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Firdose Moonda in Kimberley
January 21, 2012
What if Tillakaratne Dilshan had come good more than just once in the Tests and in the four ODIs so far? What if Sri Lanka's bowlers had been able to take 4 for 47 in one of the previous matches as well? What if their fielders had shown the commitment they did in Kimberley throughout?
Then, according to Dilshan, "the last match could have been a final." Instead, the corpse of the series will travel to Johannesburg. However, Sri Lanka's steady improvement in each game promises a contest worthy of more than dead-rubber status, and if they can further redeem their reputation at the Wanderers it will take some pressure off the team, which will return home to face the possibility of a change of regime.
"We need to finish strongly," Dilshan said after his team chased 300 with five wickets in hand and eight balls to spare. "A 3-2 result will be a fantastic effort, but we have to play well. We can't relax because South Africa are a good team and they are playing well. We know we are capable, and knew we could do much better than the first game."
Dilshan probably has the most at stake. Whispers are becoming louder that his term as captain, which runs until the end of the tour of South Africa, will not be extended and that he may be dropped from the team after a string of poor performances and badly judged dismissals. Through the tour, however, the Sri Lankan camp has used the same excuse when asked about Dilshan's poor form - that when he fires, the fireworks are worth the wait.
In Kimberley, Dilshan showed why people were willing to wait. He recorded his highest score of the ODI series - a run-a-ball 87 - and looked good for many more. After two ducks and an uncharacteristically watchful 33 in the first three games, Dilshan was himself again.
"It feels good to score some runs, but it's a bit late," Dilshan said, unable to hide his regret. "The pitch was really good and when Upul [Tharanga] got out, I took a few chances because we were chasing 300. I just played my own game. After the Dilscoop went for six, I got more confident."
Dilshan brought out his signature shot off Vernon Philander's second ball. It sailed over the fine-leg boundary and the ease with which Dilshan conducted the rest of his innings was noticeable.
He took the bullishness of his innings to the press conference as well and, for the first time, defended his leadership with some aggression. "I am not listening to the news, anyone can write anything," he said. "I want to finish this series because they [the selectors] appointed me for the South Africa tour. It's up to them if I carry on. I am waiting for their call. I'm still enjoying my captaincy."
Although Dilshan has not led Sri Lanka to a single Test or ODI series win during his tenure since the World Cup, he said he had achieved other goals for the country, among them blooding the next generation at enormous self-sacrifice.
"The main thing is that I want to see youngsters performing for Sri Lanka. I have done everything for my country. When they wanted me to keep wicket, I did it. When they wanted me to bat at No. 1, I did it. When they want me to bat at No. 6, I do it. These are the last few years of my international career and I want to finish strongly. After another few years I can sit and watch these youngsters do these things for Sri Lanka."
One of the most promising youngsters to have emerged under Dilshan's captaincy is Dinesh Chandimal, who has been the shining light of Sri Lanka's ODI series. Dilshan has talked up the 22-year old and, after Chandimal scored 59 in Kimberley, had more praise for the young man. "He is improving in every single game and learning in every game. He will have a long career and I think he will become one of the best cricketers in the world."
Sri Lanka's Man of the Match in the fourth ODI was Thisara Perera, another youngster who has started to flourish. Dilshan sent him in at No. 6, ahead of Angelo Mathews, and Perera responded with a match-winning 69 off 44 balls, hitting a flurry of sixes to take Sri Lanka past the target.
"We thought we would give him an opportunity because he hits the ball hard," Dilshan said. "Even his mis-hits can clear the boundary easily. He grabbed the opportunity well."
Sri Lanka's last opportunities will present themselves in Johannesburg. What if Sri Lanka are able to take every one of them?
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondentFeeds: Firdose Moonda
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
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Plays of the Day from the second ODI between England and India, in Cardiff
Plays of the day from the third ODI between England and India at Trent Bridge