June 25, 2009

Dilshan's ascent

Sri Lanka's prolific opener used to be a bits-and-pieces player before he discovered his mojo, got a lock on the batting slot he wanted, and stamped his patent on the most talked-about new stroke in cricket

Sir Garfield Sobers is not a person to be easily overlooked. Yet, when the greatest allrounder called on the Sri Lankans, as they trained before the second semi-final of the World Twenty20 at the Oval, Tillakaratne Dilshan had no idea who he was exchanging pleasantries with. "I just said hello," Dilshan says with an embarrassed smile. Sanath Jayasuriya, standing next to Dilshan, realised his younger team-mate didn't know who the visitor was. "He was shocked," Dilshan chuckles.

"I never seriously followed cricket when I was young," he says. The first live cricket match he watched was on TV - the last 10 overs of Sri Lanka's momentuous 1996 World Cup triumph over Australia. Dilshan was at a family wedding when people in one corner perked up as they watched Aravinda de Silva tear the Aussies to shreds. Something stirred inside Dilshan.

Relaxed, attentive, at ease, not unduly modest, Dilshan exudes confidence. His innovative, outrageous scoop shot into the no-man's land behind the wicketkeeper, christened variously "the Dilscoop" (Dilshan prefers this) and "the starfish" has become the talk of cricket. "I now have a shot in my name, na," he says in the trademark sweet Sinhalese tone. The sparkle in his eyes cannot be missed.

Hours after our meeting Dilshan went on to script a memorable and considered 96 to take Sri Lanka to the final. Unfortunately, two days later he failed in the big game against Pakistan, pull-scooping lamely and returning with a duck. "There were only two matches I didn't get runs. I am really disappointed in myself that I didn't do my best in the final," he said after the defeat. Still, he finished as the best batsman in the tournament, with the most fifties and fours.

From being a fringe player and then a bits-and-pieces one who batted at nearly every position in the order, Dilshan seems to finally have nailed the opener's slot in ODI and Twenty20 cricket. His batting is not about thwacking; it rests on a more measured approach. His shot selection is precise and he can switch between the roles of anchor and attacker without much sweat.

"He is someone who needs to be kept on the edge," Paul Farbrace, Sri Lankan's assistant coach of two years, says. According to him, Dilshan may take 10 balls for 10 runs, but if he faces 30 balls he will score 50; his strike-rate rises with the amount of time he spends at the crease. "He is one of the best counter-attackers in world cricket," Farbrace says. "He has such belief in his own ability and is very strong-minded, and sometimes that's his downfall. But every top player has that inner belief that they are going to do well on that particular day. Dilshan has that in abundance."

"I realised I wanted to cement one spot," Dilshan says, leaning forward on the couch to make himself heard above the din in the hotel lobby. "Opening was the best slot because Sanath will retire in the next few years and I wanted that responsibility. I want to play the role Sanath has played."

It was under Jayasuriya's captaincy that Dilshan made his Test debut, in 1999 in Zimbabwe. He made just nine runs in Sri Lanka's only innings, but before doubts could invade the youngster's mind, Jayasuriya wrapped a blanket of comfort around him. "'Dilly, just play this like an A team match,' he told me. That removed a huge pressure after the first Test," Dilshan recollects.

Ten years on, Dilshan is coming to his father-figure's rescue. Jayasuriya's form was scratchy in the World Twenty20: apart from a dominating 81 against West Indies, the man who has hit some of cricket's most blistering knocks failed to find his feet. But Dilshan made sure he made up when "Sanath aiya" (elder brother) was finding it hard at the other end. He outscored Jayasuriya by miles (317 to 177), laying to waste opposition bowling attacks.

It was during the IPL, when facing the bowling machine, that he came up with the scoop, He tried a paddle sweep against a short-of-length delivery and ended up flicking it over his own head

Despite his own failure, Jayasuriya had a hand in Dilshan's second coming. "He has always asked to me play my game," Dilshan says. At the start of each innings the pair assessed the pitch before deciding on a feasible plan. Jayasuriya as the experienced old hand played navigator, drawing up the gameplan - which bowler to attack, when to rein in, and when to accelerate. That made Dilshan's job in the driver's seat much easier. "I know if I get a start I can go for runs and put the opposition under pressure in the Powerplay," Dilshan says.

At the end of 2007, Dilshan was caught in a whirlpool mostly of his making. Immediately after wrapping up the home ODI series against England, he tied the knot with long-time friend Manjula Thilini. A month before, he had separated from his first wife, Nilanka. Thilini was an actress and the marriage invited plenty of negative press.

Dilshan does not want to talk about whether his personal life had any bearing on his loss of form in cricket. Exactly a year after the second marriage, he was dropped following the four-nation Twenty20 event in Canada. He was furious at having to sit out ODI series against Zimbabwe and Bangladesh. "My wife heard me and said I should do what I'm comfortable with and not think twice. Her confidence helped me," Dilshan says. "I'm more free after my second marriage."

Dilshan first opened for Sri Lanka in a 2007-08 CB Series game against India. Immediately after India's innings Mahela Jayawardene told Dilshan he was opening. Dilshan put on his pads and scored a brilliant 62. But in the 18 games he played from then till the time he was dropped, he opened only another couple of times; he played at No. 6 on 13 occasions and once at No. 7.

By the time he played for Sri Lanka again, in the Test series against Bangladesh in December 2008, he had made up his mind to become assertive about opening in ODIs and Twenty20s. He had done so successfully in domestic cricket in the two months away from national duties.

"He is one of those players who could bat anywhere in the top six in any form of the game," Farbrace says. "Sometimes, when you are such a player who is so versatile, you don't nail a set position, and probably in the past that's been his undoing. Such a player can lose his spot when he has a slightly bad run, since he hasn't really nailed down a position of his own."

Dilshan scored handsomely on the Test leg of the Bangladesh series, which prompted the selectors to recall him for the Pakistan tour, where he was Man of the Series. He carried that form into the IPL, for the Delhi Daredevils. He was promoted to No. 3, after having played at Nos. 6 and 7 in the first tournament.

"I'm thankful to Viru [Sehwag] that he gave me the opportunity in the top order," Dilsan says of his Delhi captain. Sehwag asked Dilshan to play as he knew best, and Dilshan did not need any further motivation.

It was during the IPL, when facing the bowling machine, that he started playing the scoop. He tried a paddle sweep against a short-of-length delivery and ended up flicking it over his own head. "'Wow, this is something,' I thought to myself, and tried to play it again.

"It takes guts but I have the confidence to do it and I've been successful so far," Dilshan says, adding that he has not been hit in the face yet. The first time he played the shot in a match was against Deccan Chargers, when he scooped Ryan Harris twice. The shot, he says, offers him an alternative plan to deal with a length ball: he plays the paddle sweep usually to a yorker-length delivery, but to one pitched on a good length, he now has the option of the scoop.

The stroke may be the most striking new thing about Dilshan's game, but also notable is how he has been playing a lot straighter, and giving himself more time to settle in. "Sanga and Mahela have given him that free rein to go and hit, but to do it responsibly and not recklessly," Farbrace explains.

A touch of hot-headed recklessness was on show, though, in the IPL, in a game against Hyderabad. Dilshan and Fidel Edwards exchanged words as the fiery Barbadian sprayed a barrage of short-pitched stuff; one ball hit Dilshan on the helmet. Dilshan came out the winner with a handsome pulled six. "I told him to go and fetch the ball," he says, flashing another big smile.

Nagraj Gollapudi is an assistant editor at Cricinfo

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Dhushan on June 26, 2009, 16:27 GMT

    Thank you Mr. Nagraj Gollapudi for a nice article. Dilshan has been a great cricketer for Sri Lanka not only with the bat but also with the ball & even as a fielder. It is great to see how crickets greats such as Sanath Jayasuriya help out the younger & less experienced players to find that spark in them to come out with that gleam & also to see how now Dilshan helps out Sanath & 1 day wants to take his place! Dilshan getting all the credit for the stroke he plays is the only right thing & few or many might play that shot in the future but he will always be known as the 1st who had the guts & audacity to try it out in the international arena against some of the best & most fierce bowlers. As a Sri Lankan & as a huge supporter of Sri Lankan cricket I am proud of our team & wish our team all the very best!

  • Rajasundram on June 25, 2009, 21:58 GMT

    I note a sense of jealousy among certain sections of the cricket loving people. If an Englishman or Aussie does it, it is bloody good - but if a South Asian does it, they find ways and means of discrediting him. Dilscoop is not the only example. When the Pakistanis were 'reverse swinging' the ball they must have tampered with the ball, it must be examined. There is something fishy going on as evidenced by suggestion on Umar Guls reverse swinging in the T20. How can a chap reverse swing when the ball is only 15 overs old, therefore the ball must have been doctored. But when Flintoff etal were reverse swinging in the 2005 Ashes - it was a jolly good performance to rave about. Nobody suggested that the ball be examined. Please give credit where it is due. Dilshan plays that shot so well and must be given credit! Meanwhile enjoy the game with all its innovations for it is still a great game and a game that is continually evolving. Thank you Dilshan, play that shot whenever possible.

  • thilina on June 25, 2009, 18:39 GMT

    Agree where some people say this shot was invented before, of course. millions of school children and first class cricketers invent shots every day. even i play unconventional shots when playing with my mates. maybe they should get patent for these shots so no one else can play it. So give the guy a break. Dilshan is the first to successfully execute this kind of shot consistently at this level of cricket. So give the guy necessary credit.

  • Rukshan on June 25, 2009, 18:10 GMT

    Dilshan brought out the SCOOP to the world...at the T20 WC...no one else did....give him the credit that he deserves!!!....the man is on fire....keep going strong Dilly!

  • surya on June 25, 2009, 16:00 GMT

    I think Marillier did manage to play the scoop right over his head and not just near the leg slip region...He managed to lift Zaheer's yorker length balls bowled at a brisk pace over his head too..He also played the paddle shot towards th man at short fine leg which is prominent now..I guess he deserves a lot for credit since I dont remember any batsman even attempting it before.dinesh karthik does that too

  • Sampath on June 25, 2009, 14:40 GMT

    Dilshan may not have technically been the first to play the shot in history, but he was the first to use it on the international stage against top opposition (in a World Cup against the Aussies - doesn't get much bigger than that) with any kind of success, and deserves to be recognised for that.

    It's the same with the "pinch-hitting opener" debate. Sure, Sanath Jayasuriya may not have been the first opener ever to look to hit over the top during the opening overs of a match, but he (along with his opening partner Kaluwitharana) was the first to do it successfully and consistently on the big stage.

    As for the "Dilscoop", it will now be interesting to see if it becomes adopted more widely, and what, if anything, fielding sides will do to defend against it if it does become widespread.

  • Sahan on June 25, 2009, 14:08 GMT

    Agree with The_Dream_Team. The point is that it goes STRAIGHT OVER the keeper. Everyone's seen the one to fine leg.

  • kesara on June 25, 2009, 10:25 GMT

    Nice article about Dilshan. but its disappointing to see people's comments. you will never get the credit you due. Attn Mr joshWAAH.....if Ian ward has played this shot, he would have said that in sky presentation panel. He never admit about it or talk about his own shot. First of all i want to mention that even a school kid can play this shot but mastering the shot is the most important. i think only Dilshan has mastered this shot better than anybody. His success rate is over 90% and he played against top class international players. Please leave the credit where its due.

    Still most people think england, australia, new zealand are the most gifted and powerful countries in cricket. sorry mate time has passed out for you guys and its about the developing countries who are mastering the game.

    As the world economics has changed from America, Britain to China, india and Brazil, cricket power houses has changed into India, Sri lanka, pakistan.

    Grow up lads....

  • Robert on June 25, 2009, 10:22 GMT

    Yeah right, the shot may have been played before, but what shot hasn't? Cricket has been played for a long time! But it hasn't been named before, and here you have someone audaciously taking on the top international bowlers in a top international tournament with the not-so-easily played scoop.Viewed by a huge tv audience, it has come to be known as the Dilscoop, and aptly so. Leave it alone guys, he deserves the recognition! Robert Gogerly

  • Ranil on June 25, 2009, 10:09 GMT

    Herath_UK Dilscoop has taken UK & the world over by surprise.The amount of publicity it gave during the 20 cup is marvellous for cricket and we should thank Dilshan for that. JoshWass is incorrect in that Ian Ward was the sky tv presenter in the 20 cup series and he never claimed any such feat and for that matter Ian was more bewildered by Dilscoop than any other co presenters!

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