A cricketer with a modest record suddenly touches greatness or at least becomes a most talked about player thanks to a change in approach or style. This is verily the story of Tillakaratne Dilshan. Seen more as a limited overs cricketer thanks to his utility qualities he was not exactly a regular in the Test squad. Now suddenly he has turned out to be one of those cricketers who are cynosures. Even in a Sri Lankan side choc-a-bloc with stroke players and fast scorers Dilshan stands out and these days his batting style is being compared with Virender Sehwag’s.
For once this is not an uncalled for comparison. Dilshan is matching the Indiana Jones of Indian cricket in thrilling strokes and run production. So much so that New Zealand captain Daniel Vettori singled out Dilshan’s ruthless performance with the bat as the key factor behind his team’s 202-run defeat in the first Test at Galle. Dilshan, promoted to open the innings for the first time in Tests, raced to 92 off 72 balls in the first innings. Then in the second innings when runs were needed quickly so that Kumar Sangakkara could set New Zealand a challenging target Dilshan again was to the fore hitting an unbeaten 123 off just 131 balls – just the kind of batting that the Lankans required. The manner in which Dilshan flayed the bowling it became an uneven contest something that Vettori admitted while handing out plaudits to Dilshan. "See how well Dilshan played forcing us to bowl badly and you will understand that his batting was the real defining
moments throughout the game,’’ said the New Zealand skipper.
If any proof is required of Dilshan’s advance it is provided by figures. In his first 21 Tests he scored 951 runs at an average of 31.70, a strike rate of fractionally over 49 with three hundreds and two half centuries. In the next 35 Tests he has scored 2430 runs at an average of fractionally under 50 and a strike rate of over 72 with six hundreds and eleven half centuries. These telling stats underline why Dilshan is now an important member of the Lankan team in the longer version of the game too. He has always been a batsman who prefers aggression over defence but of late that preference has become much more pronounced.
Dilshan was always a key member of the ODI squad ever since he made his debut a decade ago. His attacking batsmanship whether at the top of the order or in the middle, his usefulness as an off break bowler and his electrifying fielding at the pivotal point position marked him out as one of the outstanding limited overs cricket in the game. Again the statistics will confirm the exalted status he enjoys. A tally of almost 3500 runs from 137 innings at an average of fractionally over 31 and a healthy strike rate of virtually 82 with two hundreds and 16 half centuries clearly illustrate his utility value to the side. But the ambitious 32-year-old Dilshan always wanted to excel in Test cricket too. He actually burst into prominence pretty early by scoring an unbeaten 163 in only his second Test innings against Zimbabwe in November 1999. But after that bright start he had to endure an extended period of frustration as he was pushed up and down the order. He
took all this in his stride and in 2003-04 had successive scores of 63, 100, 83 and 104 in Tests against England and Australia.
The runs and the occasional wickets continued to be notched up against Dilshan’s name. In 2005 he took the Bangladesh attack apart scoring 168 off just 179 balls but just to show that he could get hundreds against tougher opposition too he hammered the Indian bowlers three years later getting an unbeaten 125 from 170 deliveries. The attack comprised Zaheer Khan, Ishant Sharma, Anil Kumble and Harbhajan Singh but Dilshan showed scant respect and batted with gay abandon. But he certainly has a partiality for Bangladesh bowling and in January this year enjoyed himself hugely at Chittagong hitting 162 off 165 balls and then following it up in the second innings with 143 from 175 balls. The fairy tale was not over for he then finished off the match in double quick time taking four for 10 with his under rated off breaks. A couple of months later he was mowing down a much stronger Pakistan attack at Lahore in hammering 145 off 170 balls treating Umar Gul, Danish Kaneria and Shoaib Malik with disdain.
It was obvious that a dynamic cricketer like Dilshan would take naturally to the Twenty20 game and he excelled in the World Cup in England in June picking up the Player of the Series award after scoring 317 runs at an average of almost 53. His sparkling form had much to do with Sri Lanka finishing runners up and he created a sensation by coming out with the game’s latest invention – an astonishing flick shot over his head that was nicknamed `The Dilly scoop’. There is always an element of risk involved with such unorthodox strokes but Dilshan was amazingly consistent and the stroke became the talk of the cricket world. At the moment Dilshan is savouring his success story – a story that certainly hasn’t yet ended.