Dilshan dimmed by time but grows in substance
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.
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