Leadership curbing Chandimal's spirit

Dinesh Chandimal calls out instructions AFP

When Sri Lanka appointed Tillakaratne Dilshan captain in 2011, he rushed back mid-IPL to accept the post. The man that appeared before the press shortly after was unlike any Dilshan that had been seen before. The designer beard had been replaced by a plain goatee, the earring had vanished, and he spoke and behaved in a manner he felt was fitting for an international captain.

Yet, despite his efforts, there was something amiss about his new public avatar. Beneath the weight of all that responsibility, Dilshan had lost something of himself. A man who struggles to get his point across in any language was suddenly wading through scores of interviews in his second language, stumbling over rote-learned lines, slipping on generic phrases.

There were occasional outbursts of mirth, like when Sri Lanka won their first Test in South Africa, but Dilshan mostly caged his mischief, and the team and his own form could not wear his feigned virtues well. It was not until he was relieved of the reins that he truly regained himself. The two years since have been among the most productive of his career, in limited-overs cricket in particular.

Dilshan's tale should inspire caution in Sri Lanka's selectors and the young men they are grooming for leadership. Angelo Mathews had two years as vice-captain before he was placed in charge, and perhaps thanks to that incubation period, there has been no serious slip in his cricket - though there have been no substantial gains either.

Dinesh Chandimal has not been so fortunate. In 23 limited-overs innings since March, Chandimal has not hit one fifty. In ODIs he averages 16.81 and has scored his runs at a strike rate of 62. In four Twenty20 knocks, his average is in the single figures.

There is no doubt that he is batting woefully out of position, and is often tasked with finishing the innings - a job which his cricket is patently not suited to. But even so, his returns have been appalling. Worse, he must now seek to build a side for the World Twenty20 in Bangladesh, where he, ostensibly, will lead the campaign.

There can equally be no doubt in Chandimal's ability. On Test debut, he withstood Dale Steyn, Morne Morkel, Jacques Kallis and Marchant de Lange, to produce two half-centuries that were vital for Sri Lanka's innings, and their eventual, famous win. In his first ODI at Lord's he arrived at No. 3 to lead the chase, and hit a hundred in what he feels is still his best cricketing moment. In Sydney this year, and in Colombo, he has played Test innings that have required considerable fortitude in tough situations. In the longest format, he still averages 58.

But, like Dilshan, there is something clearly amiss with Chandimal now. He has allowed leadership to curb his spirit. The big, extravagant strokes replete with the high follow-through, the deft trips down the pitch, the exuberance - even in defence - have all given way to cautious prods and unsteady footwork. He had quickly gained a reputation as team mischief-maker soon after he arrived at the top level, but now he is fretful and afraid, at the crease and in public.

After Tuesday's washout, a journalist had jovially asked him what he did on wet, miserable nights. Conceding a smile, but turning around to the team manager to confirm that he should answer, Chandimal launched into a 90-second description on how he and his young team-mates spend their time extracting nuggets of cricketing wisdom from the older men, on how to face certain balls and particular bowlers.

Not only that, he said, they cluster together and go from senior player to senior player, like ascetics learning at the feet of enlightened gurus. It was the most correct thing to say, perhaps, and exceptionally uncontroversial, but unless Sri Lanka's youngsters are the most hideously boring 20-something-year-olds on the planet, it probably wasn't completely true either.

Unlike Dilshan, Chandimal has already proven to be a gifted captain. He is rarely short of ideas, thinks laterally and has the makings of a fine record. Accordingly, Sri Lanka's selectors are unlikely to strip him of the captaincy, particularly considering the potential for damage to Chandimal's confidence.

As a leader, though, he has not learnt to feel comfortable in his own skin. Unless he rediscovers the verve that once propelled his cricket and made him such a joy to watch, his batting may continue to be a poor reflection of his personality and his talent.