Dilruwan Perera is no stranger to fire-fighting. The Sri Lankan off-spinner, who is rapidly becoming an all-rounder, had scored an effortless 95 on his Test debut three years back against Pakistan in Sharjah. That time he displayed resilience and resolve not commonly associated with a debutant batting at No 8. He batted out close to 54 overs in the company of Angelo Mathews, a partnership that yielded just 112 runs but was quite important in the context of the game.
On Friday at Galle, he showed a completely different side to his Test batting. Sri Lanka were 154/5 with a batsman short at close of play on Day 1 — still 446 behind India's total. They needed some dose of inspiration and looked to their former skipper, Mathews, to dig them out of the mess. However, it was Dilruwan, a silent hero in recent months for Lanka, who stepped up.
What stood out was Dilruwan's positive intent right from the start. He began with a slash through point off Umesh Yadav before going back into the safety of his shell as Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja bowled in tandem to break the resolute pair.
Jadeja followed his unblemished approach of testing the batsman's defensive skills with his stump-to-stump line and exerted immense pressure. A frustrated Mathews eventually played a shocking uppish drive to Kohli to end a worthy 62-run stand. Mathews' wicket, however, turned out to be just the license Dilruwan needed to feast on the Indian bowlers.
In the very next over, he stepped out and clubbed Ashwin straight back over his head for a six before creaming him through covers with a sublime drive. Jadeja, however, continued to torment Dilruwan and almost had him leg-before. However, the suspect ball-tracking technology found that Dilruwan was safe.
The lower-order player had by then worked out his gameplan against the spinners and took them on with slog sweeps. What was impressive was the manner in which Dilruwan adjusted his footwork to Jadeja and Ashwin. He was forward and back in no time, displaying swiftness in movement as he tackled the pitch of the ball on most occasions, thereby negating the turn.
The change in his approach after Mathews' wicket was also commendable as he moved from 28 off 65 balls to his half-century off 94 balls. Once he had reached his half-century, Dilruwan lost Rangana Herath at the other end but was unflustered as he dispatched two Umesh deliveries in the same over to the boundary before adding another one in his next.
When Jadeja returned with his LBW trap, Dilruwan slog-swept him for a four and a six making it the third time he had hit the spinners to the fence and beyond it in the same over. Unfortunately, he was left stranded on 92 as Sri Lanka were bowled out for 291.
A few months back, when Bangladesh visited the Island Nation, the selectors decided to promote Dilruwan to No 7. The spinner had displayed sound batting skills several times since his 95 on debut and the promotion was a well-deserved one.
He justified the faith imposed on him with a half-century in his debut innings at No 7 (also at Galle) before slaying a 27-ball 33 in the second innings of the Test. He returned to No 8 in the next Test but still managed yet another half-century in the second innings, this one coming off 174 balls, a display of sheer dedication to the cause and awe-inspiring temperament. Sri Lanka went on to lose the Test, but Dilruwan had earned a reputation.
When Asela Gunaratne walked off with a broken thumb against India, there was no doubting who would walk in at No 7.
Since 2016, Dilruwan is Sri Lanka's eighth highest run-scorer in Test cricket with 473 runs from nine Tests at 33.78.
That average is important from a Sri Lankan point of view. Their batsmen have been shoddy in the past year or so and Dilruwan's average in this period trumps that of the likes of Mathews, Dimuth Karunaratne, Lahiru Thirimanne, Kusal Perera and Niroshan Dickwella. Bear in mind that the top seven run-getters, except Tharanga and Dhananjaya de Silva, have all played at least three innings more than Dilruwan. He is also level on the list of most half-centuries by Lankans in the considered period, another testimony to his batting skills.
He was shabby with the ball in India's first innings at Galle but made amends with the bat, displaying fleet-footedness against India’s spinners, something which the Lankan top-order could take cue from. Considering he has 80 wickets in 18 Tests till date, Dilruwan is more than a handy player to have in the Test side. He might want to work a tad on his bowling tactics against the Indians as the series progresses, but Sri Lanka won't worry too much as long as he puts his hand up and makes crucial contributions like at the first innings at Galle.