Akila Dananjaya: Resilience, guile, and a bit of elbow grease

Kane Williamson was out for 0, after lobbing a ball straight to Dimuth Karunaratne
Sri Lanka v New Zealand, 1st Test, Galle, 1st day August 14, 2019

Australia have long had a complicated relationship with on-field behaviour, and South Africa have tasted World Cup heartbreaks like no one else, but when it comes to spin bowlers and the appropriate amount of elbow flexion, no team has quite had the storied history of Sri Lanka.

Forget a book - Muttiah Muralitharan's action-related travails deserve a TV series spanning several seasons. Though Murali could not have cleared his record any more emphatically after being made guinea pig for bowling's biomechanics revolution, other Sri Lanka spinners have less happy outcomes. Sachithra Senanayake, for example, was pulled up and suspended for straightening his elbow by as much as 40 degrees. A longtime long-sleeved operator, he treated umpires to the sight of his naked elbow upon his return following a thorough remodelling process, but the fast-spinning darts that had previously made him such a limited-overs force turned out not to be so fast or so spinning any more. A year later, Tharindu Kaushal had his doosra banned, and has by many accounts been a shadow of his former self since.

Aside from Murali, whose unique physiology makes him exceptional on all fronts, the standard story is essentially this:

  • A spinner gets reported for throwing.

  • His indignant board decries the injustice, and vows to have its man cleared.

  • The board sends him to an elbow whisperer (a biomechanics expert or a bowling coach who specialises in fixing these sorts of things).

  • The spinner comes back full of enthusiasm, promising to pile dismissed batsmen in a heap in the middle of the pitch like he once had.

  • The board realises its fellow is no good any more, and quietly ditches him.

This is not just a Sri Lanka thing, by the way. Saeed Ajmal's post-remodelling fortunes were bleak. Mohammad Hafeez's bowling has been suspended, reinstated, suspended and reinstated so many times, he may as well have moved house to the nearest biomechanics testing lab. And Sunil Narine only rarely braves the spotlight of international cricket now.

There was a time when it seemed like this was exactly the way Akila Dananjaya's career was going to go. He'd been groomed as Sri Lanka's main ODI spinner for at least a year, but when he came back from remodelling his action, he was wayward and easily rattled - basically the opposite of how he'd been before. In that return series against South Africa, he took two wickets in four ODIs and averaged 92. Consequently a World Cup place eluded him. A long, languishing career in domestic cricket beckoned. Same timeline, different guy, we'd seen this all before.

But there is a tenacity to Akila, first seen when he was thrown into a World T20 campaign at 18 years of age, and over the past two months, the man has wrestled his way out of that box. First via a Sri Lanka A tour to India, where he didn't get many wickets, but during which coaches felt he was unlucky not to have had richer hauls. Then there were two creditable performances in ODIs against Bangladesh. It would have been no surprise if the selectors had left him out of the Tests, but he'd changed the narrative enough by that stage that his selection was no shock, either.

Now, on the first day at Galle, he reannounced himself. Midway through the first session, discovering a spot that yielded turn and bounce around the line of the left-hander's off stump, he kept working that area over, like a masseuse responding to the moans of a client. Eventually, that persistence brought him the wickets of both left-handed openers. Against Kane Williamson, he required only three deliveries to execute a plan. Williamson, a prolific worker of the ball into the on side against the spinners, had been dismissed five times playing that shot in Test cricket, before this game. Akila slowed an offbreak down, and had him into the shot early, to provide a leading edge. Short-midwicket had been positioned to gobble up precisely that catch.

Later, just before tea, after Henry Nicholls and Ross Taylor had put on a century stand, Akila beat Nicholls' sweep with an offbreak that dipped to beat his sweep, catching the batsman lbw. BJ Watling's wicket was almost a freebie - the ball staying low to miss his pull, and strike him on the pad. His fourth five-wicket haul, in only his sixth Test match, has also got to be his sweetest. For the self-doubt and other-people-doubt he'd have had to overcome, yes, but also because without Akila, Sri Lanka's day may have been bleak. Left-arm spnner Lasith Embuldeniya was successfully hit off his lines by Taylor. Dhananjaya de Silva, meanwhile, was not yet gaining enough assistance off the surface to make his gentle offbreaks menacing.

If we are being real, this is only a start. Having failed a biomechanic test once, Akila's now on the ICC's dodgy-action radar. Umpires will watch him closely when he comes round the wicket, especially, which is the angle of attack that had raised the initial suspicion. If the Hafeez example is anything to go by, the remodelling process can sometimes seem like an injection, the effects of which wear off after several months. Bad habits can return.

But keep taking wickets for another year. Keep that elbow straight. Stay off the naughty list.

Following Wednesday's 5 for 57, he averages 22.25 in the middle of his sixth Test match. Sri Lanka need him to keep charting his own path.

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