The hurried entry of Sri Lanka’s new Test stumper Niroshan Dickwella into world Cricket is a déjà vu moment – almost. Perhaps, this inclusion is only less déjà vu because his arrival in the national team has been far too easier, far too smoother and with less of a time lapse – as opposed to the entry into Test Cricket by Kumar Sangakkara, who arrived fourteen years ago, but with as little effort. Except for this, there is much in common between Sangakkara and Dickwella – both are from Trinity, both are from influential families (in a Cricketing or otherwise sense), both have been prolific for their school team (maybe Dickwella more than Sangakkara), both bat left and both – upon entry – keep wickets, while debuting in Tests against the same opposition: South Africa.
Sangakkara, unlike Dickwella, had spent some years in the Domestic Circuit and in “Development Squads” before crashing into the Lankan team; but, this was in a different time and age where the thinking behind Lankan Cricket, one may argue, was a bit different. Like with the government of our country in the aftermath of the military crushing of the LTTE in 2009, in post-1996 “World Cup winning Sri Lanka”, too, many corrupt sports heads seemed to think that the national team shouldn’t change: that it should, more or less, remain the same. So, maybe, Sangakkara – who got out of school in 1997/98 – may have had to stay back a bit more, for he was contesting for the place held by Romesh Kaluwitharana, even when he dropped sitters and went for as many ducks as a keeper-batsman can afford. If I remember right, a 156 against a Pakistan team in a warm up game gave Sangakkara the window and in a career that has since spun for a decade and a half, not only has he carved for himself a neat piece of history, but also proved himself quite the orator – on and off the field.
Sangakkara chuntering behind the stumps against white teams was a sight in the early part of his career; and sledge aces such as England and South Africa (the latter, perhaps, the most professional of sledgers) have had to bat around Sangakkara in turning tracks in humid Lankan conditions, often reminiscing as to how from dust we are all made and as to how to that very dust we return. Kumar Sangakkara was a demonstration of the Empire Striking Back – until, of course, mid career, he was swallowed by the empire and he decided to be quite the parfait gentle knight: the gentleman and ambassador of the game.
No wonder, Niroshan Dickwella is a prodigy, who played for a Trinity that was far superior than Sangakkara’s Trinity in the late 90s (surely on paper) and who has a scorebook to prove his stature. Dickwella is the latest “star” to emerge from a “Trinity Spring” in Cricket which has been on for the last four seasons or so. Among the “big names” that came up over the last four to five years are those of Sachith Pathirana, Rushan Jaleel and Akila Jayasundera. Pathirana was earmarked as a possible Lankan prospect and was / has been in the peripheries of national selection for some time. Pathirana’s prospects were further enhanced by him being connected in influential ways to the provincial Cricket establishment, as well – a crucial factor in Lankan Cricket, no matter which way you spin the ball. However, Pathirana, for some reason, didn’t get his call up as yet. Rushan Jaleel – the petit off spinner –, perhaps, is a better spinner than Pathirana who has been hanging around the Ragama CC for some time. Jaleel, junior to Pathirana, was for a while the latter’s “understudy”; but, nothing “nationally substantial” has materialized for him either. From the bit I know, Jaleel has no “connections” with those who run the game. At least, his father did not change the age limit of the league to add advantage to his son’s performance.
Statistically, an intriguing feature is that other than Niroshan Dickwella (2014), not a single player but one has, since Kumar Sangakkara’s debut in 2000, made it to the Sri Lankan Test team from Kandy for the past 14 years. The exception is Chamara Kapugedara – another young buck hurried into the national team and who has since his 2006 debut has played 8 painful Tests, to be discarded into the wilderness – whose short stay with the national squad has been remarkably eventless, for a schoolboy Cricketer who made a name as a potential “prodigy”. Kapugedara – again rumoured to be influential within the school Cricket circles – played for and led Dharmaraja, crossing the 1000 run mark for the 2004 school season. While yet a school Cricketer he was being earmarked for national-level squads and being in touring XIs.
Whether there is a statistical explanation for how Kandy has only produced a Kapugedara (8 Tests) and a Dickwella in fourteen years of Test Cricket is indeed a striking line to pursue. The names we can add to these two “hurried prodigies” – both reasonably “influential”, too – are those of Kumar Sangakkara (debuted in 2000), Muttiah Muralitharan (debuted in 1992), Piyal Wijetunga (1993 – 1 Test) and Ruwan Kalpage (1990). The last three players are from St. Anthony’s College, Katugastota and a year each separating them from one another. Of them, Wijetunga is often considered as a prodigy who could consider himself a bit “unfortunate” for being under-utilized. Muralitharan’s merit was that he was quite unplayable with his abracadabra action. Kaushalya Weeraratne (also from Trinity) did not, to the best of my memory, play Test Cricket, though being an ODI and T-20 player.
While St. Anthony’s has been consistent right throughout the 1990s and the greater part of the 2000s, they have not been able to produce a player who has been granted entry into the top level. Of other Kandy schools playing Cricket, none have been consistent except Dharmaraja. St. Sylvester’s and Vidyartha have had competitive teams – but lacking in consistency and continuity. Kingswood has never made a challenge that would have carried them among the giants in the 1990s or 2000s. Other than Nisitha Rupasinghe – the left arm spinner – no Kingswoodian has made it even to a Developmental Squad. The closest from among these schools to make it to the national Test team has been Vidyartha’s Kosala Kulasekara. Kulasekara, in fact, made a few ripples as a hard hitting all rounder. But, where he is right now is not that well documented.
Whether Niroshan Dickwella’s being “ushered in” into Test Cricket is a fashionable move than it being a move made out of prudence will only be seen in the way the fellow will absorb the arena. Whether this is a move to echo “another Sangakkara” – at the threshold of a possible retirement from Sangakkara, too – needs to be analyzed. If it is indeed so, at least the selectors, one may argue, have a neat sense of aesthetics and a hand for poetry. Indeed, Dickwella stood tall to the types of Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel and hit a gritty 50 upon his entrance and only his temperament will make him or unmake him in the future – and let us hope that he will find his way and not be a victim of administrational chess.