Pakistan v Sri Lanka, 2nd ODI, Karachi January 22, 2009

Flexibility could hurt Dilshan

Dilshan has been a constant for many years now, a significant part of many of their successes and evolution. But what exactly is he, what is his role?

Is it wise to have Dilshan play as an anywhere man? © AFP

Tillakaratne Dilshan is difficult to place in the great scheme of modern Sri Lankan cricket. He's been a constant for many years now, a significant part of many of their successes and evolution. But what exactly is he, what is his role?

Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene have carried on a tradition of batting as solid as it is pretty, Muttiah Muralitharan, the resident legend, Chaminda Vaas, the pace role model, but where in this lies Dilshan? If he inspires young men to field as he does, he will have served a grand role, but fielding has rarely been given its due in cricket.

He looks too good a batsman to be a bits n' pieces kind of guy, the kind who'll make an energetic 30 lower down the order and then add another 30 on a good day with his fielding and some flat off-spin. He's been shunted around the ODI order - he's batted in all positions down to eight.

From No. 6, where he has mostly been found and which could be a role of sorts, of the finisher, he averages under 30. His career average is under 30 as well. It isn't perhaps fair to expect much more from so low in the order, but to see him play the way he has in the last two ODIs is to wrestle with a feeling of waste.

He had only opened thrice before this series and was doing so here because of an injury to Upul Tharanga. But on the admittedly limited sample of two matches on batting-friendly wickets, something about the move has seemed right.

Clearly he likes pace. He doesn't much like hanging around, settling in and setting up for a long hand. If he sees it well enough, early enough, it will go. Nothing is left behind in any attacking shot he plays, though the forcefulness isn't that of a bullying bludgeoner; there is some art to it. He is a good-looking hooker too, with a real whip in his arms when he does, but he is a compulsive one and in both games, it has ultimately led to his downfall.

Still, against a good pace attack, he has twice provided Sri Lanka starts that should lead to 300-plus totals. He has enjoyed it too. "I have felt really comfortable with it," he said. "I was looking forward to batting in the top order, I wanted the opportunity and I am happy with it."

Could this be then the shaping of a new role? He has already been opening the batting domestically over the last year with some success and with Sanath Jayasuriya bound to retire at some point, a void will have to be filled. It may not happen though as the very trait that makes it difficult to define Dilshan - his everywhere, everyman utility - is the trait his captain values the most.

"What happened was that Dilly [Dilshan] was getting left out in Bangladesh but once he started scoring runs he had to come back," said Jayawardene. "He's been opening in domestic cricket and Upul's finger was bad so we decided to move him up. He's done it before but not with so much success.

"He feels comfortable there. He's an attacking batsman and he likes pace. He's a good hooker and puller. I think he's got a bigger role to play in the middle order. He's good because he can bat anywhere and now we have options in the batting which is what we want."

The thinking is impeccably modern; options, flexibility, utility. And, on the balance of what Sri Lanka have achieved mostly with Dilshan in the side, it is probably justified. But the ease with which he has filled what is such a difficult role, the comfort with which he has attacked, just makes you wonder whether modernity is all that it is cracked up to be.

Osman Samiuddin is Pakistan editor of Cricinfo