Despite all the hype around mystery cricketers, Sri Lankan cricket would not have risen without a more prosaic, solid supply line from the schools. Arjuna Ranatunga's one big lament has been the decline of schools cricket, otherwise "the best system in the world". Schools cricket in Sri Lanka has been stuff of legend. There are about 30 Big Matches, traditional annual matches played between two certain schools. The Royal-Thomian is the biggest Big Match, a phenomenon in itself with a festival-like atmosphere over the three days of the match and on days leading up to it. Up in the hill country, the Big Match of Kandy, the battle of the blues, between St Anthony and Trinity, was a one-sided affair when Sampath Perera took over in September 2008.
Trinity at that time cared only for rugby. The cricket team, which gave the world Kumar Sangakkara, was in division two. Eight years ago, the whole team had been suspended by the school's principal for lack of discipline. Now, Perera was brought in on the insistence of old boy Sangakkara. In the first week with the team, Perera realised only one of the 21 boys given to him could play the forward-defensive properly.
So, Perera didn't go after technique. He looked for temperament instead. And he picked the Under-15 wicketkeeper for the Under-19 side. Then he fast-tracked him into the main side. There were three more senior wicketkeepers in the squad; their parents obviously complained. There were petitions. Perera, though, stuck with this wicketkeeper, who went on to become the most successful captain at Trinity. Not only did Trinity win the Big Match under him for the first time in 26 years, he also led them to the triple crown of two-day league, one-day knockouts and T20 championship, which no school has ever managed to achieve.
"He is a very positive guy," Perera now says of his big selection at Trinity. "He is a very cunning fellow. He was the fourth in line so there were a lot of petitions against me. 'What is this?' 'This coach is bullshit.' But I knew. He just needed some time. I thought one day he would play for Sri Lanka."
Niroshan Dickwella has not just played for Sri Lanka, some even talk of him as the future Sri Lanka captain. That has not got to do with the runs he has scored. His numbers, in fact, are not going to grab your attention. An average of 30 in nine Tests, and two ODI centuries in 19 matches are not stats that guarantee you a secure position in these fickle times in Sri Lankan cricket, leave alone a leadership role. It is his attitude that has impressed observers.
Perera noticed that when Dickwella led Trinity to a double crown in 2011 and the triple crown the next year, Dickwella had older players to lead. "He built good relations with other players," Perera says. "His communication skills are very sharp. He is a good motivator. He might shout at his players, but very next second he goes and speaks to them.
"Captaincy at school can be a headache for a player, which is why a lot of it is done by the coach. When you meet a good captain, though, if you teach him everything, game tactics, bowling changes, how to handle a situation, you don't need to talk. Niroshan was the same thing. He did everything. Bowling changes, fielding setting, trapping other batters, analysing the batters. He will never give up. If he thinks 'I want to do this', definitely he will do it."
Dickwella mostly led by his runs, though, which come mainly through the sweep against spinners. After his half-century at the SSC against India, Dickwella was asked at a press conference who pushed for sweep in the team management. Dickwella's reply probably went back years ago to school cricket. It was almost as if he was singing, "To everything, sweep, sweep, sweep."
Perera says 80% of the bowling you face at lower levels in Sri Lanka is spin. The pitches are treacherous. You can't just use your feet the way the Indian batsmen do. You just, as Perera says, "Mark the off stump and do the sweep."
"We use the sweep as a threat for the bowlers," he says. "If they don't sweep, we are shouting from outside, 'Sweep the bowler'."
At Trinity, Dickwella and others would play at least 250 sweep shots a week. Schools cricket is an age when a player's technique is being moulded. It is important that it be taught the right way. "Identify the guard, align your outer eye with the off stump," Perera says. "Anything outside that eye is outside the line so that is not out. Second thing is control the ball. Bat should come from high to low. Slog sweep and paddle sweep are different, but first you need to learn to keep it along the ground. First thing is, before the ball is pitched, you should base your back leg on the ground and get into position with the high back lift."
By his reckoning, Dickwella swept 80% of the deliveries he faced from India spinners. He was happy with that stat. He had done so against Zimbabwe, too, as he and Asela Gunaratne rescued them from what would have been a huge upset at home. "The positive thing is, he never changes his game," Perera says. "Any situation, he applies his game. One or two days, I scolded him, called him donkey. One day he told me, 'If it goes for four, you will only clap.' So I knew. I shut my mouth. Next game he scored 200."
Perera loves using the word donkey. Ask him about the shot Dickwella played to get out to Shami, trying to ramp him first ball of a new spell and getting bowled, and Perera says, "It is a donkey shot. Difficult thing is batting against spin. He did that and then this." This shot even has a name: the Dickscoop, which he used to hit Kagiso Rabada for a six once.
Ask Perera how Dickwella was at studies: "not a donkey, not a professor". Dickwella knew how to score marks. Nobody had to worry he might fail an exam.
Perera says that as a coach you have to be like a father, an enemy, a brother, a friend to the players. He has hit Dickwella on two occasions when he got into mischief he doesn't want written about. He was like a father when the financial manager of Trinity, Perera's family friend, told him of the arrears against the star player's name. Perera asked him what was up. His father, a diabetic patient, had some pension issues and couldn't afford to pay the fees, which was about LKR 30,000 a term. Perera immediately spoke to an old boy and arranged for a scholarship that ran up to Rs 300,000.
Perera insists Dickwella is not the most talented cricketer he coached at Trinity, but such is the Colombo-centred nature of cricket in Sri Lanka that many an outstation gem gets lost in the transition. For Dickwella, he arranged for a contract at Nondescripts Cricket Club (NCC). In his case, there was support both from SLC and NCC to help him move to Colombo. With Dinesh Chandimal away on national duty, Dickwella kept getting chances for NCC, and kept piling on the runs.
Once Dickwella had played for Sri Lanka, Perera called him up and asked him to move out of the SLC accommodation and rent a house on his own. "You are not a beggar, neh?" he told Dickwella. "And vacate it for someone else who might be in need as you were.
"If not for Sampath Perera there will be no Niroshan Dickwella as he is the one who guided me, made me understand my priorities and moulded me to the player I am today," Dickwella told ThePapare.com.
That is, perhaps, the most serious sentence you could get Dickwella to speak. He doesn't have the articulation of Sangakkara, but already in a short career, Dickwella has become known for the impishness that was a Sangakkara trademark. At one stage, Perera created a fake Facebook account to follow what his wards were up to. "You can see the 'last seen' stamp, neh?" He found that Dickwella was the most active.
"He is a funny character," Perera says. "If he gets free time, when he was playing in school, he will do the dance, drama or whatever. So many dry jokes. He is not keeping his mouth shut. Always kacha-kacha-kacha-kacha (like scissors). Even when keeping."
Once Dickwella senior called up Perera and told him about stickers of stars on the ceiling of Niroshan's roof. When Perera asked him about the stars, he said, "When I go to bed, I like to see stars." He had posters of Sachin Tendulkar, Brian Lara and Sangakkara in his room. He wanted to be like Sangakkara, which is natural.
Dickwella even appeals like Sangakkara. However, he needs to learn the finesse of the "old dog Sangers" as Danny Morrison once called him. Already, he has been reported to the match referee for waiting for Zimbabwe's Solomon Mire to lift his foot so he can stump him. He has earned demerit points for physical contact on the field with Kagiso Rabada. He has been punished for showing dissent.
"The thing is, he wants to win anyhow," Perera says. "In my side, he didn't get any complaints. The rule is, if the umpire complains, next match you are out." However, Perera also acknowledges that outside internationals, it is difficult to police all the gamesmanship, and that is where Dickwella has honed his game. He will continue to be street-smart.
Perera doesn't coach at Trinity now. He has applied twice for the Sri Lanka Under-19 job, but has on both occasions been left disheartened. Instead, he has found himself a new challenge: to bring back to first division a team in whose decline he played a part, St Anthony. He keeps in touch with Dickwella. Recently he noticed Dickwella's shoulder was dropping when he played his shots, which meant he was becoming an exclusively midwicket player. Immediately he got on the phone and asked him to keep his chin and shoulder together. He tells him often to not go on hitting every ball he faces because international cricket is tougher.
On Saturday, Dickwella will play his first international match in his home of the hill country. If he tries to go back to his school, chances are he might be sent back because exams are on and discipline must be maintained. The exams that he had no trouble clearing even if he didn't study. In the bigger examination of cricket, he might need someone in his ear. "If he doesn't lose his discipline, there is no limit on how far he might go," Perera says. "If he is not… he is a bit of a funny character."