Dhananjaya de Silva makes Pakistan play by his tune

Dhananjaya de Silva makes Pakistan play by his tune

It was a damp December week in Rawalpindi in 2019, one of myriad rain delays in Pakistan’s first home Test match in a decade. It was the fourth day, with the first innings of the Test still only halfway through. That particular morning had seen no play at all, and none was expected for the foreseeable future, so there wasn’t much to do, and plenty of time to do it in.

“Who’s the most elegant batter from either side,” we wondered idly. Before long, the poll was up on ESPNcricinfo, with followers from both countries weighing in animatedly. To avoid ending up with one of the more obvious results, Babar Azam was excluded from the poll altogether.

It was Dhananjaya de Silva who topped that poll for Sri Lanka, no doubt having won over a fair few Pakistanis across the previous three days. He’d come in with his team struggling on day one, and immediately set out imbuing the innings with the sort of delicate grace that almost felt indecently out of place in any attritional innings.

There was, of course, a buoyant Pakistani pace bowling attack on the prowl, but he didn’t so much tame them as draw them into an orchestra only he seemed to be conducting. Their quality, their menace, was simply the backdrop against which he was doing his best work, with a liquid ease that didn’t make it feel like work at all. Even with the frequent rain and bad light interruptions which made the accrual of any rhythm impossible.

Praising a cricketer for being elegant can often sound like a backhanded compliment, as if there’s a concomitant lack of substance that must necessarily accompany the style. (To further drive that point home, it was Asad Shafiq who won the poll from the Pakistan side that day). Such players, it is easy to think, exist to decorate rather than influence games, to adorn instead of win them. They are thought to lack the grit to get down and dirty and the heart to claw out results.
When de Silva walked out to bat on Tuesday in Galle, he had just watched half his side fall for 117, the lead still a precarious 264. In the last six weeks, five totals in excess of that have been comfortably chased down in Test cricket. Just last week alone, at this very venue, Pakistan stunned Sri Lanka by gunning down 342 in the fourth innings, and looked very much on track to repeat the feat with a Test that was shaping up similarly here. This was time for a craftsman, and here Sri Lanka were, sending out an artist.

Naseem Shah was steaming in, the only fast bowler who has threatened with both old ball and new. In front of him was a batter who, in 13 innings this year, was averaging just over 26, managing only one half-century. De Silva wasn’t favourite to win this battle, especially when he was in the middle of his most significant drop in performance levels since 2018. Plus, in all three prior innings this series, his method of dismissal has been bowled, with Naseem the man to uproot his middle stump with the ball of the series on the first day.

Against Australia the previous game, he fell cheaply to first Mitchell Swepson and then Travis Head. They might be tricky enough bowlers on their day, but self-respecting South Asian batters don’t want to give wickets away to middle-of-the-road spin bowlers. The Test before that, he had Covid-19, and missed entirely. It has not been an easy time for a man to whom everything tends to come so easily.

De Silva was in a scrap. He saw off that early threat, but as in Rawalpindi three years ago, there were stops and starts. Poor light ended the third day off early, and back he came the next morning to begin all over again. He worked Hasan Ali away off the first ball for a single, and then didn’t score a run for the next 8.4 overs. A dab off Yasir Shah to third man was his next productive shot more than half an hour later. All the swishes and flicks put away, the wizardry set to one side as de Silva went into hand-to-hand combat for his side.

The lead inched past 300, and then 350. Dimuth Karunaratne, with a significantly loftier reputation for attrition, departed before lunch, but de Silva plugged away, leading his side out of Pakistan’s reach. The bowlers that had prowled under the gloom the previous evening, and schemed their way through the fresh optimism of a crisp Galle morning, were beginning to recede into the backdrop. De Silva pranced down the ground, whipping Mohammad Nawaz through midwicket with the footwork of a dancer and the jab of a flyweight boxer. He got down on one knee to sweep Agha Salman for four, before beating point for yet another to bring up his ninth Test hundred.

It was his orchestra once more, and he had Pakistan playing to his tunes. By the time he raised his bat to acknowledge the crowd, he looked once more like a maestro soaking in an enchanted audience’s applause. There was no mud on his shirt, no sweat on his brow. At that moment, it was so easy to forget that Dhananjaya de Silva had gone into battle, and controlled a game all the while looking as if he were merely embellishing it. You don’t just get there by playing pretty cover drives and winning ESPNcricinfo polls.

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