© AFP
Tillakaratan Dilshan has represented Sri Lanka in 497 matches © AFP

February 10, 2006. Few had expected Sri Lanka to edge past South Africa to meet Australia in the best-of-3 finals of the VB series, but they thrashed the Proteans in the last league match to book a berth for the final. There they were, in the first final at Adelaide Oval. It was the usual story: Sanath Jayasuriya got them off to a decent start; Marvan Atapattu and Kumar Sangakkara scored fifties; and Tillakaratne Dilshan and Chamara Kapugedara played crucial cameos at the end, taking Sri Lanka to 274 for 8. It was an impressive total for that massive ground. FULL CRICKET SCORECARD: Sri Lanka vs Australia 2nd T20I at Colombo

But they were up against Australia, who had Brett Lee at No. 10. Though they had been toppled by England in The Ashes the previous summer, they were still the best ODI side in the world by a distance. Adam Gilchrist and Simon Katich got them off to a rollicking start before the former fell.

Dilshan was manning point. Katich played one to him. Ricky Ponting set off. The throw was pin-point accurate, and that is an understatement. Ponting fell short.

Damien Martyn pushed one to point and set off three overs later. Once again Dilshan hit the stumps at the bowler’s end.

Andrew Symonds did not last. Simon Katich tried to rebuild before making the fatal error. This time Dilshan was placed at mid-wicket. Katich pushed and ran; Michael Clarke sent him back, but the throw reached Sangakkara before Katich made his way back.

Clarke survived a close leg-before off Nuwan Kulasekara. The ball trickled down towards Dilshan. Despite the earlier run outs Michael Hussey was confident he would make it. He never did.

James Hopes did not last. He hit Muttiah Muralitharan straight to Dilshan at mid-wicket. He had taken a catch and had run four men out, but the effect was more psychological than anything.

All of a sudden Dilshan was everywhere on the ground. The pressure was on the side that made their oppositions crumble day in and day out.

The legend in dark blue

There is no mistake about it: Tillakaratne Dilshan was (it is difficult to use the past tense here) a giant of both limited-overs formats. Only five men have done the 10,000 runs-1,000 wickets-100 dismissals treble in ODIs, and Dilshan is one of them.

But let us delve deeper into this. Let us try to find out the value of Dilshan even as time caught up. Nobody has scored as many ODI runs (4,674 at 45.82) after turning 35. Jayasuriya (4,142 at 34.23) is the only other person to have scored more than 4,000 ODI runs after turning 35.

Do note that this excludes World Cup 2011, where he was the leading run-scorer. He was 34 at that time. In that tournament he scored exactly 500 runs at 62.50 (a strike rate of 91) and took 8 wickets at 15.75 (at 4.06 runs an over), in addition to 6 catches. If Yuvraj Singh was the Man of the Tournament, Dilshan was significantly behind.

  World Cup 2011

M

R

Ave

SR

W

Ave

Econ

C

Yuvraj Singh

9

362

90.50

86.2

15

25.13

5.02

3

Tillakaratne Dilshan

9

500

62.50

90.7

8

15.75

4.06

6

Four years later he was at it again, with 395 runs at 65.83 and a strike rate of 97, 5 wickets at 32.60 at 4.89 an over, and 3 catches. His scariest onslaught came against Australia when he smashed Mitchell Johnson for six fours in an over — a feat forgotten by Sangakkara’s hundred and Dinesh Chandimal’s spectacular fifty.

Dilshan finished as the 11th-highest run-scorer (fourth among Sri Lankans) in ODI history. Put a 1,000-run (yes, that low) cut-off and only Sangakkara (41.96) and Angelo Mathews (40.10, which may go either way with time) averages more among Sri Lankans.

Add to that a hundred wickets, 124 dismissals, and the hundreds (maybe more) of runs he has saved while throwing himself around and nobody bothered to count. The impact made by a fielder is difficult to measure, but let us not forget that even a month before turning forty, he is the automatic choice at point or backward-point.

If he gets 112 today (probably unlikely) Dilshan will become the second cricketer to reach 2,000 T20I runs. Over half these runs (1,022 at 26.22, strike rate 117) have come after he turned 35. Once again, sitting at No. 2 is Jayasuriya, on a mere 629 at 23.29.

In fact, even across formats, only Misbah-ul-Haq (8,024 and counting) has more runs than Dilshan’s 6,806.

There are also those oddities, the kind that makes trivia buffs drool. For example, Dilshan is the only one to score hundreds as captain in all three formats. It is another thing that he has exactly one hundred as captain in each format…

The overlooked maverick

They never considered Dilshan as one of them. His name was never taken in the same breath as Jayasuriya or Sangakkara or Murali or Chaminda Vaas or Mahela Jayawardene or even Atapattu, and no one knows why.

This, despite the fact that (as Harsha Bhogle pointed out) he was a dashing batsman who was a brilliant fielder, kept wickets in Test cricket, captained, had over 150 international wickets, and had a shot named after him.

Fielding alone would have made Dilshan an all-time great, for Asians have seldom become dominating fielders. Do not get me wrong: there have been outstanding men, from Lall Singh in the 1930s to Murali in the 1990s. But seldom had an Asian put pressure on batsmen by sheer presence the way Dilshan did.

Contrary to popular belief, Dilshan averaged more in Test cricket (40.98) than both Jayasuriya (40.07) and Atapattu (39.02). As opener Dilshan has 2,170 runs at 42.54. Take away Zimbabwe and Bangladesh, and it comes down to 1,933 runs at 41.12. While that is not spectacular, it is still more than the corresponding numbers for Jayasuriya (40.54) and Atapattu (36.65).

Exactly why Dilshan’s name never comes up as one of the finest openers of Sri Lanka in Test cricket remains a mystery. One must remember here that Dilshan scored his runs at 65.5 runs per hundred balls. As opener the number goes up to 71.4, more than Jayasuriya’s estimated 65-odd.

For that matter, Aravinda de Silva averaged 42.97. While the average is higher than Dilshan’s, it is perhaps not significantly high enough to consider one an all-time great and shun the other as a limited-overs specialist.

As for the impact, Dilshan quit Test cricket in 2013. Sri Lanka are yet to find one (let alone a pair) who would replace him at the top.

The rebel

Why, then, does Dilshan not feature when one discusses Sri Lankan greats? Is it because of the image he portrays? Is it because of those audacious strokes that Test openers are not supposed to play? They found one of them so outrageous that they even named the stroke after him, thus giving him a permanent place in cricket’s lexicon.

On the field Sri Lankans have always come across as the gentlest of man. Arjuna Ranatunga stood up for his men, but he was always the one with an unflappable temper. He also had a World Cup triumph to his name. There were controversies, and Arjuna stood by himself and his team in every occasion and emerged dignified.

Aravinda was the first to stamp Sri Lanka’s authority on cricket. Jayasuriya changed the game forever. Murali, Sangakkara, and Jayawardene feature among cricket’s greatest ambassadors.

Not Dilshan. Dilshan can be brash. Dynamism is a feature purists of the sport have often found difficult to come to terms to. Dilshan walks around in spiked hair and immaculately trimmed chinstrap.

There is no air of calm with Dilshan as the crease: there is something extremely rebellious about him that you cannot miss. That is not something you associate with Sri Lankans. He is different. Even Lasith Malinga, with his unusual slinging action, spectacular hairstyle, and numerous hat-tricks, never came across as a rebel.

Dilshan did. Every time he took field he did with a stride that sent out a message that he was your everyday cricketer. His steely wrists made him pull off the most outrageous of strokes (slicing a yorker to the point boundary, anyone?). He timed the ball as brilliantly as anyone, whether he drove or cut or pull. Every time his bat met the ball it did it with a thwack that sent adrenaline rushing through the blood of the spectator.

Was that what went wrong every time he strode out in whites? Was it because it sent the blood running instead of bringing a sense of calm to the crease? Why did they not stop calling him a “limited-overs specialist” even after that 253-ball 193 at Lord’s scored with a broken hand?

When they call him a risk-taker, do they forget that Dilshan has the highest ODI score (161 not out in 146 balls, no less) without a six? He hit only 22 fours that day, running ones and twos like a man possessed. Six years before that there was a 139-ball 137 that included 10 fours, and, no six.

He also has 4 T20I fifties without a six, all of them at breakneck pace. He is — was — a four-hitter per se. He also holds the world record for most fours in T20I cricket (223), a record that will take some beating.

Dilshan himself lamented in his speech after his final ODI that the Dilscoop has been shunned by purists as a “brainless stroke”. How far is that from the truth!

Why did they never understand that behind that inexhaustible energy was a burning desire to be always where the action was and excel at it? Did he not excel once pushed up to the top, a position he was not used to? Did he not snatch the ball from his captain more than once? Does he not field where the ball goes most frequently?

In his brilliant article in ESPNCricinfo Andrew Fidel Fernando mentioned exactly why Dilshan remained a rarity: “Dilshan’s utopia is a planet full of Dilshans. At the very least, it is a world in which everyone leans into their work with the blinding energy he brings to his. Doesn’t that seem an improvement on the world that we are stuck with? It is difficult to argue against.”

But then, that has been the Dilshan story all along. We, the mortal, could never come to terms with the dynamo that was Dilshan. He was too vibrant, too full of life for us to come to terms to, for unlike us mortals, there was not a single negative bone in Tillakaratne Dilshan.

Mathews mentioned that Dilshan had contributed to Sri Lankan cricket as much as Sangakkara and Jayawardene had. Sangakkara branded him the greatest match-winner for Sri Lanka along with Jayasuriya. Arjuna called him “a captain’s dream”.

Maybe we never saw what Dilshan’s teammates did. Maybe Dilshan had a greater impact on his colleagues than he had on us.

Whatever it was, the enigma that is Tillakaratne Dilshan will take field in Sri Lankan colours one final time. Be there to cheer for him.

(Abhishek Mukherjee is the Chief Editor at CricketCountry and CricLife. He blogs here and can be followed on Twitter here.)