Following the nerve-fraying finish and the drama of the final half hour of Sri Lanka's Super Eights encounter with New Zealand, Akila Dananjaya's four overs in New Zealand's innings seems an age ago. It was a quiet night for bowlers in general, but Dananjaya's performance deserves to be highlighted. It was not just that he was steady despite his inexperience, and that he kept his nerve against destructive Twenty20 batsmen intent on unsettling him, but his 2 for 32 were actually the best figures for any bowler in the match. Given he dismissed both New Zealand's top scorers, his impact on the game was perhaps even more significant than the numbers suggest.
That he was so undaunted in front of a heaving crowd in the second phase of a major international tournament is praiseworthy given he is only 18, but it will not surprise those who followed him in the SLPL. He had only played tier-three school cricket prior to August, but in a professional tournament with a significant global following, he never seemed out of place. Even in his very first match he was unafraid to bowl each of his five variations, and most of those were on display during his international debut as well.
Mahela Jayawardene has been the most ardent supporter of Dananjaya's elevation, and he has taken care to ensure the sudden transition has been easy on the bowler. Before his first spell at the top level, Jayawardene was at the bowler's crease encouraging Dananjaya and talking him through the field settings. When he had Martin Guptill caught at long-off three balls into his career, Jayawardene was the first team-mate Dananjaya sought out to celebrate with.
Jayawardene had first seen Dananjaya over a year ago, when Sri Lanka were preparing for the tour of the UAE and Dananjaya came in as a net bowler who bowled a similar doosra to Saeed Ajmal. Back then Dananjaya was too loose. He had the variations, but did not have the control to maintain pressure on his opponents. Dananjaya went away, worked on his game, and returned to the Sri Lanka practice sessions a much improved bowler. He impressed Jayawardene and coach Graham Ford enough that they requested his inclusion in the World Twenty20 squad. Since then, Dananjaya has surprised even them with his poise under pressure, like when he continued to bowl even after being struck in the face by a full blooded Rob Nicol drive. In his next over, with cotton up his nose to stop the flow of blood, Dananjaya had Nicol caught at deep midwicket.
"I just wanted to give him a game early on so that his jitters are over," Jayawardene said. "He bowled really well and came back even with a knock. Good that he got a game under the belt. He's a competitor. When he got hit I went to him thinking he was gone for the game. He said, 'Shit, I missed that catch.' And he was bleeding from his nose. That's his attitude."
The Sri Lanka dressing room is perhaps one of the easiest for young players to settle into, and the support he has received there has no doubt helped him acclimatise to the international cricket environment. That rather than bowling quicker and flatter than he normally would in his first match, Dananjaya erred on the fuller side speaks volumes about his courage and confidence. Even when batsmen had successfully charged him, he continued to flight the ball - occasionally too far. If that is his only major weakness so far, it is not a bad one to have.
"Akila has settled into the squad very well," Jayawardene said. "He's very talkative and has his own pack among the younger group. He's got his transport organised because one of the senior players is driving him up and down from his home. Lahiru Thirimanne is his chauffer. He only lives a couple of blocks away from Akila's place in Panadura, so he has to go and pick him up and drop him off.
"He's settled in nicely, but we've got to make sure we handle him properly."
Jayawardene and the Sri Lanka team have been cautious about throwing Dananjaya into situations that may not suit him. Ford revealed that he had been slated to play South Africa in the group stage, but had been held back when the rains came and the wet ball posed a problem. They will be encouraged by Dananjaya's first international outing and will likely give him more games, particularly if Ajantha Mendis cannot fully overcome his side strain. Beginning with the Super Eights match against West Indies on Saturday (if passed fit), Dananjaya now has the opportunity to complete the fairytale by making a name for himself at the top level. In some ways, he already has.