When Akila Dananjaya's name appeared in Sri Lanka's provisional squad for the ICC World Twenty20, the rumour mill spun out stories where the media could not. Some accused his family of using political clout to achieve his sudden elevation. It would not have been the first time, after all. Others alleged money had passed hands - a favour in exchange for funds for an ailing board. Others still supposed it was a mistake, or an oversight. Why would an 18-year-old unknown, who has never played for Sri Lanka at Under-19 level, let alone any first-class or List A cricket, be picked for the national side? As is often the case, the truth was perhaps more far-fetched, and certainly more charming, than fiction.
Dananjaya is the son of a carpenter from Panadura, just south of Colombo. He had been playing tier-three school cricket for the little-known Mahanama Vidyalaya when he was invited to a Sri Lanka practice session ahead of Pakistan's tour in June. Coach Graham Ford and Mahela Jayawardene had been searching for a bowler who could mimic Saeed Ajmal, and his doosra in particular. What they got in Dananjaya was more than just a competent impostor.
In his first professional match, for Wayamba United in the SLPL, Dananjaya showcased the tools with which he had so impressed Jayawardene and Ford that they requested he be fast-tracked to the tips of the national team. He began with several stock offspinners, flighted, dipping, and ripping out of the Premadasa clay. Then the googly was introduced. More subtle than most at the point of delivery, but then so was the turn - not that that was any mercy to the three batsmen who have fallen to it in the tournament so far. The doosra followed, his first ball to cut away from the right-hander. The legbreak next, flighted again and with a slight snap of overspin. And the carrom ball last - maybe a tad too short to be truly effective, giving the batsman time to read it off the pitch.
But perhaps the most impressive aspects of his game were not his variations, but the cunning with which he used them. In each of his spells throughout the SLPL, Dananjaya has resisted trotting out his deliveries for the circus. Each ball has been deliberate, each length has attempted to draw the batsman into a false stroke, though he does occasionally miss his target and overpitch. His focus on his own game has been encouraging too. Instead of allowing nerves to frighten him into a defensive approach, he has seemed in complete control, at home even, in the limelight. "What's been really good to see is his temperament, for a guy who hasn't played at this level before," Wayamba United and former Sri Lanka coach Trevor Bayliss said. "The control with which he bowls his various deliveries is impressive, but he's also shown a lot of poise at the big moments, and a tendency to ignore what's going on around him and do what he does."
A drive to excel has also been apparent. In the last over of his second match, he gave one ball a touch too much air and was tonked back over his head for six. The blow had only bumped his figures down from outstanding to excellent - he still claimed 2 for 20 from his four overs - but it was enough to spark visible frustration. That he abhors to serve up poor deliveries is plain from his economy rate. In 16 overs in the SLPL so far, he has conceded only 4.81 an over.
Like Ajantha Mendis eventually discovered at Test level, perhaps Dananjaya's mystery will dim with the help of time and reels of videotape. "The challenge for him will come when batsmen get a better look at him and begin to work him out," Bayliss said. "But he has the basics there to make him a good bowler regardless, and maybe in future his focus might be on the more orthodox aspects of spin bowling."
Mendis has also been named in the final squad for the World Twenty20, a format in which he is still very effective. If Dananjaya hopes to become Sri Lanka's long-term spinner in every format, he may only need to look in his own dressing room for a caution on over-reliance on mystery. The novelty of his method may get him through his first international assignment, but he must prove himself a disciple of flight, dip and turn, if he is to truly make good on his considerable promise.