The joke in the Sri Lankan dressing room is that there are more tattoos on Niroshan Dickwella’s skin than bones in his body. Like Lasith Malinga. Like even debutant Roshen Silva, whose biceps are massively inked. Dhananjaya de Silva too has one, a simple one on the arm-DDS 169, his initials and the order of his ODI debut. But Sri Lankan skipper Dinesh Chandimal, worried that the callow youngster would fall for the new-found fame and riches, gave him a brotherly lecture.
Maybe, he empathises with his younger colleague, for like him he too was drastically affected by the Boxing Day tsunami of 2004. Dhananjaya and his family had to relocate several times, which meant he had to hop schools. From Debarawewa Central in Hambantota, he joined Mahanama College in Colombo, before he finally settled at Richmond College in Galle, where his cricketing ambitions rocketed.
Chandimal was surprised to find that Dhananjaya is a throwback. The long sleeves buttoned to his wrists, the squeaky-white, creaseless jersey nicely tucked in, the drawling walk to the crease, all give an impression that an 80s relic had accidentally drifted into the field. A helmet without grille was all that he lacked. There’s no strut or posturing, no fancy shades or ripping abs either. No swearing at batsmen or making faces at them. He’s just a modest boy next door with unkempt stubbles and a permanent smile, who can walk unnoticed in the streets of Colombo. Just like he’s on the field — where he’s anonymous unless batting or bowling.
But Mitchell Starc’s eyes would be wandering to locate him the next time they play Sri Lanka. For, on an exceedingly sultry Colombo day, he made the steaming Aussie feel hot under the collar. Sri Lanka were 26/5 when Dhananjaya came in. When he departed, after his 129 off 325 deliveries, they were 237-6, the Aussie morale battered. He endured bouncers, yorkers and sledging to score his maiden hundred, alongside a textbook rescue act, a day after he nervously sweated when speaking to the press.
So would the eyes of Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja, wandering to find the man who defied and denied them for 219 balls and six hours, braving an debilitating glute strain for which he was attended several times by the physio. It was a familiar sight, de Silva lying stretched on the ground, the physio vigorously massaging him.
But struggles of the body didn’t dent his spirit. Just like that, he would get up and resume his epic resistance, nonplussed and unfussy, as if everything is fine in his world. Without any visible discomfort, he would arch down to stonewall or plunge down on his knee to sweep them off-kilter. The slog sweep, played by him, transcends into something non-brutal, something delicate, that even the hard-to-please connoisseur would find agreeable. Not the Mahela Jayawardene-like insouciance or Aravinda de Silva-like nonchalance, but a Kumar Sangakkara like balance of body, an un-muscled brush-stroke. Then, as if to please Jayawardene, he employed a delectable paddle sweep off Ashwin. Like his mannerisms, the soul and magic of his batting is its inherent simplicity – the minimalism of the back-lift and the oriental virtue of nifty footwork.
The flicks and on-drives are his most beautiful strokes, but the most pragmatic way to disarrange the confidence of spinners, he realised, was to sweep, not sweep indiscriminately but when it was within his radius. Also, unlike several of his peers, his footwork was decisive against the spinners. Towards the back end of his innings, Dhananjaya sashayed down the track to Jadeja, and even though he wasn’t to the pitch of the ball, he didn’t reach out for it, but cleared his front leg and lofted it over mid-on’s head.
Remarkably, not once did he wince in pain or make it apparent, until it became so unbearable that he hobbled off the pitch, clutching his back. He’s used to hardships graver than the business of making runs. In his short career, he has gone through difficult times, when he was dropped for the home series against Zimbabwe. That came after a disappointing tour to South Africa where he was promoted on wickedly green surfaces. But he was too talented to be ignored for long and was duly back in the side.