An incurable opportunist
As lights begin to flicker on long international careers, cricketers often begin to behave and speak differently. Young men who started bar fights and smoked pot on tour somehow earn the "elder statesman" tag in their mid-thirties, tired, perhaps, of causing trouble; too wise now to indulge in old habits.
In a dressing room where even the youngsters tend to measure their moves like old men, Tillakaratne Dilshan was wired a different way. Rage was not his vice, though no fielder who ever missed a catch off his bowling ever escaped without a verbal spray. He could be brash, even arrogant, with bat in hand, but there were also innings wrought of genuine caution, and he possessed enough humility to admit when things weren't going well.
He was instead, an addict, of sorts, but it was his great strength as well as a blemish. Whenever there was a chance, no matter how small or unlikely, Dilshan couldn't help but help himself. As he leaves the Test arena now, four days shy of 37, he remains as he always has been: an incurable opportunist.
How else can you explain the vagaries of a career that titillated so frequently but frustrated almost as much? In the year-end tour of Australia last year, Dilshan was at his exuberant best in Hobart, flaying bowlers to the square fence with disdain and driving through cover with equal abandon. Few opportunities to score were missed and even fewer errant balls left unpunished.
But almost two weeks later in Melbourne, a wretched slog across the line to Mitchell Johnson left his stumps splayed and the "that's how I play" defence stretched to snapping point. He had been dismissed playing that stroke so many times in the past two years that it constituted a bona fide technical flaw, which he then claimed to have corrected in practice. But, like a recovering kleptomaniac who relapses every time he sees a bulging wallet, the same shot to the same ball continued to ail him as recently as his last series. Still more like the Artful Dodger, however, he prospered from his habits for so long that he often reasoned he would be a fool to change them.
"I'm not going to change how I play," he said after breaking a recent poor stretch. "If the ball is there to hit - even if it is the first ball - I'm going to hit it."
Though for many, the enduring feature of his cricket is his lust for violence - the manic drive through cover, the irrepressible pull and the dilscoop (a stroke that only an opportunist could design) - his craving to make the most of each possibility pervaded every aspect of his game. When he has bludgeoned an opposition into defence, Dilshan hides the dasher away and squeezes the field for everything it is worth, mining the gaps often and exhaustively. When he strikes a ball well, he instinctively erupts into a run until sense overrides muscle-memory and informs him that a fielder has the ball. The drive to extract the maximum from any situation is written into Dilshan's blood, which might explain why his outlook has been so resistant to change.
He is unique among the seniors in the team, and he can sometimes cut a solitary figure on the field as well. If contributes to an opposition dismissal, Dilshan's is the widest grin and the most vivid celebration, but when others make the breakthrough, he is routinely the last man into the huddle. He might dawdle in halfway, yell out his "well done" and amble back to his station. No one could accuse Dilshan of not being a team man, because the nature of his innings almost always reflected the goals of the collective, but there was also a forceful desire to feature in everything that happens on the field.
He has batted in the top order and the middle. In Tests, he has opened the bowling as well as the batting. He fields at backward point when the battle is thickest there, but ranges the boundary or lurks at long off, if the straight boundary is under threat. He has kept wickets for a whole series too - admirably well for someone with such sparse technique - but of course he appealed every half-chance like a man possessed, just as he does at the bowling crease. Occasionally, he has collected a fine for that as well.
When Sri Lanka's class of '96 appraise the present team, as they are often asked to do in the media, their most persistent criticism is that cricketers have lost the zeal that defined the country's first professional generation. That the loss of Dilshan's experience will make a young side seem even greener is no secret, but what Sri Lanka will miss most about Dilshan is the fire in his bones for seizing the moment, and making it his own.
Andrew Fidel Fernando is ESPNcricinfo's Sri Lanka correspondent. He tweets here