After the best part of 17 years, the time has come for Tillakaratne Dilshan to end his international career. Since his debut in 1999 he has scored 17,670 international runs and taken 152 international wickets. That makes him the fourth most successful Sri Lankan batsman of all time, just behind Kumar Sangakkara, Mahela Jayawardene and Sanath Jayasuriya. He is one of the best his nation has ever produced. In fact, he is the 16th highest run-getter in the history of international cricket.
With such a record, it is surprising that Dilshan rarely gets a mention in discussions of the very best batsmen from Sri Lanka, and of this era. Perhaps this is because his career is one that had a very long beginning before blossoming into a productive end. No doubt supremely talented, it took a decade for Dilshan to find his niche at the highest level.
The turning point seemed to come in 2009 when he scored 137 not out as an opener in an ODI versus Pakistan. He was soon the regular opening batsmen in ODIs and also doing the job in Tests and T20s, and it saw an uplift in his returns across formats. Before that ton versus Pakistan, Dilshan had made five international hundreds. He went on to make another 11 before he retired.
He had successfully transitioned from a swashbuckling middle order batsman who would counter-attack to a hyper aggressive opener, one who was a more than adequate replacement for the Jayasuriya, who invented that role back in the mid-nineties.
When he was given the role as opener in Test cricket, he brought that attacking intent that had so impressed in the limited-overs formats with him. The first time that we saw this was in the Test against New Zealand at the Galle International Stadium in August 2009. Dilshan made a blistering 92 from just 72 balls in the first innings, before he dragged a short and wide ball from Iain O’Brien onto his stumps, agonisingly close to what would have been a remarkable ton.
But he didn’t have to wait long for a Test hundred as an opener, he got there in the second innings. He was batting to set up a declaration and brought his fifty up off 35 balls and his hundred of 115. He was on 123 from 131 balls when Sangakkara declared. Sri Lanka won, Dilshan was the man of the match.
2009 was also the year that we saw the arrival of the “Dilscoop” which Dilshan first played during the World T20 in England. When you talk about Dilshan the discussion will inevitably turn to this shot that he is said to have created. The scoop over the wicket keeper using the pace generated by the quicker bowlers to score a boundary directly behind the batsman has now become ubiquitous in limited-overs cricket, even occasionally creeping into the Test game.
While there is some debate about whether Dilshan was the first to play this shot – Dougie Marrilier of Zimbabwe was playing a paddle sweep that was similar to the Dilscoop as far back as 2001 – what made the Dilscoop different was the way Dilshan ducked into the ball and often took his eye off it before ramping it up over the wicket keeper. Invention has been the hallmark of 21st century batting and Dilscoop was this writ large. Dishan was the leading run scorer at the 2009 World T20 and then amassed 500 runs at the 2011 World Cup. Sri Lanka lost to India in the final, but they got to that far thanks to the form of Dilshan.
Dilshan has been a fine servant of Sri Lankan cricket and will be missed, as much for is versatility as anything else. He has played those middle order and opening roles in all formats, he has bowled his off-spin at the start of the innings, in the middle and at the end, he has even played internationals as a wicket-keeper. A player who has willingly done all of those roles for his country is one that should be lauded by the whole cricketing world.
While Dilshan does not have the most impressive numbers and was not a batsman who has had consistent returns, he is representative of the truly modern cricketer. His ability to adapt to different roles and across formats has become the norm for the very best cricketers.
His finally appearances for Sri Lanka have been something of a disappointment, with Australia recovering well from their embarrassment in the Test series to win both ODI and T20 series. But it is fitting that it is in Sri Lanka that Dilshan says his goodbyes.
In another era, without the twin colossuses of Sangakkara and Jayawardene, it would have been Dilshan that was seen as Sri Lanka’s most important player. Instead he will be remembered more as an inventor of shots and for his versatility, which probably is unfair on the cricketer.