“Yeaah, yeaaah, yaeah…” You could hear Dinesh Chandimal’s scream from the upper-most tier of the old club house end, nearly a 100m-vertical distance from where he had burst into unbridled celebrations after completing a century of glittering grittiness. It wasn’t the joyous marking of personal triumph, but the release of accumulated, collective hurt. So much so that it wouldn’t have struck one bit odd, if he were to unfurl a Sri Lanka flag from underneath his helmet and bandy it around the ground.
For, Chandimal is a fiercely proud man, his pride battered by his team’s historic seizure in Nagpur, his honour maligned by “cheat” calls of the heartless Kotla crowd on Sunday, his dignity deflated by the blatantly mislaid priorities of his counterpart— premature talk of South Africa which he was wonderfully dignified to underplay.
He must have felt a terribly lonely man, single-handedly battling battles for himself and the team, all alone shouldering the burden of harnessing the best out of a bunch of individuals seemingly disinclined to blossom. His response: an unbeaten 147, through which shone more his mental prowess than the shot-making ability, endurance than electric stroke-play. Though reserved and soft-spoken, almost to the point of self-effacing, Chandimal the skipper has in his veins the same unflinching resolve of his predecessors, from Arjuna Ranatunga to Kumar Sangakkara, running.
For once, he wasn’t alone though. He had his predecessor to anchor Sri Lanka through the choppy waters of transition, Angelo Mathews, himself struggling to resurrect his career from a tediously dry spell of runs and hundreds. Their 319-minute union for 181 hard runs, hence, was significant on several levels, not least it helped Sri Lanka avoid the follow-on, if not spark slender hopes of a draw and emanating hopes of a brighter, less hurtful future. In demonstrating that they couldn’t yet be spoken about as mere pushovers.
After all, it was always going to be like that, It was always expected to be like that. Sri Lanka’s young batsmen revolving around their two most gifted and established talismans, Mathews and Chandimal, in the post Sangakkara-Jayawardene era.
Mathews, robust and reliable; Chandimal daring and classy. An Angie-Chandi double act, like Sangakkara and Jayawardene, De Silva and Ranatunga. But it didn’t always follow the pre-scripted convictions. Mathews was injured, stressed and forlorn. Chandimal was frazzled, forlorn and distressed. The smile never escaped Chandimal’s face, but beneath, Chandimal might one day say, was a maelstrom of apprehensions. Each time his team sunk. Each time he fronted-up for his team in postmortems. Each time he failed. He must have felt the pain of a thousand knives being twisted at him.
But all good things have to start. Sri Lanka would think it began on a hazy Sunday at Kotla. Mathews wore a second skin of attrition; or rather he took a leaf out of Chandimal’s book of restraint.
Chandimal, the world knows, likes to play his strokes, or that has been the perception since Jayawardene tagged him as the “future of Sri Lankan batting” after he struck a breezy 80 to orchestrate a record chase against Australia on a gloomy Hobart evening five years ago. Chandimal himself nurtured the image with swashbuckling hundreds and half-centuries, as much as his tendency to squander starts frustrated his avowed fans. The 162 not out in Galle characterised the spirit and soul of his batting, so much so that the image lived on, hesitant to change and acknowledge the baptised Chandimal, measured and restrained.
The new Chandimal surfaced much before he became the Test captain. The 356-ball 132 against Australia at SSC is a reference point, though the image makeover might have begun long ago. Australia had them at 26/5 at one stage before he catalysed a remarkable turnaround with the assistance of tyro Dhananjaya de Silva. Though the marathon knock left several stunned and wondering what happened to the stroke-maker, with some of them even urging to revert to the old aggressive ways, Chandimal was convinced this was the formula forward. Sri Lanka went on to win the match by 163 runs. His subsequent hundreds against Bangladesh and Pakistan followed a similar pattern, where he would wait patiently for the bowlers to err with their lengths.
His own logic at that was this: “When I get out playing an attacking shot, they criticise me. Now also, they criticise me. But the approach had worked for the team.” It was both a technical deficiency and the team’s reliance on him that forced the tweak. Previously, his discretion outside the off-stump was caustically critiqued, and he himself had admitted that he was playing one shot too many.
The contrasting avatars of Chandimal is best borne out by the contrasting trajectories of his two hundreds against India. In Galle, Sri Lanka were 92/4 when he came to bat, and soon stumbled to 92/5. He went on, and with a blend of improvisation, cheekiness and audacity, reeled off 162 off 169. It left the Indians stupefied, and they never recovered from the shellacking. In Delhi, when he came to bat they were 75/3. He batted out nearly twice as many deliveries (341), saw through smog and a bouncer barrage, a missed stumping on 81 and chirping close-in cordon, but scored 15 runs fewer.
It didn’t leave the Indians shocked, but fatigued. India might recover—Sri Lanka have the last pair batting and they will have to bat on the fifth day—but they can be immensely proud that they have a proud captain navigating them through the mess. And if Mathews can take off from the newfound confidence, a repeat of the double acts they’re so familiar with might well be on the cards again. An encore of a performance that saw Chandimal not quite unfurling a Sri Lankan flag, but giving enough reasons to keep it proudly aloft and waving.