England v Sri Lanka, 2nd ODI, Chester-le-Street May 25, 2014

Dilshan dimmed by time but grows in substance

The one-time master of a vast arsenal of strokes has smelted down his technique as age catches up with him. How he and his side have benefited

A lavish aggressive stroke is a less common sight from Tillakaratne Dilshan these days © Getty Images

Eventually we all get old, and time erodes the faculties that quickened us in youth. For athletes, the slide is more acute. By 35, age has begun to diminish most batsmen; the reflexes slacken, the power fades, the feet grow heavy.

For so long, TIllakaratne Dilshan had defied this inevitability of life. He was the man who refused to grow up - an impetuous whirr of wrists and blade, coiled menacingly at the crease, slashing outside off and hooking on the front foot. He has been the oldest man in the Sri Lanka team for some years, but as he smirked on behind his designer beard, it had been an odd truth to comprehend. Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara were elder statesmen. Dilshan was always a rogue.

But there is no escape. Age gives no quarter. Over the past 18 months, fans watched as Dilshan's feet became less sure. The whips through midwicket used to send the ball clattering into the advertising hoardings, but now the stumps were rattled instead. The bouncers he once bludgeoned to the fence, left bruises on his chest.

It can't have been an easy truth for Dilshan to accept. At 37, he is still said to make the most mischief in the dressing room. When he takes a fine catch, or claims a tough wicket, no one celebrates with more vigour. Yet, for all his on-field arrogance, he has come to terms with a kind of defeat. Finally dimmed by time, the one-time master of a vast arsenal of strokes, smelted down his technique. Now only a few sharp weapons of torment remain.

On Sunday, Dilshan hit 28 of his 88 runs in boundaries. Not one of the seven fours was from his rasping cover drive. There were no wristy flicks to the legside fence. He pulled twice for four, but of those, one was off Ravi Bopara's ambling pace, and he had waited on the back foot for the other, off Chris Jordan. Even the scoop he played off Bopara, was the garden-variety over-the-shoulder variant, not the overhead deflection he had ridden to acclaim several years ago. Once a peddler of ravishing early-innings impetus, Dilshan has become a prolific purveyor of the mundane.

A street fighter through and through, Dilshan knows only to roll with the punches, even those as bruising as his own waning talents.

And how he and his team has gained from it. Since his breakthrough 2009, Dilshan's strike rate has dipped gradually every year, but his innings have grown in substance. In 2013, he had his richest 12 months yet, piling on 1160 runs at 61.05, though he had not scored so slowly since 2006. He had been the slow-burn that helped sink South Africa in a home series, while Sangakkara lay waste to that attack around him. He had ground New Zealand down late in the year, and defied Australia at home at its beginning.

Dilshan has only played four ODIs in 2014, thanks to a hand-injury, but the 88 off 101 balls at Chester-le-Street was formed of the new measure and forethought a younger Dilshan might have scoffed at. He came down the track five times to James Tredwell, who went slowly through the air and pitched mouth-wateringly full, but until the bowler dropped one short and wide, Dilshan had no greater ambition than to push him away for a single. Even Sangakkara would not be so patient, sinking to his knees as he tried to heave Tredwell over the infield, against the turn. That stroke brought Sangakkara's end.

The smart running between wickets that had once been a sidelight of his cricket has now become its bedrock. When he strikes the ball well, he tears out of the crease, almost in reflex, before reason kicks in and he looks up to see where the fielders are.

"That was an exceptional performance from Dilshan," captain Angelo Mathews said after the match. "The character he showed - he was in doubt before the game, he was carrying a niggle - but the physio worked on him and his character paid off."

For all his new prudence with the bat, Dilshan still does the work of young men in the field. In the Powerplays, he stalks at backward point, where the sharpest earn their keep. In the middle overs, he ranges the deep, square of the wicket, where only the quick survive. At the death, he guards the straight boundaries that batsmen seek to clear. There are no cushy positions at short fine leg or mid-on. Here is the last bastion of his defiance.

An 18th ODI hundred beckoned when Dilshan let an indipper from Jordan pass between bat and pad. It had been a fine delivery, but a batsman with tighter technique might have kept it out. Dilshan is no technician. A street fighter through and through, Dilshan knows only to roll with the punches, even those as bruising as his own waning talents.

Andrew Fidel Fernando is ESPNcricinfo's Sri Lanka correspondent. @andrewffernando

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Dummy4 on May 27, 2014, 10:13 GMT

    @ eranga spot on mate.i also can't imagine why there is a big hype around tharanga.he is talented,experienced.bt we have good,young future prospects who can do much better than tharanga.tharanga hasn't a good strike rate which means if he stays in the middle for 15 overs and gets out middle over batsmen will be under pressure coz of the slow run rate.it's just irritating to see how he nicks the ball to the keeper in seaming conditions over and over again

  • Dummy4 on May 27, 2014, 4:31 GMT

    @AndrewSilva and all others rooting for tharanga, If he scores anything over 60 fine, but if he gets out for less than 50 (114 innings out of 152) he strike at 66 something. If he stays 25 overs and face 80 balls score a 45 and getout the team is not in the best position.

  • Android on May 26, 2014, 20:18 GMT

    A player should not judged by one innings. the article may be referring to strike rate in e recent past but you have to consider the game plan of the team. The batsman will bat according to the agreed game plan. a player of Dilshan's calibre will not loose his flamboyancy easily. If u think otherwise, please watch the third practice game in England and you will realise. Even though it was a practice game against a club side, the Dilshan we knew and currently know showed that he has still got it. The age of 35 may seem an age of reckoning for a cricket fan but it depend on the individual and playing cricket passed that age is e individuals choice. The selectors should decide if he is supposed to be in the team or not. Dilshan need not worry about that as he has not lost any of his skill or flamboyance yet. He is just showing more maturity as a senior player of the team.

  • Dummy4 on May 26, 2014, 19:16 GMT

    Dilshan is the best team player i have ever seen played for Sri Lanka... he would never complain when ask, to bat down the order or up... field at point at the beginning or near boundary at death over even at old age... to bowl in crucial times or to keep wicket when required... he would not look elegant as mahela but would always deliver better than mahela. He would take captaincy when asked and would leave in the same way... He would even try to run over the pitch and get some warnings and fines, which sanga or mahela would never do..... but its for the team.... I always felt that he is the most versatile player we have ever produced in Sri lankan cricket

  • Janaka on May 26, 2014, 16:41 GMT

    Dilshan should retire. It's time for him. His time has gone, and he is decaying. Stop being blind at it. If you cannot play your strongest shots, that's when you need to realize that it's time, just like the Great Gilchrist did. It's time, and if you step down, you can keep your pride alive for the rest of the life.

  • SAJID on May 26, 2014, 15:20 GMT

    Sri Lanka has produced three most stylish batsmen of modern era Mahela Dilshan and Sangakarra

    Its always a pleasure to watch them

  • Mark on May 26, 2014, 15:01 GMT

    That was a great performance from Dilshan one of Sri Lanka's best. I hope he is fit enough to play for Sri Lanka for a few more years yet so we can see this wonderful player give us more great performances. Also when Dilshan does retire I am sure another Dilshan will come along for Sri Lanka. One thing Sri Lanka has, is all year round sunshine and all year round cricketing talent. Such as very entertaining cricketers like Tillekeratne Dilshan. Good Luck Sri Lanka. All the best!

  • Pinidiya on May 26, 2014, 11:09 GMT

    In my Previous postings, I have emphasized the importance of an experienced opener who is capable of playing a long steady inning (min. 25 Ovs), where Tharanga becomes the solitary choice with his unbeatable track record. I was happy to see, Dilshan's (who's neck was at the Gillette of some shortsighted critics) transformed inning yesterday, to bring that convincing win. His atypical inning DEMONSTRATED what I have been saying, from word-to-word! This is the ESSENTIAL ingredient that we are missing in our formula, to win outside the subcontinent. It worked out yesterday, thanks to Dilshan's superlative experience. But in a crunch situation, chasing a huge total could have crumbled Dilshan, since his natural capabilities are different. In my view, if SL to succeed in WC, recall Tharanga to the squad immediately! That is the only way forward. Good luck SL!

  • Dimuthu on May 26, 2014, 10:50 GMT

    @muzika_tchaikovskogo - fear not my friend. We Lions have full faith in Thirimanne, Chandimal, Kusal, and Angelo to take us forward - with many more youngsters and experienced pros (like Tharanga) knocking on the door. I was petrified when the likes of Aravinda, Arjuna, Hashan, and Roshan were at the end of their careers. Look at how this trio stepped up. Sanath, Marvan, Murali, Vaas - they're all gone, but others stepped up too. SLC is horrible at man management, but we've been lucky to have had a regular output of class batsmen and superb limited overs bowlers. Now we just need to create that elusive world beating Test team.

  • Shamalka on May 26, 2014, 8:01 GMT

    If Murali and Ajantha are mystery spinners, Sanath and Dilshan are mystery batsmen. Because they never had the right batting techniques but have teared most fearsome bowling attacks in the world apart. Bowlers are bamboozled how they attack like that without a correct technique. Yes, Dili won't play that longer but it won't be easy to fill his big boots because he's one of those rare cricketers who can change a game single handedly with fielding if he fails to do it with the bat or ball.