Unfazed Dickwella makes solid first impression
A call-up from the blue. On the plane at Heathrow. Off it with less than 36 hours to go. One practice session before the match, then in to face the second new ball, bearing down at 140kph before the day is out.
Niroshan Dickwella had dreamed of Thursday for years. Newspapers predicted it when he was sitting in classrooms, wrapping his head around differential equations. At family weddings, which seemed to happen every other month, uncles and aunts meant something else entirely when they asked him "When do you think the big day will be?" Co-workers wanted to know how close he was. "Has Sanath called you yet?" His coaches were hopeful, but kept warning him: "It won't come easy. Work hard."
Then it all happens in 72 hours and 2012's Schoolboy Cricketer of the Year is there, taking guard with the flag on his left breast. The best bowler in the world has not had much luck that day. He is leaving a trail of smoke behind him as he charges into the crease in his final spell. Before long, Dickwella is slapping Dale Steyn over the slips. He is punching Vernon Philander through the covers for four. Balls are being left on length, others defended beneath the eyes. If he is nervous, there are no outward signs. He has replaced Dinesh Chandimal - the more senior wicketkeeper-batsman at his club, Nondescripts Cricket Club, and a Schoolboy Cricketer of the Year as well, in 2009. It is all a little surreal for those who had followed his career, let alone for Dickwella himself.
Even before the boundaries, South Africa had raised a mighty appeal when an advancing Dickwella was struck on the pad, and the umpire's finger went up. He had only faced 16 balls at a level where reviews exist, but he had the presence of mind to immediately ask the umpire what he was out for. Catch or lbw? When Nigel Llong told him he was out bat-pad, Dickwella referred without a second thought. Three Sri Lanka Tests before this, Rangana Herath, a veteran, had gloved the ball after his hand had come off the bat, and walked, to leave his side on the brink of defeat. At SSC, Dickwella knew that this far down the track, a review might not overturn an lbw decision, but surely the cameras would show he had not hit it.
"It just shows the maturity in the guy," said Mahela Jayawardene, who batted alongside Dickwella for most of the debutant's innings. "He came to bat yesterday to face 10-12 overs, and he handled that. I played a game against him last year and he batted against us and he played well. He looked a composed player that knew his strengths and weaknesses."
On day two, Dickwella was batting alongside the centurion, but it was he who enlivened the morning. The on-the-up cover-drive off Morne Morkel was sublime. The lofted shot over mid-on off Vernon Philander bold, but safe. Then later, he ran at JP Duminy to collect him at the pitch of the ball, and cash in his first Test-match six.
He does not have the manic energy of a Chandimal behind the stumps. He's not clean, quick and clinical like Prasanna Jayawardene. His A team coach Romesh Kaluwitharana had given much of the cricket world its first exposure to Sinhala with niyamai (nice one) and allanna (catch it), but Dickwella has his head down, focusing too intently to chirp. That's Ajantha Mendis whipping them in from the other end. The main reason Mendis plays is because he is hard to pick. Dickwella has never kept to him in a match before. Herath is a little easier, but even he has a carrom ball, and turns it different amounts each ball, pitching some up, firing others in.
He lets a hard chance off Hashim Amla through, but when Dickwella snaps to his left to take a superb catch down the leg side, he is still bouncing up and down in an appeal, long after the batsman has begun to walk. Debutants - the younger the better - are almost impossible not to like, and when teammates flock to ruffle Dickwella's hair, this one is at his most lovable.
Earlier in the day, he had dispatched Morkel clinically in successive balls, either side of the pitch, then waltzed dozily into the bowler, as he watched his second shot. Morkel shoved him grumpily out of the way. No Colombo edition of Ravindra Jadeja v James Anderson here. Dickwella looked up, embarrassed. He apologised, then walked back toward the crease.
"Dickwella has improved a lot in the last two years, since he's left school," Jayawardene said. "If he's got the attitude and the appetite to improve, then that's something we're looking for in the national team. He'd be a great asset."
Debutants often come in to the public consciousness with a clean slate. But there are a few like Dickwella in the Sri Lanka camp, who have been in the public eye since since their teenage years. If he wants a career blueprint for talented youngsters, then the man he shared a 100-run stand with has laid one out. Seventeen years ago, Jayawardene had hit a fifty on his debut too. Dickwella lit up the SSC on day two. Bold, compact, brimming with ability, his challenge now is to burn bright and long.
Andrew Fidel Fernando is ESPNcricinfo's Sri Lanka correspondent. @andrewffernando