Dhananjaya de Silva: It was a humid December week in Rawalpindi in 2019, with innumerable rains delaying Pakistan’s first home Test in a decade. It was the fourth day, with the first innings of the Test still only halfway. No games were seen that particular morning, and no one was expected for the foreseeable future, so there wasn’t much to do, and plenty of time to do it.
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“Who’s the prettiest batsman on both sides,” we thought foolishly. Not long ago, there was a survey on ESPNcricinfo, in which followers from both countries were weighing in animatedly. To avoid ending up with one of the more obvious results, Babar Azam was voted out entirely.
It was dhananjay d silva who topped that poll for Sri Lanka, no doubt having won over a few Pakistanis in the last three days. He came in struggling on the first day with Sri Lanka, and immediately opened the innings with such delicate grace, which was felt indecisively in almost any innings.
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There was, of course, a flamboyant Pakistani fast bowling attack, but that didn’t take them enough to drag them into an orchestra, only he seemed to conduct. His quality, his danger, was simply the background against which he was doing his best work, with a fluid spontaneity that didn’t make it feel like work at all. Even with incessant rain and poor lighting, making it impossible to procure any rhythm.
Praising a cricketer for being elegant can often sound like a backhanded compliment, as can a concomitant lack of substance that must necessarily accompany style. (To take that point further, it was Asad Shafiq who won the election on behalf of Pakistan that day).
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Such players, it is easy to think, exist to decorate rather than influence the game, to decorate rather than to win them. They are believed to lack the patience to get down and dirty, and result in pouring out hearts when they cannot be tempted.
When de Silva came out to bat at Galle on Tuesday, the result of cloaking came to the fore. He had seen half his team fall for 117, the lead still uncertain 264. In the last six weeks, five totals of more than this have been comfortably followed in Test cricket. Just last week, at the same venue, Pakistan stunned Sri Lanka with 342 runs in the fourth innings, and looked very well on track to repeat the feat with a Test that is equally shaping up here. It was time for a craftsman, and here Sri Lanka was sending an artist.
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Naseem Shah was the only fast bowler who has threatened with both the old and the new ball. In front of him was a batsman who managed just one half-century in 13 innings this year, at an average of just over 26. De Silva was not the favorite to win this fight, especially as he was in the midst of the most significant drop in his performance levels since 2018. Also, in all three earlier innings of this series, his dismissal manner with Naseem has been bold. Man uprooted his middle stump with a series ball on the first day.
In the previous game against Australia, he fell cheaply to Mitchell Swepson and then to Travis Head. He can be a tough bowler in his day, but the self-respecting South Asian batsmen do not want to give wickets to spin bowlers in the middle of the day. Earlier test, he had covid, and missed it completely. It has not been an easy time for the man to whom everything comes so easily.