Dilshan undimmed by his age
As lights begin to flicker on long cricketing careers, the idea of enjoyment is often invoked by the player approaching his final campaigns. "I'm still having fun out there," is almost a cliché now, trotted out most often by men who are waging war on two fronts: against the opponent, and against time and its effect on his body.
It is an older man's outlook. Twenty-year old freshers are more occupied by the yearning to earn a place in the team and stay there. Fun might be part of it, but making a name for oneself is the overruling motivator, and results the bottom line. When you've seen more than a decade at the top level though, enjoyment becomes increasingly linked with drive. Some men keep getting kicks out of international cricket long after the wear on their bodies have made them unfit for the game's challenges. Others, like Nathan Astle, lose that feeling, while mind and muscle may yet have more to give.
At 36, Tillakaratne Dilshan knows his days are numbered, and he has repeatedly hinted this tour of Australia might be his final fling in the longest format. Yet it is clear that if he is nearly giving up the format, it is not because Dilshan no longer takes pleasure in its challenge.
He is fresh from a Hobart hundred, which was as exuberant as his cricket has ever been, and if the dashing drives and sprightly singles did not betray his exhilaration, the excitement in his century celebration certainly did. Leaping high in the air, shouting for joy - even green first-timers have shown more reserve than him, and it was his 15th trip to triple figures.
The cover drive is his most memorable stroke, but unlike his teammates' renditions, Dilshan's version veers wildly from the classical. Kumar Sangakkara unwinds his cover drive almost mechanically; power, poise, posture and punch. Mahela Jayawardene's is more poetry than science, and to use as ugly a word as "hit" to describe the balls he sends to the boundary seems unjust to the grace he exudes. But Dilshan's cover drive suits him just as well. The feet remain almost stationary, and the space between bat and pad, gaping. But the blade comes down in a rapid swish and defies logic and technique as it collects the ball in its arc briefly, before re-directing it at the fence. Talent and gall are its hallmarks, just as those qualities rule the man who wields the stroke.
"I have just enjoyed my batting," Dilshan said of his recent run of form, during which he has scored three hundreds in four Tests. "That might be why I've been successful in the recent months. I'm enjoying every single challenge with my batting. I focused on this tour, because it's not easy to do well in Australia against this attack. I'm enjoying every single ball in the middle and that's why I've been able to score big runs."
He has also been at his best when unfettered. In June last year, he accepted the captaincy with great enthusiasm, discarding even his trademark earring and designer beard in order to appear more responsible, but he did not wear "ordinary" well, and the captaincy weighed too heavy on his free-spirited batting. But for a spectacular 193 at Lord's in his second Test in the job, Dilshan's eight months at the helm were almost as dry for him as they were for his team. He still says his batting was not affected by leadership, but his scores suggest otherwise.
The same relish for the big occasion that saw his side lift his team at the game's most prestigious venue might also see him at his best on cricket's biggest stage. He hit a hundred in the tour match preceding the Hobart Test, and Sri Lanka will hope he extends that sequence in Melbourne as well. A fiery start can work wonders to a team's confidence, and Dilshan is that rare batsman who can change the complexion of a match in one innings. Happily, he is aware enough of his game to know that thinking too much on the occasion might not help him draw from the valuable parts of his cricket.
"We should just treat it as another match. It's a special day, and a special match, but we shouldn't try to put too much pressure on ourselves. Last time we played a Boxing Day Test in South Africa we won it. We should just go through our regular processes as batsmen and bowlers and begin the match like we usually do."
In Hobart, Dilshan's day-three charge was the only time when Sri Lanka ever had the upper hand in the Test's narrative. His hundred was an explosion of joy, and few who witnessed it could resist its charm. Dilshan may not be around in whites beyond the Sydney Test.
It is a sobering thought, and a puzzling one, for why would a man still awash in such striking form be so close to walking away? But perhaps it is better than holding on until time has eroded his delight in the game as well as his skill, and at least his final series will have produced an innings by which he deserves to be remembered.
Andrew Fernando is ESPNcricinfo's Sri Lanka correspondent