Chandimal's baila sets Sri Lanka's tone
Willow usually emits a crack when it meets leather, but over the years Sri Lanka No. 4s have had the knack of making it sound like music. Aravinda de Silva started the party, playing rollicking innings, with hooks and pulls that thrilled fans like stadium-rock riffs. Sri Lanka were a garage band when he started in the eighties. In 1996, he helped make them global headliners.
Mahela Jayawardene was of a more classical bent; the wristy flicks, liquid drives and late cuts moving his audience, rather than astonishing them. His innings were swirling veena melodies over a rolling tabla pulse. His batting was timeless. On his best days, it was transcendental.
Dinesh Chandimal used to bat down the order on account of keeping wickets, but No. 4 seems just the place for him. He has the gift of music too. Not audacious like de Silva, or as refined as Jayawardene, his work instead is buoyant and joyful. With a technique that could have only been made on the island, Chandimal's batting is like a baila tune.
Watch him as he hits through the covers. The top hand often comes off. His back arches in the follow through. He is the bouncy 6/8 rhythm in a 4/4 top order. Sometimes he looks like getting out every ball. Other days, he looks like he will never settle at the crease. But suddenly, you look up and he's on 30. Blink, and another ball is spirited to the fence.
In Chandimal's approach there is also a looseness - an impulse to ditch the plans and go where the innings takes him. He edged two balls over the slips in the second innings in Dunedin, then began to deliberately hit balls through third man. Of his first fifty runs, 38 came behind square on the off side. It was as if he thought: "Why fight the flow? If third man is where the ball goes, third man is where I will play."
There was a hint of structure to Chandimal's innings in Hamilton, like when he defended most balls on the stumps, but not enough, really, to constitute a plan. After nine balls at the crease, he lined up New Zealand's most economical operator of the series, and larruped him for 16 off-side runs. Kusal Mendis, playing a lively innings himself, had provided the prelude. With Chandimal, the beat and bright keyboard tune came in. Sri Lanka were two down, but Chandimal was scything moving balls over cover. There was bounce and carry on a pitch as green as they come, but he was playing his searing cut. Before lunch, Sri Lanka crossed 100. The third wicket stand moved to 64 from 74 balls by the break.
Coaches have learned, that just like with baila, there is no use in analysing Chandimal. No use in running a microscope over his grip, or his off-kilter pull. They tried to fix him through 2013 and 2014, and Chandimal too, a little giddy at the extra attention, bought into the newest batting theories out of textbooks.
The result was almost career-ending. Midway through last year, Chandimal was pulled out of a Test tour and banished to the Sri Lanka A team, a junior from his own Colombo club brought in to replace him.
It was only when he returned to his instincts that he reclaimed his homespun havoc. There is no polishing baila. There should only be surrender. The skipped beats are part of its identity. The flaws round out its perfection.
Chandimal was out chasing a full ball for 47, but like the great No. 4s before him, he had helped divert the course of the cricket. He'd helped bend the bowlers a little out of shape. Milinda Siriwardana and Angelo Mathews were cautious to begin with, but began to flow themselves, soon enough. Their 138 together was a record for the fifth wicket against New Zealand. Their big hitting was momentous as well. No two Sri Lanka batsmen had hit three (or more) sixes each in the same innings before.
"You take cues from the top order, so we learned from the guys up the order how to bat on this wicket," Siriwardana later said. "Kusal Mendis and Chandi showed us how to play here. They made it easier for the batsmen coming in lower down the order."
Chandimal didn't transform Sri Lanka's position in this series. At the end of day one, they had done better than expected, but New Zealand are more than capable of running this score down. But his seven fours and strike rate north of eighty did inspire them, however briefly. Like a baila tune, his innings enlivened the day.
Andrew Fidel Fernando is ESPNcricinfo's Sri Lanka correspondent. @andrewffernando