The enigma of Niroshan Dickwella

Niroshan Dickwella sends the ball into the leg side
New Zealand v Sri Lanka, 1st Test, Wellington, 1st day December 14, 2018

People don't mind Dilruwan Perera, or could take or leave Colin de Grandhomme, but if you have ever watched Niroshan Dickwella play, chances are you have some pretty strong opinions.

Of the XI Sri Lanka players in this match, Dickwella is the most unmissable. The screams from behind the stumps are what first strike the viewer. Long, unflinching, and dramatic, they are the Russian novel of cricketing appeals, his pelvis thrust forward, both gloves quivering in the air, vocal chords in a state of almighty tremor. It is part battle cry, part power ballad, part Kumar Sangakkara tribute. Even Sangakkara - Dickwella's favourite player and role model, having attended the same elite Kandy school - didn't throw as much of himself into his shouts though. After some long days in the field, you wonder how Dickwella is still standing. You marvel that he hasn't appealed himself out of existence.

There is this unyielding quality to almost everything he does. There are no lulls with him. No comparative peaks. All thrusters are firing. At all times. One mode.

And when this is the way you are wired, when this is the way you play, you do tend to inspire strong reactions. In the recent tour of England, he was far from Sri Lanka's worst player, but he did produce virtually the entire top five of his team's most frustrating moments, missing a stumping because he was too busy appealing while the batsman was literally on the ground outside his crease, or insisting that his captain ask for crazy reviews - all this routinely coming back to burn Sri Lanka.

Then there are innings like this gem at the Basin Reserve. When the fifth wicket fell with the score at 167, all the usual jokes about New Zealand already being into the Sri Lanka tail were lining up to be made. With two experienced batsmen having just fallen to the short ball, and another to be dismissed by a bouncer soon after, the situation seemed to demand a cool head and steady shoulders. What the situation got instead was Dickwella.

Instead of shying away from the hook and the pull, he revelled in those shots, exercising a better judgement of length than any of his more senior partners, causing New Zealand to rethink their bouncer strategy for the first time. There were plays and misses, of course, and one edge that fell short of the cordon, but the near misses didn't shake him into further mistakes, nor did they scare caution into him. His fans, which are many in number, might quickly point out that Dickwella's great strength is the commitment to his strokes - that if he gets a good ball, he is adept at quickly putting it out of his mind. His detractors, of which there are a few, might say uncharitably, that for that to be true, there would have to be a mind for it to be put out of.

In the company of Nos. 8, 9 and 10, Dickwella was incandescent. It was by no means a perfect shepherding of the tail. He didn't always find boundaries at the start of the over, and he didn't always manage the strike-keeping single off balls five and six. But there were moments in which he seemed in such control that the number of runs scored off any particular ball had less to do with the quality of the delivery, than his own intentions for it. An example: in the 73rd over, a decent back-of-a-length delivery from Neil Wagner was effortlessly creamed behind point for four. Fifth ball of the same over, Wagner sent down a loopy, waist-high, slower-ball-gone-wrong. Dickwella patted it unambitiously down to fine leg for a single.

As the final overs were delivered, and Sri Lanka drew closer to batting out a day which they had started abysmally, Dickwella's ramps, and the lofted leg-side pick up shots began to yield vital runs. He finished on 73 not out off 91, having produced the fighting-est of Sri Lanka's three half-centuries.

Could this be a career-defining innings? A batting coming-of-age? Who is to say? Dickwella's career, so far, has so far been impervious to any kind of orthodox analysis. He seems as likely to produce hundreds of dynamic game-changing runs in his next five innings, as he is to repeatedly get out dickscooping (this is the offical nomenclature for his beloved over-the-head shot, ratified by Dickwella himself) on 0. In two years, he could be out of the team altogether. Or captain.

There may be times when Dickwella's flame burns a little too hot, and his own team are singed, but on day one of a tough overseas tour, he kept the darkness at bay for Sri Lanka. His white-hot innings has kept them in the match.

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