Sri Lanka v Australia, 2nd Test, Pallekele, 1st day September 8, 2011

The leader and the left-over

While Michael Clarke has looked the part of leader of his team in the series so far, Tillakaratne Dilshan seems to be finding it hard to cope with the complex demands of captaining Sri Lanka

Michael Clarke became Australia's Test captain after at least three years of waiting for Ricky Ponting to grant him the privilege. Tillakaratne Dilshan inherited Sri Lanka's crown only once all his contemporaries had taken their turn. This difference was as striking as the Pallekele sunshine on the first day of the second Test, in a series that is rapidly becoming a mismatch between a natural leader and one who looks anything but.

Those wishing to be critical of Clarke often point out, among other caustic observations, that he has never led his state side, New South Wales. The job was shared among Brad Haddin, Simon Katich and Stuart Clark in the years following Steve Waugh's retirement. But this lack of domestic experience in leadership reflected Clarke's progress as a player, rather than shortcomings as an on-field marshall. He debuted for Australia at 21 (23 in Tests) and was spending more time outside the NSW XI than in it by the time he may have been considered for the captaincy. He led many representative teams during his teenage years, and has always appeared to think like a captain on the field, irrespective of his official status.

Such alertness has been writ large across his first series as Australia's fully-fledged leader. Clarke wants to make things happen in Sri Lanka, and so far he has done so. Bowling changes have regularly brought wickets, seldom has an edge flown where a slip fielder was not posted, and the bowlers have followed through on his plans with a thoroughness that suggests they want to do their best for him as well as themselves. While the success in Galle had an element of "critical toss" providence about it, Clarke's leadership on the first day in Pallekele, when both captains regarded the pitch with far less suspicion, was expert.

The early life offered by Pallekele's pitch and altitude was used with almost as much precision as England had managed against Australia on the first day of the second Ashes Test at the Adelaide Oval last year. That track, much like this one, promised to flatten out into a pristine batting strip once the first hour's life had been negotiated. Here, Clarke kept Ryan Harris and Trent Copeland in partnership to provide the early breakthroughs, then gambled with his deputy Shane Watson as the first change bowler, instead of Mitchell Johnson, to see if any more conventional swing could be extracted.

He introduced Nathan Lyon in the penultimate over before lunch and was rewarded when Prasanna Jayawardene swung at the bowler's teasing loop once too often, Sri Lanka losing half their side in the morning session. But Clarke's most inspired moment would arrive at the day's midpoint, just as Kumar Sangakkara and Angelo Mathews threatened to build a hefty partnership. Most would have handed the ball to a frontline bowler; some might have handed it to the captain himself. Instead, Clarke opted for the slow mediums of Michael Hussey, and third ball was outrageously rewarded with the wicket of Sangakkara, pouched at short extra cover. One of the great Richie Benaudisms on captaincy says it is "90% luck and 10% skill, but don't try it without the 10%". In this instance, the share of luck went with the bowler, but the skill fully belonged to Australia's captain. How his counterpart Dilshan must have cussed.

Captaining Sri Lanka is complex and requires taking on all manner of responsibilities, duties and pressures that Clarke and his Australia predecessors could scarcely contemplate. Where in Australia it is said in jest that the national cricket captain holds the second most important job in the nation, in Sri Lanka there are times where such a label can seem entirely justified. Mahela Jayawardene, summed up the role for ESPNcricinfo: "It is not like in other countries. In Sri Lanka leading the team for a year is like you've done it for two or three years - it is a lot of responsibility and a lot of things happen around you. Controlling those variables drains a lot out of you."

The strains of the role wore through Jayawardene and Sangakkara in the space of five years, and when the latter exited the job was thrust into Dilshan's hands. Subtract the final session of the Cardiff Test in England and his first series in charge was a creditable effort by the new captain and his team. But, so far, the home matches against Australia have been little short of disastrous, and leave ugly questions for the team to contemplate. Their lack of a fulltime coach since the exit of Trevor Bayliss after the World Cup cannot have helped, for Dilshan appears to need a stronger guiding hand at the back-room tiller than he seems to be getting.

The morning of this Test brought with it several problems for Dilshan to negotiate. Chanaka Welegedara passed a fitness test after a knee problem, but an injured finger for Rangana Herath and back trouble for Ajantha Mendis robbed the captain of his two most likely sources of wickets. The last minute reshuffle contrasted with an Australia XI that was known two days prior to the toss.

Dilshan is not a natural tactician, and his flighty batting cannot be expected to set an example for all to follow. He tried to play the long game in Pallekele, having swatted ignobly in Galle, but was undone by Copeland's suffocating line and the movement readily available off a fresh pitch. The decision to leave a rather straight ball was a possible reflection of mental fatigue.

With the exceptions of Sangakkara and Mathews the rest of the batsmen folded all too readily and, by day's end, the series was galloping away from the hosts. At this point it does not appear as though the side fiercely wants to play for Dilshan, and that the captain is being pulled in more directions than his skill and character can handle. He looks very much, as the Sri Lankan cricket establishment decided long ago, the third choice.

Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • sachit on September 9, 2011, 4:54 GMT

    there are natural leaders. when they first make their appearances it is evident. In SL's case Ranatunge,Jayawardhana and Sangakkara were natural leaders Atapattu was somewhere in between and Jayasuriya was not leadership material. Jayasuriyas success was mainly due to the fact that the team had a fierce combination of pace and spin in Murali and Vass, which led to 10 consecutive test wins in 2001-2. Dilshan is an aggressive player and an asset but not a born leader and he does not have 2 match winning bowlers. Dilshan in his mid 30's is simply a patch, and SL should really think of a younger player - the only contender so far is Matthews. Someone suggested samaraweera but that's not gonna work - remember hashan tillekaratnes captaincy in 2004?

  • Rajaram on September 9, 2011, 4:01 GMT

    Pup,you are a Top Dog now! Hope your detractors carry you on their shoulders when you return to Sydney,victorious from Sri Lanka!

  • Nishad on September 9, 2011, 1:38 GMT

    Seems like this is the first time Mr. Brettig ever thought about Sri lankan cricket. You cant blame Dilshan for batting struggles of the team. However, everyone including Dlshan himself agrees that he was a stop gap measure. The true problem here is not Dilshans lack of imagination on the field, but his lack of leadership off the field. He needs to rally the troops, give players a purpose, like Ranatunga did with a much less talented team and a young raw Murali, Vass combination.

  • Christopher on September 9, 2011, 1:20 GMT

    It would bring far more credit to SL cricket fans, if when observing and applauding the risk laden,but previously successful approach to batting of Dilshan,that they also had reasonable expectations that it will fail on occassions. Those fans,who opposed his attacking approach on a terrible wicket on Galle and demanded he be more circumspect in Kandy,were rewarded for the doubt they instilled in Dilshan over his own game,by him leaving a ball that seamed back a long way and bowled him. At no time,do any of those critical fans, have any responsibility for the outcomes of their suggestions and are perfectly happy to absolve themselves and develop new criticism,even though, he has done exactly what they have asked. Its time that people understood,that any player can fail.If their record is an excellent one,they deserve to be supported and perservered with for a reasonable amount of time. Little more than a month ago,he was a hero for his 104*. He should always play his own game.

  • kieran on September 8, 2011, 23:29 GMT

    In defense of Dilshan, that was a lovely ball from Copeland, it cut back quite a ways from outside off. Still, he would be better placed batting at 7 as the all-rounder.

  • John on September 8, 2011, 21:58 GMT

    The best captains I've seen have been the ones who had to work hard on their own games and knew what it was like to put effort above ability. The three best captains I remember were Richie Benaud, Mike Brearley and Imran Khan. Benaud had to work really hard at developing his legbreaks, Brearley wasn't a test class player and every innings was a struggle and Imran raised himself from a fairly ordinary bowler and batsman to be a great bowler and test class batsman (if I were to pick an all-world team of players I've seen, Imran would be captain). The great natural players don't usually make great captains- even the best cricketer ever, Gary Sobers, wasn't a great captain. Dilshan plays a natural game based not on thought but on talent. He doesn't seem to have the rapport with his players that a captain needs. Incidentally, I think Clarke is probably a better captain after his own struggles of the last couple of years than he would have been previously.

  • Terry on September 8, 2011, 20:09 GMT

    There are obviously problems in the team and with the Board. Sangakkara stood aside to give the next man time to build a new team (like Ponting & Clarke) and they ended up giving it to an older man in Dilshan who hasnt immediately shown any aptitude or appetite for the job. Strange.

  • Chatty on September 8, 2011, 19:48 GMT

    Too quick to jump to conclusions about Dilshan. Seems like the backroom support is not good either. Need a full time Australian (!) coach as well. After all that is rectified, if Dilshan still does poorly, then it is time for Dilshan to go.

  • Dummy4 on September 8, 2011, 19:35 GMT

    Unlike Sanga and Mahela, Dilshan does not look like a leader of men. He sulks when things do not go his way, his body language gives him away at those times, and most importantly, his temperament has always been in question. What has never been in question is his ability to play blazing innings and to cut through the opposition bowling. While it may still be possible to see a turnaround, I suppose Sri Lankan administrators, once Sanga and Mahela gave up their jobs, might have been better off appointing a younger person to lead the country keeping an eye on the future. Dilshan is merely keeping the seat warm for his successor.

  • Wala on September 8, 2011, 16:44 GMT

    The performance or under-performance of players do not always reflect on the players ability. Especially for Sri Lankan players. The success of a team has to do a lot with the selections, attitude and the support the cricket board provides to the team. In Sri Lanka, only in a world cup everyone tries to back 100% for the team and players mentality gets higher and therefore gets better performance. But apart from WC, for all the other tours, series nothing of above mentioned was seen. Usually, selections become poor to worse, players mentality gets lower and furthermore the cricket board which was established to maintain the sport in the country have no clue on current matches. All that board cares is securing their positions and gaining personal benefits. Therefore, it is a wonder that Sri Lankan players perform even at this level in international stage. Yes, it is sad, but fans cannot do anything. May be they should adjust their schedules, to watch SL cricket only in world cups!!!!!!!

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