitement slowly building up. All this while, unbeknown to him, something else was building up no more than a few kilometres away – nature’s fury.
“I was at home, watching the Sri Lanka-New Zealand game on television,” begins Chandimal as he rolls the clock back. “Actually, that was a Poya (new moon) day. After Christmas. On Poya day, at home, we clean everything. We collected the garbage, and my mom went out to put it in the rubbish bin. Suddenly, she shouted ‘Come, come and see’. We all sprinted outside, thinking it was a snake or something that she had spotted. We didn’t realise it was the tsunami coming. We went there and saw the water rushing towards us. One of the uncles in our village, he came and saw for just five seconds and said, ‘The tsunami has come as a devil’. He said to us, ‘Please run, please run with your children’. He shouted to us, and then, we ran. We ran for I think 200-300 metres; fortunately, there was a hill, so we ran to that hill, climbed on top and stayed there. From there, we saw our home, and everything was just being swept away.”
Everything. Clothes. Groceries. Furniture. And his beloved cricket gear.
“Actually, the day after the tsunami, that means the 27th, we had a trial game, Under-15, in Colombo. I had packed my bags and got ready for the game. After the tsunami, I searched for the bag, and finally found it two kilometres away from my home. But I couldn’t use the stuff because the water had all gone inside, everything was damaged. And that tour was cancelled, anyway.”
The phenomenon that he had never heard of until that day – “Didn’t know what a tsunami was, but on the day it happened, before it struck, my father was saying that he felt like he was going to fall, that the earth felt unsteady” – left his family with nothing, like it did many families in different parts of south Asia. “For one or two months after that, we struggled as a family,” he flinches, almost as much physically as mentally, his voice dropping but not choking. “We didn’t have a place to stay and stuff. We had some food issues, some clothes issues … but I think that gave me really good confidence to become a good cricketer.”
Until then, Chandimal had steadfastly been staving off his parents’ exhortations to move to Colombo from his unfashionable little town to pursue his cricketing dreams. In the aftermath of the tsunami, the boy quickly matured into a man. He came up with a plan – to make something out of his life so that he could take care of his family, alleviate their woes, make them forget the day the devil appeared.
“For one or two months after that (the tsunami), we struggled as a family. We didn’t have a place to stay and stuff. We had some food issues, some clothes issues … but I think that gave me really good confidence to become a good cricketer.”
“I started playing when I was 13, my first coach was Asoka Kumara,” he says, nostalgic and proud and wistful all at the same time. “I played two years from there, I played for my school, Dharmasoka College, Ambalangoda – at the Under-13, Under-15 and Under-17 levels, also Under-19. When I was about 17, I moved to Ananda College in Colombo.
“We lost everything in the tsunami, it came as the devil and broke everything,” he repeats himself, not so much for effect, but to drive home the effect it had on the Chandimal family. “That gave me the motivation to become an international cricketer, to become a good cricketer. That was the strength, I think, I got after the tsunami. I was thinking I have to stick to my cricket, I must have some targets and goals – ‘I want to be this, I was to be this man, this player and stuff’. I was playing for Dharmasoka College against Ananda College. We were all out for 120 runs, and I scored 77 not out. My wicketkeeping was superb during that time, I was flying to take catches. No mistakes! Not like now – no mistakes, no byes, nothing. Ananda College were short of a wicketkeeper for the next year. Their coach Udayananda Perera, he called my parents and asked them if they wanted me to go to Ananda College. Actually, my parents pushed me to go to Ananda College.”
Chandimal initially didn’t want to move to the capital city, not out of his comfort zone, not away from his family and friends, not to an unfamiliar city where he knew no one. “Dharmasoka College, it was my first school and I loved playing there, in my home town,” he chortles. “But again, my parents told me, if you’re there (Ananda College), at least you can get a good job. I thought about it a great deal and I said ‘Okay, I should go now because we have so many family problems.’ We didn’t have a home, for six months we stayed at the government apartments. We were there for six months! So then I felt ‘Okay, I should go, I should come to Colombo and play cricket’. That’s how I eventually moved to Colombo.”
Life wasn’t easy in Colombo, but Chandimal had by then a goal to aim for, a mission to accomplish. “I didn’t know anyone in Colombo. I stayed at the Ananda hostel for three-four years. And I used to eat that hostel food. It’s always tough,” he is able to laugh now about what sounds like an unpleasant experience. “But I enjoyed that. Sometimes my parents would call and ask, ‘Son, are you okay with the food? Are you okay with the stay?’ Sometimes I was not okay with the food, sometimes I didn’t eat my breakfast because breakfast was not good to eat. But I didn’t say anything to them. I always told them, ‘Yes, I am fine’.
“All told, I really enjoyed my time at our hostel. The people who worked there, they helped a lot. When I was not there, when I was out at practice, they would make my plate and when I returned to the hostel, they would bring the food to my room. Actually, they took care of me really well,” he reveals, with gratitude, and says that had nothing to do with what they saw in him as a cricketer. “At that time, I was not that really good (as a cricketer). Not like a superstar. Maybe due to my behaviour, they were nice to me, that’s what I feel. I just love to talk the right things with the good people. I feel that’s why they loved me.”
“As a captain, I just want to take the responsibility, the blame. Anything from the outside, I’ll get that for you as a captain. I just want to be relaxed and not put any pressure on my players. That is what I want to do, because I know the hard times, I know what impact it can have when it comes upon you. I am always open, and that’s what I have asked from the players also. If you have a problem with your family, or some other player, you can’t deliver your best performance. So I have said to them, ‘if there is any problem, come and talk to me’. I’ll do what best I can do.”
The love and warmth he was enveloped in didn’t douse the raging fire inside of him. The tsunami had left an indelible impression, and even today, he admits, images of that day coming flooding back to him. “Yes, of course,” he says, simply, “it’s always at the back of our minds. After the tsunami, we have gone to the beach only twice. We were scared that much as a family. But you know, that’s the way life goes…”
We take a moment to digest that. By now, Chandimal is ready to move on beyond the tsunami story. We fast forward to the present, and his status now as the captain of Sri Lanka’s Test team – an honour not bestowed on too many people, a list that contains the who’s who of Sri Lankan cricket.
“Always, it’s really an honour and a privilege to be the captain of the Sri Lankan cricket team,” he pipes up. “I came through a really hard apprenticeship, I had tough times, I had good times. As a captain and a player, I just want to give my players the good things. I want to take care of them as my brothers. If something happens on the outside, I just want to control that and give the youngsters the freedom to perform well. I appreciate what I have today because of what happened in the past, of course, really, yeah! One time, in 2004, we didn’t have a house to stay. And here I am, as the captain of Sri Lanka, staying in a swank hotel. My parents and my family and myself, we put in a lot of hard work for me to become a player and a captain. The word is hard work.”
His parents’ chests swell with pride, he says, every time he steps out to play for the country. “They are really happy, really proud. And yeah, they don’t make any secret of it. Every time we meet, they tell me, ‘Now we are in a good position, that’s all because of you.’ And I say, ‘No, not because of me. It’s because of all the hard work we put in as a family. That why we are here, not only because of me’.”
His chequered and poignant past has helped Chandimal understand the problems of the other players, though he has also grappled with his fair share of self-doubt and selectorial whims. “That’s what I say to the guys – as a captain, I just want to take the responsibility, the blame. Anything from the outside, I’ll get that for you as a captain. I just want to be relaxed and not put any pressure on my players. That is what I want to do, because I know the hard times, I know what impact it can have when it comes upon you. I am always open, and that’s what I have asked from the players also. If you have a problem with your family, or some other player, you can’t deliver your best performance. So I have said to them, ‘if there is any problem, come and talk to me’. I’ll do what best I can do.
“As for myself, the pressure is always there, whether you are having good times or bad ones. To be honest, I was struggling in 2014 with the pressure. I learnt a lot from that – how to handle pressure, how to handle people, how to handle players, how they’re thinking and stuff. That gave me a lot of learning. Now, I can take more pressure, and I just want to give freedom to my players.”
“Now we don’t have legends or experienced players. But in 2013-14, there were so many experienced players. Now, I’m just standing up as a captain and a batsman. I want to go out there and perform, that’s it. I essentially learnt all these things on my own, because the tough early times toughened me up, too. Sometimes I talked to people, sometimes I talked to one of the mentors. I found words of advice from there, and those words helped me become strong mentally, those words gave me a lot of courage.”
Chandimal was appointed Sri Lanka’s Twenty20 International captain in 2013 – at 23, he became the youngest to lead Sri Lanka in any format – but it was a tough initiation. Midway through the 2014 World T20 in Bangladesh, Chandimal was suspended for one match for slow over-rate, and when he was available for the semifinal against West Indies, he was dropped from the XI as Lasith Malinga continued to lead the side. “2013 was a tough time to captain the side, because at that time there were experienced players,” says Chandimal. “I feel I handled it well. The thing is, I didn’t perform as a player, because I batted at No. 6. In T20s, if you bat at No. 6, you get only two-three overs. So you can’t score big runs. As a captain, I had the option of opening or batting at No. 3, but I didn’t want to do that.”
Hello, whyever not?
“Because at that time, there was Kusal Janith (Perera), he was playing outstanding,” counters Chandimal. “So then I thought it was better to play Kusal as opener with (Tillakaratne) Dilshan, there’s a left-right hand opening combination. Then we had Mahela (Jayawardene), then (Kumar) Sangakkara, Angelo (Mathews). Because it was just 20 overs, I wanted to put the most experienced players out in the first 10-15 overs. I didn’t think about myself, I just thought about the team. How to win? How to lift the World Cup for my mother country? I didn’t care about my performance, I didn’t care about my position.”
That first experience didn’t work out very well, though Chandimal insists that the presence of several former captains – Jayawardene, Sangakkara, Dilshan – actually worked to his advantage. “It’s always good, because if you have players like Mahela, Sangakkara, Dilshan, Angelo – they have so much experience and so much advice and thinking to offer. I just had to pick the right advice. I feel I made good decisions, that’s why we won the 2014 T20 World Cup. I didn’t want to just make decisions by myself. I love to talk to other players, even the younger players, because a young player can have really good thoughts. I just love to talk to everyone and make the right decision for the team.”
By always putting the team ahead of self and not giving himself the optimal opportunity to perform, Chandimal was leaving himself open to censure and the axe. Now, he explains, that will no longer be the case. “Now we don’t have legends or experienced players. But in 2013-14, there were so many experienced players. Now, I’m just standing up as a captain and a batsman. I want to go out there and perform, that’s it. I essentially learnt all these things on my own, because the tough early times toughened me up, too. Sometimes I talked to people, sometimes I talked to one of the mentors. I found words of advice from there, and those words helped me become strong mentally, those words gave me a lot of courage.”
It comes as no surprise when Chandimal reveals the names of the captains he admires the most, though his initial inspiration does come as a bit of a surprise. “When I was young, I watched the ‘96 World Cup. (Romesh) Kaluwitharana always inspired me when I was young. Why I liked him was because of how he always encouraged the players from behind the wickets,” says Chandimal of Little Kalu, now a member of Sanath Jayasuriya’s selection panel. “That’s what we want – as a wicketkeeper or as a player, we need to encourage everyone so that we can do our best.
“Arjuna Ranatunga was the captain and I loved to watch him lead. So yeah, he’s the one. I like Mahela also, how he captains. He’s also a really good captain, so those are the two I followed in Sri Lanka cricket.”
Chandimal has suddenly been deemed superfluous to the One-Day International scheme of things – he doesn’t figure in the ODI squad named on Tuesday (August 15) for the India series, like he didn’t for the five-match series against Zimbabwe last month. “I want to play all the three formats for my country,” he asserts. “For the last one or two years, we have been struggling as a team. When we are playing ODIs, I had to play the anchor role. I think of opening out, and one or two wickets fall, and again I have to consolidate for five-ten overs. If I also get out, then we’ll be all out for 150-170. So again, I consolidate and again (snaps fingers) one or two wickets, and again I have to consolidate. My strike rate was not that good because of that. I just wanted to play according to the situation, that’s what happened to my ODI cricket in the last one-and-a-half to two years.”
In the wake of the debilitating losses to India in the Test matches, Chandimal’s immediate aim is to return Sri Lanka to winning ways. That’s easier said than done, especially with away tours to the UAE (to play Pakistan) and India lined up in the next three months. “It’s always hard, mate,” says the boy from Ambalangoda who is clearly now a man of the world. “Once I got the Test captaincy, I said to the players – ‘I just want unity first, then attitude, focus, discipline and passion’. Especially when you’re losing games, there are so many questions, but if you’re winning no questions.
“Especially if you’re playing international cricket, mental toughness is very important because these days, there is so much media, social media. Someone doesn’t like you and they shout at you and stuff. As a player, you have to stay mentally strong but at the same time, you have to do your homework as a batsman or bowler. You have to do your fitness. But the main thing is you have to keep your mental balance to perform in international cricket. I was very disappointed after I got pneumonia and I couldn’t play in the first Test. The first game is really important in any tournament, you have to get a good start and then continue with the good things. I was really disappointed, I was in the hospital and I watched that game – very difficult.”
By now, the time on the dictaphone shows that some 37 minutes have elapsed since he said, ‘Let’s start’. It has been an entertaining, thought-provoking, sometimes emotional chat. Chandimal is game for more, but hovering in the background is Jayasuriya, the selection committee chairman who wants to have a word with his captain. “Take your time, no rush,” says the man with a Test best of 340. Oh, the pressure!