In Abu Dhabi earlier this week, Sri Lanka were collapsing in their second innings of the first Test against de facto hosts Pakistan. In an unpleasant reminder of their 2011 clash against England in Cardiff, it appeared four attritional days of cricket would end in a dispiriting loss on the fifth as they struggled to set a target to trouble even Pakistan’s ropey chasing. When Niroshan Dickwella walked out with the score 73-5, his side were just 70 ahead and facing their latest defeat of a disappointing 2017. Much like the party conference speech of British prime minister, Theresa May, the writing wasn’t quite on the wall. But the situation was pretty dire.
So despite his fluid first innings 83 off 117 balls, few might have thought this was a stage set for a 24-year-old swashbuckler like Dickwella. It was surely time for a knuckle-downer, a grinder, an at-least-get-something-on-the-boarder. For a time Dickwella played the role. His first boundary came off his 28th ball, before he then launched a more characteristic counter-attack that dragged Sri Lanka to a total Rangana Herath, fifteen years his senior, somehow defended.
The victory was lifeblood to Sri Lanka, resuscitating the side after a year when there has been a blitz of mourning about the death of their fortunes. Such are the fluctuations of sport, particularly within the glass-ceiling comfort of international cricket, that such tidings of woe can often be premature. Yet the various analysis written about Sri Lanka’s torrid 2017 on and off the pitch were largely justified. There were two impressive T20I series wins away to South Africa and Australia but then they were sedately torn apart at home across all formats by India 9-0, the 1996 World Cup winners had also lost an ODI series to Zimbabwe (also at home), and gone out in the group stages of the Champions Trophy. Earlier in the year they had slipped to a 5-0 ODI defeat away in South Africa, who also claimed the Test matches 2-0. Ever since Sangakkara and Jayawardene took their leave, the buzzword in Sri Lankan cricket has been ‘transition’. Sadly this year the metamorphosis has often just been from bad to worse.
The ever likable Captain Chandimal also found glorious personal salvation in Dubai, and Herath offered further confirmation of his timeless danger. Yet all throughout this murky period, it has been Dickwella who has consistently provided rays of light and glimmers of fight. During that ODI tour of South Africa, he notched a couple of punchy half-centuries that at least made the surrenders less supine. In the preceding T20I clashes Sri Lanka notched their first ever series win in any format on South African soil, with his 144 runs across the three games at a strike rate of 156, pivotal.
He failed to fire in any format in the all-drawn three series of Bangladesh’s tour. In the ODI series defeat to Zimbabwe, however, inevitably if unfairly seen as shaming for the hosts rather than fantastic for the visitors, he hit two consecutive tons and shared in two consecutive double hundred opening stands with Danushka Gunathilaka, the first time any pair of batsmen had achieved the feat in ODIs. He also shared a critical 121 stand off just 31 overs in the one-off Test against the tourists with Asela Gunaratna, Dickwella having walked out with the score 178-4 as his side pursued an unlikely 388. He proceeded to quite literally sweep, and reverse sweep, Zimbabwe aside and help secure another record: Sri Lanka’s highest ever successful chase in Tests.
The entire shape of the cricketing year could have looked very different had Thisara Perera - later in the year to warm Pakistan hearts for other reasons - held on to a simple chance off Sarfraz Ahmed’s bat in the loser-goes-home Champions Trophy group clash. Yet in truth, Sri Lanka were only in with a chance at all due to Dickwella’s 73 off 86 at the top top against Pakistan’s scalpel attack on a Cardiff pitch where most batsmen found scoring runs harder than cleaning up a puddle of jam with chopsticks.
A sturdy yet unspectacular series of scores followed during India’s all-conquering visit to their island neighbours meaning that across all formats only Root, Kohli, Du Plessis and Amla have more runs than Dickwella in 2017. He has often gone home before he’s gone really big - only two tons against his name in that time - but his consistency for a young player in an underperforming side in such a taxing year has been hugely impressive.
So there are pleasing stats, but Dickwella’s batting has flamboyance to go with the figures. In that South Africa series he gloriously Dilscooped Rabada, the left-hander’s reincarnation of the shot being termed the “Dickscoop”, though this term has yet to fully catch on for whatever reason. By its very nature there are few strokes you can play later than this, but waiting until the ball is almost past him is a hallmark of Dickwella’s play. His “up-and-over” periscopes beyond hapless slips are quicksilver jabs he somehow manages to get away even when the ball is within a hair’s breadth of his chin.
He is brutal backward of square of the wicket on both sides, but to off comes up with footwork worthy of a ballerina dancing on hot coals to sometimes squeeze very full deliveries out past point from deep in his crease. He can often take the Sehwag approach of regarding his feet as just something to stand on while hitting a cricket ball very hard and attractively through the off side. That sweeping which felled Zimbabwe has near-Beckenbauer levels of suave efficiency, unsurprisingly given the shot is almost part of the national curriculum in Sri Lankan schools.
His duel with Rabada had another significance. In the same series, the two had a mild coming together at the non-striker's end, earning them both a demerit which was to have serious consequences for the young South African during his side’s tour of England. Rabada famously picked up another disciplinary point and missed the Second Test at Trent Bridge. Since the new system arrived, Dickwella himself has already been fined three times, suspended once and currently sits on seven demerit points, meaning the next one he accrues will see him miss another game or games.
What was interesting about the two cases was that while many felt Rabada unlucky to be banned in England for using language found within the vocal DNA of most fast bowlers, Dickwella received two of his for the sin of doing some clever wicket keeping. In the Zimbabwe ODI series he waited, for quite some time admittedly, for Solomon Mire to raise his foot before stumping him. It was a smart piece of work, typical of the winking slyness with which he plays his cricket and reminiscent of Alec Stewart’s cheeky heist of Brian Lara. It was nevertheless deemed “contrary to the spirit of the game”, a silly and pious ruling though thankfully one unlikely to cow Dickwella’s attitude behind the stumps. Chandimal himself is one of Dickwella's predecessors as national wicket keeper, and a man whose appeals often sounded like the pained cries of a hyena which had just trodden on a rusty nail. These are big lungs to step into, but Dickwella takes an equally vociferous approach to appealing and has capacity for chat another glamorous ex-glovesman might admire.
This cocky streak is a large part of his appeal. He has slick hair and a slightly curled top lip that wouldn’t see him out of place leaning against the wall of a 1950s American diner next to The Fonz. He looks like a man who doesn’t expect to fail, but this comes across as alluring self-confidence rather than arrogance.
Although he did fail with the bat during Sri Lanka’s unexpected smooth chase of 322 against India in the Champions Trophy, he landed a couple of maximums with his words afterwards: “As Sri Lankans, today we are very happy to beat India. They are a big team, and I’ve heard them say they take this game as a practice game, I don’t know, and this is the return,” he said. “We don’t really care about those things–that hurts sometimes for us, because both the teams are playing cricket at the same level. But they think this is a practice game and we got the revenge.”
This is undoubtedly an unfair assessment of India’s attitude going into the game, but Dickwella is not the one to bypass the dramatic. Cricket fans in general, and Sri Lankan ones in particular, should be grateful for that.