Persistent Kaushal makes a case for the future
As Sri Lanka's quest for regeneration rolls on, the idea of "talent" is invoked often and by many. Flabby and inefficient as Sri Lanka's domestic tournaments are, talent is mostly a useful gauge for cutting through meaningless statistics. A first-class batsman might pilfer a decent average by flaying only mediocre attacks. A bowler might steal a bagful from feeble top orders. As a result, selectors make their picks on gut feeling and potential, and hope their favoured ones will cross the chasm from domestic competence to international success.
Many such players have opened the Test innings for Sri Lanka in the last seven years. The likes of Michael Vandort and Malinda Warnapura gave brief glimpses of the ability that bred the selectors' faith, but ultimately could not manage more than 20 Tests. Tharanga Paranavitana played longer, but eventually proved brittle and limited. Even Lahiru Thirimanne, an opener in his former avatar, had a brief and unsuccessful stint at the top of the innings before he was annointed the next No. 3 and pushed down the order.
Kaushal Silva can look in almost any direction in his dressing room and feel that his road to Test cricket has been too slow, too tough, unfair. The likes of Dinesh Chandimal and Angelo Mathews are younger and in so many ways, immature. But they have been thrust into leadership already, and their destinies in the senior team are all but carved in stone. With a tally of 8405, Silva has more first-class runs than both of them combined.
Even Mahela Jayawardene had been a Sri Lankan superstar since he was 17. Kumar Sangakkara shot into the national side on jet thrusters. Unlike them, Silva wields no look-at-me cover drive, nor does he have silken tongue for the media. Yet, he has 27 hundreds in domestic long-format cricket - 10 more than either of them.
A large part of why Silva had been kept at arm's length for so long is because he is a wicketkeeper, and though for many people a second skill adds considerable appeal, it had hampered Silva even before he had embarked on his prolific run in first-class cricket. His first two seasons had been with the Nondescripts Cricket Club, but since NCC had had Sangakkara and Prasanna Jayawardene on their books at the time, Silva was forced to go elsewhere. The same two men would also prevent his entry into Tests.
In 2011, Silva finally made his international debut, only to squander his first handful of chances and watch Chandimal - also a keeper - leapfrog him with a pair of fine fifties on debut. Having forged his career on consistency, perhaps it didn't suit Silva to have the limelight suddenly upon him, and ordered to dance or die. Some first-class players bleat complaints about not being chosen until the national selectors give in. Silva is more self-possessed, driven by hunger and heart, not hot blood and bluster.
Almost every move Silva has made on the field in the past two days has portrayed him aptly. Before the Test, there were doubts as to whether it was wise for Sri Lanka to have three wicketkeepers out in the field. Neither Sangakkara nor Chandimal are great without the gloves, after all. But on the first day of the new year, Silva held a catch that is already a contender for the best in the year. Mohammad Hafeez drove powerfully on the up, and diving hard to his less favoured side, Silva plucked a stunner centimetres from the turf at short cover. Another excellent diving catch at backward short leg would follow on Thursday. Whatever shortcomings the next few months will expose in Silva, his desire cannot be among them.
And so it was with the bat. The ball had moved appreciably in the half-hour after lunch on all three days, and though Silva had his edge beaten early in his innings, self-correction and application were immediately evident. They are virtues that have abandoned Sri Lanka's fair-weather top-order in the past two away series. He battled as if he had sparred with the new ball all his career, but he is a manufactured opener. A middle-order batsman by trade, Silva is only opening because it is the spot Tillakaratne Dilshan's retirement made vacant.
His first substantial knock in Tests also confirmed what had been said about him at home: that his technique is complete - perhaps the work of his cricket-coach father. His footwork was precise, and his judgement good against the fast men. No portion of the field appeared inaccessible once he established fluency, and though Saeed Ajmal was muted by a pitch that was still green, Silva pushed him securely into the outfield, never flinching to pounce when poor balls came his way. He is said to be a consummate puller and hooker - vital strokes for a batsman so small, but perhaps the match situation did not demand bravado today, and he ducked instead.
As Sri Lanka move to replace the ageing seniors, the opening partnership will become crucial to shielding a green middle order. On a day when Sri Lanka roared back at Pakistan, SIlva fought the hardest and won the most ground. He has proven he is not out of place in Tests now, but still, his position is far from secure.
If he persists now as he did in the local leagues for so long, Sri Lanka may go some distance to stabilising their top order, and regaining a seat at Test's top table.
Andrew Fidel Fernando is ESPNcricinfo's Sri Lanka correspondent. He tweets here