November 17, 2012

The making of Chandimal

The young Sri Lankan batsman isn't intimidated by the toughest opposition, or shy about pursuing personal goals

Seven years to the day before Dinesh Chandimal's Test debut, he was watching Sri Lanka's first ODI of their tour of New Zealand when his mother came into the room and told him there was a boat coming quickly towards their house near the beach. Chandimal took one look at the colossal wave, called out to his family, and they ran.

"My family and I lost everything that day," he says, "including my cricket bag." But it is not an experience that weighs heavy on him. His description of the trauma is cursory. He reflects, instead, on his good fortune. "We were lucky that no one in my family lost their lives. Others had it much worse. It was very difficult, but we were able to rebuild our lives without that kind of grief, and I am grateful for that."

He seems taller in person and smiles quickly and often, even through a tale as harrowing as the one he has just told. A slightly misplaced incisor melds mischief to his grin. He trains in two hours but his curls are immaculately ordered to seem disordered. He has not been long in the side but the stories about him are already among the most colourful.

Chandimal is taking English lessons, and he put his learning to use while appearing at a recent charity tournament, when he called out to his friend, a tournament organiser, yelling, "Hey you, f*****", over a throng of fawning fans. Once, during the World Twenty20, he boarded the team bus and began hollering roughly at another friend in the support staff only to realise a national selector had taken his friend's place on the bus. A stream of sheepish "Sorry, sir's" followed, according to his team-mates, who retell the tale with relish.

He is also sheepish when he describes his first foray into competitive cricket. Chandimal started as an offspinner at Under-13 level but his bowling career was short-lived. "They stopped me because I chucked," he admits. "I only played two matches before I was told not to bowl."

Not wanting to see Chandimal quit the sport altogether, his coach handed him keeping gloves and pads. "I think that was one of the best things that happened to my cricket," he says. "For a long time, I wasn't a very good batsman. Until I was about 17, my highest score would have been around 30. But because I could keep well, I was able to play in the Dharmasoka College first XI at 14, and I won awards for being the best keeper in the country for my age."

Before long, he was spotted by one of the biggest Colombo schools and offered a place, which he accepted after some initial reluctance to leave home. Ananda College counts Arjuna Ranatunga and Marvan Atapattu among its old boys, but neither achieved what Chandimal did for the school: his batting burgeoned suddenly and he became one of the top run scorers in school cricket on the island. He was elevated to captain in his final year - an honour no scholarship student had ever received - and he led Ananda College to an unprecedented 12 outright wins in one season, breaking a record that had stood for over 40 years. He was soon asked to join the Nondescripts Cricket Club (NCC), where he played alongside one of his heroes.

"When I first came to the side, I was very nervous. I didn't think I would make it to the XI of a team like the NCC, but Kumar Sangakkara took me aside and said, 'Chandi, don't be afraid. I can't play a lot of matches for NCC, so you will get a chance to keep'. Batting with him in a match was like a dream. He gave advice and always kept talking to me, and when you bat with someone like that, everything becomes very easy."

"The team should come first, but depending on the match situation, if there is time, you can go for personal achievements as well"
Chandimal on delaying Sri Lanka's victory to get a hundred at Lord's

Chandimal has had several senior players take him under their wing as he progressed to the national side, and in gratitude, he reels off a list of names comprising nearly everyone who has played cricket for Sri Lanka in the recent past, from Muttiah Muralitharan and Chaminda Vaas to Angelo Mathews. On Test debut, Chandimal arrived at the crease in Durban with Sri Lanka stumbling towards another poor first-innings score, at 162 for 5, but Thilan Samaraweera eased him in against the best pace attack in the world before the pair put on the biggest partnership of the match.

"It was really good that Thilan aiya was at the crease, because he is such a good Test player and has so much experience. He knew what to do when I went in and he would joke with me. When I hit a four, he'd say, 'Sha! Just like Aravinda.' We laughed and that helped me to relax, and I focused on my game. I didn't worry about who was bowling, whether it was Steyn or Morkel or Philander. I just played the ball that came, and I think that worked for me."

In the second innings, Chandimal made his second fifty of the match, and put on another century stand, this time with Sangakkara - the second-highest partnership of the game. The Durban Test was Sri Lanka's biggest triumph in years, being their first victory in South Africa, and Chandimal played the crucial role of partnering a senior batsman to haul the side out of distress in each innings.

"I wasn't thinking about the tsunami when we started that match on December 26, but looking back now, I think it was quite apt. Experiencing what I did in 2004 gave me a lot of strength as a cricketer, and I think that helped me."

Though it held that special significance, Chandimal says the Durban Test wasn't his proudest moment on a cricket field. That had come six months earlier, at Lord's, in an ODI against England. At the time, he and Angelo Mathews had caused controversy when Mathews refrained from scoring until Chandimal completed a ton - a century he would almost certainly have been denied had Mathews simply knocked off the runs required. In the end, Chandimal sealed the hundred with a six over long-on, but not before Mathews batted out a maiden in the 47th over as team-mates wore expressions ranging from anxious to furious on the balcony.

Perhaps the senior players held back their thoughts on Chandimal's pursuit of a personal milestone, because all his memories of the aftermath are positive, and he says he wouldn't necessarily have changed his approach if he was given the chance again. "When I was on the bus going back, I was crying on the phone to my family. I was so overjoyed. To make a century at a historic venue like Lord's - that is a special achievement for a Sri Lankan. I hadn't even thought of going for a century until Angelo said we should go for it, because he was confident of finishing the match by himself. The team should come first, but depending on the match situation, if there is time, you can go for personal achievements as well."

In addition to impressing in South Africa and England, Chandimal has also made difficult runs in Australia, where Sri Lanka will tour after the home Tests against New Zealand. His technique is not the cleanest or the most attractive, but in his short career, he has been undaunted by even the most intimidating opposition - a quality many Sri Lankan batsmen take years to develop. He has been poor in the subcontinent - another oddity for a Sri Lankan - but has grasped almost every other opportunity afforded him on his way to international cricket. If, as it is hoped, he becomes the bedrock of Sri Lanka's future top order, that is a trait that will have served him well.

Andrew Fernando is ESPNcricinfo's correspondent in Sri Lanka