Dilshan soars at favoured venue
Pallekele is not a difficult place to like. The road from Kandy winds over rolling mountains, through lush tropical flora still beaded with droplets from the last rains. Troupes of Sri Lankan macaques loiter like rogues on village shop rooves, waiting to swing down when the shopkeeper takes his eyes off the bananas. Even on a clunking government bus or a rickety three-wheeler, the serenity of the surrounds is irresistible.
The ground itself is nestled in the Dumbara mountain range and flanked by tree-lined grass banks. Once, at its conception, an architect had hoped the stadium would turn out like Supersport Park in South Africa. When crowds file in and the venue becomes an island of buzz and baila for the evening, there can be no doubts it is all Sri Lankan. Some days the setting sun scatters scarlet over the western curve of sky and, then, there are few better places in the world to be - let alone for cricket.
Tillakaratne Dilshan likes it here too. For all those reasons, but for others that make the ground truly special for him, as well. He has now scored 768 runs at the venue at an average of 96.00 and a strike rate of 93.09.
When he plays at Pallekele now, he bats as if the runs are a birthright. Dilshan's cricket has mellowed over the last 18 months, with his strike rate down year-on-year since 2011 even as his run tallies have swelled, but Pallekele rarely fails to summon the savage of old. He still strikes at 93 at the ground since the beginning of 2013, but scores at a rate of 79 elsewhere.
He was off the mark with a scorching stroke through mid-on, off Dale Steyn, in the first over. Out of all his shots, that on-drive has given him the most grief in his later years; the bat often collecting fresh air as the ball cannons into the stumps. At times, he has avoided playing the shot, but at this ground, he unlocks his full arsenal. He is bulletproof here.
Even early in his innings, even off one of the finest quick bowlers in world cricket, Dilshan dares to play the on-drive, and knows he will succeed. He still plays the 'Dilscoop' regularly at Pallekele, when it has eased out of his game elsewhere. In 2011, he unfurled perhaps an even more astonishing shot than that at the ground, when he swept Shane Watson's medium pace high and long in front of square for six.
Dilshan struggles to put his finger on exactly what works for him at Pallekele. The pitch is faster than most others in the subcontinent, but not as fast as in Hambantota, where he has a far less fearsome record. There is swing and seam to be had early on for the bowlers, as well as spin later on. Perhaps it began fortuitously with a few good innings at the venue, which then snowballed into an avalanche of good vibes. Whenever he visits now, he does not just hope, he expects to excel.
"When I come here, everyone trusts that I will do well," Dilshan said. "Even today before I went out to bat, my captain to told me, 'You'll get runs today as well'. I enjoy playing cricket everywhere, but here I get a good feeling that I'll be getting runs. The more we play here, the better I'll be able to do. I've already asked my captain to request more matches here."
The wickets were a birthright too, on this occasion. He had already broken the third-wicket partnership that had sunk Sri Lanka in the first match when he had AB de Villiers caught at long-on, but he yearned for the biggest scalp of the innings as well.
When team-mates shelled two difficult chances off Hashim Amla inside three balls in his following over, Dilshan cursed loudly, turned back to his mark and kicked out twice at the turf, seething. Dilshan is perhaps the most spirited man in the Sri Lanka team, but even for him, such eruptions are rare. He could not tolerate others preventing him from claiming what was his. "Even with the ball, I feel like I can do something on this pitch," he said.
Dilshan's 86 off 90 was both impetus and backbone in Sri Lanka's innings, and it was his dismissal of de Villiers that sparked the South Africa slide of five wickets for 26 runs, and sent the visitors careening towards defeat. Perhaps it is the cooler mountain air. Perhaps it is the smell of rain, which is never far off. Whatever the difference is, Dilshan can't get enough of Pallekele.
Andrew Fidel Fernando is ESPNcricinfo's Sri Lanka correspondent. @andrewffernando