Tillakaratne Dilshan with his children during a club game at the Mercantile Cricket Association ground in Colombo.
The commentator at the Mercantile Cricket Association ground, in alliterative mischief, blared out through his creaking microphone: “Dil Dil Dilscoop.” The DJ, on cue, slipped in the retro hit, ‘Smooth Operator’. The lines “No need to ask he’s a smooth operator” lilted in the breeze. The motley but raucous gathering took over the acoustics. Tillakaratne Dilshan strode out of the congested pavilion, his bandana and swagger in tow, immune to the build-up or theatrics around him.
Perhaps spurred by the frenzy, the overzealous commentator would repeatedly announce: “Watch you head anytime a ‘Dilli-rocket’ is on your way.” It never did manifest, despite his tone turning into a plea, and despite the DJ pumping up the volume, and switching to a heavier brand of music. As the batsman walked back to the pavilion, the commentator quipped: “Gentlemen, it was not Dilshan.” Dilshan just laughed, shaking his head, the flock of straightened hair fluttering in the breeze.
Dilshan, though, remembers another breezy IPL evening. It was at Cape Town in 2009. He did play the “Dilscoop” then. For the first time in any leather-ball match. “Adam Gilchrist was standing so close to me that I felt very uncomfortable. He was very chirpy as well. So I decided to paddle the ball over him rather than paddle it fine past fine leg,” he recollects.
Thus was born the “Dilscoop”, a stroke of such incredulous ingenuity that even a good eight years after its invention, only a few can claim to have remotely mastered it. But when Dilshan unfurled that stroke, little did he think that Sri Lankan cricket statistician Mahendra Mapagunaratne would merge scoop and Dilshan and make it the only portmanteau word in cricket’s lexicon: Dilscoop.
The moment after Dilshan played that stroke, he breathed a sigh of relief, that his bat didn’t disarrange Gilchrist’s facial furniture. But he saw a sudden streak of fear flicker through the legendary Australian ‘keeper’s face. The latter threw his gloves in angst. Moises Henriques stood perplexed in his follow through. At mid-on, Shahid Afridi cast a stink eye. Dilshan stood puzzled at the crease and wondered, “Hell, have I committed a crime?’’
Gradually, the impact of the stroke sunk into him. Gilchrist, who was standing right behind the batsman, ran back, “almost till the boundary”. Henriques bowled his remaining deliveries like a zombie. Dilshan was thinking “wow”.
“I seriously didn’t think that the shot will have such an impact on me, or it will be named after me. It makes me proud, and I can tell my children that there’s a shot named after papa. A stroke named after a Sri Lankan in a game played for centuries by the Englishmen and Australians,” he says. His historical perspective catches you off guard.
He had to dust up the shot from the innards of his memory. “It was a shot that I used to play a lot during my childhood days (in Kalutara) in tennis ball cricket. The boundary behind was shorter and there was a lot of bounce too. But once I started playing proper cricket, I never attempted it even at the nets. Then suddenly it struck me, why don’t I try this shot?”
Returning to Sri Lanka, he nuanced the stroke with his mentor Chandika Hathurusingha and the bowling machine. “Nobody, fortunately, asked me why I am playing the shot. In Sri Lanka, nobody asks such questions,” he says. In the dressing room, though, it was called the Starfish, “for you have to have no brains to play a shot like that”.
Even now, two years after retirement and a stellar career behind him, Dilshan plays tennis ball cricket when he visits his mother’s hometown Kalutara.
“Without tennis ball cricket, there wouldn’t have been the Dilscoop or the slinger,” he says. The slinger reference was obviously to his former teammate Lasith Malinga. “We poor boys are not the products of the system,” he asserts.
The “poor boy” self-reference runs throughout the conversation, though it’s at odds with his disposition. “My family was big and poor. My father was a policeman. I couldn’t imagine joining a famous school or academy,” he says. But he liked sports. Like his father, who was a national player, he dreamt to be a footballer. His mother discouraged him. “She wanted me to study and get a good job,” he recollects. Then somebody told her that being a cricketer had more scope of landing a job than being a footballer.
But just before the civil war in 1983, his father sent his family from Jaffna to Kalutara, his mother’s hometown in the Western Province. He got admitted into the the Kalutara Vidyalaya National School, which promoted cricket. “We had a decent team, but the school was poor and couldn’t afford cricket bats or other equipment. We had to buy on our own. I used buy cheap local bats, we call it selsa,” he recollects.
Then a missionary donated half a dozen proper bats. “It was Newberry or something, and we had about 5-6 bats, which we used for several years,” he says. In inter-school tournaments, he made a lot of runs with the Newberries, but no club scout noted his name down in the future talent dossier. “I wasn’t thinking too much about it either, because representing the country was never my ambition. I just needed to get a job to sustain my family after my father retires,” he says. “That’s all a poor boy can dream about,” he interjects.
It was 1996, the watershed year in Sri Lankan cricket, the year Ranatungas and De Silvas and Jayasuriyas became household names. The World Cup winners were paraded through Colombo in an open-roof bus. Dilshan was stockpiling mountains of runs in club circuit for Bloomfield Cricket Club, an institution with history but not as pedigreed as the Sinhalese Sports Club or patronising as the Tamil Union Cricket Club. He found a decent job with MAS holdings, an apparel firm. But suddenly it sunk in that the national selectors were not even considering to draft him in the A side. “In every tournament, both club and provincial, I used to be among the top three run-getters. But still they were ignoring me,” he says.
He was made aware of his roots. “I had nobody to back me here in Colombo. I don’t come from a polished school or was coached by famous coaches. I was a village boy and the only thing I was doing right was scoring runs. But sometimes you need luck also,” he says. “But how long could they ignore runs,” he asks, rhetorically, his eyes bulging a little.
Frequent snubs only motivated him. He just went back to the nets and “practised harder”. Finally, it came to a point when they couldn’t ignore him any longer. When Sri Lanka decided to sent a weakened team to Zimbabwe, he was pushed on board.
“The poor boy” from Kalutara was nervous when he walked into the dressing room. But Sanath Jayasuriya, the skipper, immediately put him at ease, “You are in the team because you’ve scored a lot of runs and you deserve it. You’re like the rest of us and we want you to be here for a long time,” the captain told him.
His nerves soothed. He scored a hundred in the second Test. The “poor boy” complex was banished. But only temporarily, as he found himself out of the team when the biggies returned. And whenever, he got a break, he put himself under so much pressure that his form slumped. “It was back to square one, but I was ready to do the hard yards and again got a lot of runs in the domestic circuit,” Dilshan says. He was recalled to the side after a gap of two-and-a-half years in 2003.
One fine May morning in 2011, Dilshan’s phone buzzed. Sri Lanka Cricket Board president Thilanga Sumathipala’s number flashed on the screen. He informed Dilshan he was the next skipper. He felt choked. “Though I had a wind of it, I wasn’t prepared for it. That day itself I went and told him that I can’t. I was not prepared and maybe he can appoint a younger member of the team. I will support him. But he didn’t listen,” he remembers.
He says he gave it his best shot, but his captaincy was marred by not only poor results — five defeats and a win, though the win, as he points out came against South Africa at home — but ugly dressing-room feuds as well. He claimed he lacked the support of senior players and even the younger ones. It lasted just a year.
“It was a really difficult time for me, but I don’t want to get into the details. The results were not coming, because we had just lost a couple of our best bowlers, Murali and Vaas. It’s difficult to replace them. Look how they’re struggling after Mahela and Sangakkara left. Anyway, it’s a chapter I’ve buried,” he says. He doesn’t want to reopen it again either.
“No, no I don’t have any political ambitions,” he says, laughing. The question was whether he would fancy joining politics. It’s an alley retired Sri Lankan cricketers have jumped into. Like Arjuna Ranatunga and Jayasuriya. Dilshan, in fact, actively taken part in Mahinda Rajapaksa’s presidential campaign in 2015. “The world has now changed for me,” he says.
The world now is his family. “Almost 17-20 years I have spent most of the time away from them,” he says, as his second daughter, Lasadi, pinches his ears and asks him, “Papa, give me the candies.” Dilshan turns around and says, “I told you, this is my world. I’m happier than ever.” There’s no turbulence in the “poor old boy” when he says this.