Boy racer Chandimal steers clear of trouble
Dinesh Chandimal has a big, booming cover drive, and everyone knows it. Mahela Jayawardene had one that purred like the engine of a Jaguar. Kumar Sangakkara's became so high class and epoch-defining he could have had the Rolls Royce Spirit of Ecstasy installed on his forehead.
Chandimal's is more fast-and-furious than grace-and-finesse: a lowered Subaru Impreza with a flaming paintjob, blinding rims, and an exhaust pipe that could house a small elephant. I mean, just watch him in the shot. His head stays steady, but his arms are almost a blur - the backlift massive and menacing. He doesn't stroke or hit the ball, he outright assaults it.
Like the boy racers who take their cars flying around residential zones, though, Chandimal's drives can be endlessly annoying when deployed in the wrong place. The tour of South Africa was like this. Repeatedly, coaches and captain would go on record pleading with batsmen to take care in their shot selections, to show a bit of patience, and please for the love of all that is good and holy, refrain from driving at the seaming bloody ball. Yet there Chandimal was, a senior man by number of Tests played, flashing giddily, sending balls to keeper or slip, bringing hundreds of thousands of palms to faces.
When he was subsequently told by the chief selector to retune his game in first-class cricket, Chandimal seemed to radically alter his approach. His first innings at Galle last week was almost a self-flagellation for his South African extravagances - he spent 71 minutes and 54 balls at the crease, but scored only five runs. Had the long drought scrambled his mind completely? On as flat a surface as Sri Lanka has produced in a year, Chandimal's was an innings so out of character you couldn't help but wonder if he had lost a little bit of himself again, as he had once done in 2014.
He made 50 not out in the second innings of that game, but this did not convince the doubters either, so easy had that half-century come. Sri Lanka were completely dominant when Chandimal came to the crease and, in an ideal world, would not have delayed the declaration long enough for him to get the milestone. What was the point of virtually gifting a Sri Lankan batsman a score, after all? Chandimal has come through one of the weakest domestic circuits in the world: he already has access to a lifetime supply of meaningless fifties.
At the P Sara on Wednesday, however, he was suddenly everything fans wanted from a senior batsman. Chandimal put his fingers on the pitch and batted to its pulse, discerning early on it was more devious than it appeared. The scoring opportunities were not spurned altogether, but the brash strokes had definitely been locked up.
Today, it was his team-mates who were running themselves off the road and into bushes, or plunging off avoidable cliffs. Through most of the day, Chandimal kept his tyres on the tarmac, and just kept plugging on. His unbeaten 86 came off 210 deliveries, and featured four fours. Only one of those boundaries was the result of a drive - though this one was crisp rather than flamboyant, and hit further towards the centre of the batsman's V than way out towards the badlands at deep cover.
"We analysed that he's got out a lot against seam bowlers, driving outside off stump, early on," coach Graham Ford said of Chandimal after play. "That's been his downfall a lot of the time. When he puts that lovely looking cover drive away and doesn't use it early on, he gets big scores. When he hits it, it's an exquisite shot, but it's a high-risk shot in Test cricket, especially if he's batting at No. 4 and getting in earlier.
"It's more about his mindset. He's the first to admit that rather than getting himself in, he's played a few ambitious shots trying to get himself moving or get the scoreboard going. But he's come back and really thought about his game."
In fact, so responsible did Chandimal's innings seem, that he even took on a role Angelo Mathews had turned into an art form: that of looking supremely pissed at the non-striker's end at a team-mate's loose dismissal. Chandimal raised palms up to ask Dhananjaya de Silva "why?" after he tried to hack Taijul Islam over midwicket and got himself bowled. He was visibly annoyed when Niroshan Dickwella had his stumps rattled playing a fantastically poor reverse sweep. Even Dilruwan Perera - whose major role is with the ball - got an eyeful of ire from Chandimal when he chased a wide ball and edged behind.
Chandimal's has been a rapid transition from wasteful talent to stern senior man, and to be fair, with him there is no telling when he will transition back again. But for one day at least, he was more station wagon than roaring Subaru. And man, did Sri Lanka need it.
Andrew Fidel Fernando is ESPNcricinfo's Sri Lanka correspondent. @andrewffernando