Dinesh Chandimal has overcome serious hardship to take the mantle as his side’s leading batsman. His story is featured in the latest SA Cricket magazine.
At 27, Dinesh Chandimal is the man destined to break many of Kumar Sangakkara’s batting records. Evem Sangakkara has admitted that he would have been proud to have Chandimal’s stats when he was that age.
In and out of the side, one knock defined Chandimal and cemented his place in the side. Against India last year (2015), on a turning track in Galle during Sangakkara’s farewell series, India were set to wrap up the first Test easily. A first-innings lead of 192 runs had given the tourist the cushion and Sri Lanka slumped to 95 for five in their second innings, still needing 97 runs to avoid an innings defeat. Chandimal then played the knock of his life.
Batting at No 6, Chandimal, together with the lower-middle order, gave the team a glimmer of hope. India’s spinners – Ravichandran Ashwin, Amit Mishra and Harbhajan Singh – were tough to handle on the turning track, and Chandimal decided to attack.
In just one session, the game was turned upside down as Chandimal posted a career-best 162 not out off 169 deliveries. Mostly he used the sweep and the reverse sweep to perfection, hitting 17 fours and four sixes and Sri Lanka finished on 367.
Chasing a target of 176, India collapsed to be bowled out for 112 to give Sri Lanka a 1-0 lead. Since then, as Chandimal recalls with SA Cricket magazine, he hasn’t looked back.
‘I would say that the turning point of my career was when I made a half-century during the World Cup against Australia in Sydney. I had failed with the bat and that knock gave me lots of confidence. I was injured and had to retire during that knock, but that effort was very satisfying against a very good attack and the eventual World Champions,’ Chandimal says.
‘The 162 against India was a dream knock. We were down and out and I remember going for lunch at 108 for five on day three. We still needed some 80 runs to avoid an innings defeat. I thought with so much time left in the game, being defensive was playing into India’s hands. I decided to attack and there was a lot of support from the rest of the batting and we were able to get a decent lead. Rangana Herath then took seven wickets in the second innings to lead us to a memorable win,’ Chandimal says.
While that knock against India earned him a stable place in the side, it was his century against Australia in the third Test at Sinhalese Sports Club that saw him mature as a batsman. Chandimal was known as a skillful stroke maker, but there were questions about his temperament and consistency. He provided the answers four months ago at the SSC.
Australia had already lost the series when they arrived in Colombo for the third Test, but the tourists were deteriorated not to suffer the humiliation of a 3-0 whitewash.
Things went to plan as Mitchell Starc and Nathan Lyon reduced the hosts to 26 for five in the first hour of the Test after Sri Lanka had opted to bat first. Chandimal then teamed up with Dhanajaya de Silva to add 211 runs for the sixth wicket. Chandimal’s vigil lasted six minutes short of eight hours and his 132 helped Sri Lanka to post 355 – a massive recovery given that they were 26 for five in the first hour of the game.
‘I remember I had trouble with reverse swing in the previous Test in Galle. I made some technical adjustments before the final Test. We were five down for 26 in 17 overs. All that I wanted to do was to bat for longer and to make sure the Aussies were in the field for long enough. Then I went for my shots. In that heat and humidity, when a bowler is stretched for his fifth or sixth spell, things get easier for you and that’s exactly what I tried to do on that occasion,’ Chandimal says.
Despite all these high moments, Chandimal cherishes his Test debut the most, against the opponents he will be taking on at the end of the year – the Proteas.
‘I remember we were thrashed by an innings and 81 runs in Centurion,’ he says. ‘The Test ended inside three days and former South African players made remarks like “the South Africa A team would beat us.” That kind of criticism fired up some of our seniors. We had nine days between the first Test and the second Test. We trained extremely hard. Adjusting to conditions was one of our major challenges. The team management informed me that I was going to make my debut in the second Test and I was delighted.
‘I had been in the squad for 18 months and I had come closer to make my debut on a few occasions. Durban 2011 turned out to be that huge moment. The gap between the games helped me to be well prepared. Tillekeratne Dilshan had worked really hard as captain and it was great to see him leading us to our first Test win on South African soil.
‘Kumar Sangakkara made an outstanding hundred after being dismissed for a duck in the first innings. He had made scores of one and two in the first Test and was extremely determined to put up a good show. Thilan [Samaraweera], making his comeback, made a fabulous hundred in the first innings and then Rangana Herath bowled us for another famous win.
‘It was an outstanding South African attack. They rarely bowled loose balls and it was challenging. Since I had waited so impatiently for my Test debut, I was keen to not to ruin the opportunity. No doubt South Africa’s attack had some big names, but my determination was such that I wanted to make a mark. I batted at No 7 and was involved in 100-plus partnerships in both innings. That was really satisfying.
‘I kept wickets in that game. My Test cap is 122. I am glad our first ever win in South Africa came on my debut. My journey to Test cricket has been a long and tough one. It was very pleasing to finally get a cap. Exactly seven years before that I was shattered after the tsunami. Finally there was some reward for my hard work and perseverance and it was such a sweet moment.
‘I was 14 when we lost everything due to the tsunami. The national team was in New Zealand at that point. I remember getting up at 3am that day to watch the match. We lost all our belongings and I had a trial game the next morning as they were choosing the Sri Lanka U15 side to tour Nepal. Those were tough days. I was really down and deeply saddened.’
Chandimal missed the recent tour of Zimbabwe after he suffered multiple dislocations around the right thumb when he was hit by a ball during a domestic game. He will make his comeback in South Africa.
‘South Africa have been simply outstanding in Australia. They have a formidable batting line-up and a superb pace attack. They don’t give up so easily. What they achieved in Australia is sensational considering they didn’t have captain AB de Villiers and premier fast bowler Dale Steyn,’ Chandimal notes.
‘This will be a tough series for us. Our preparation will be crucial. We have a warm-up game and we need to adjust to conditions quickly. It’s a huge challenge for us and personally I want to do well in South African conditions and come out on top.’
‘As a team, we take pride in doing well in places like South Africa, Australia and England. The conditions in these countries are so different to what we encounter at home and that’s the challenge for us. As a batsman, I want to excel in these three countries. They are the best three cricket playing nations and it’s challenging for a batsman. So I am looking forward for the battle.’
South Africa no doubt looks a well-balanced side and the lack of a match-winning spin bowler looks to be their weak link.
‘I don’t think so,’ Chandimal argues. ‘Contrary to us, what they expect from their spinners is to do a containing job. Their main strength is fast bowling and conditions there will be suited for fast bowling. So the role of a spinner for a South African side in their conditions is different.’
Given what Sri Lanka experienced in their last high-profile clash against South Africa, Sri Lankan players are worried to write off South African spinners. These teams met in a World Cup quarter-final clash in Sydney in 2015 and the Sri Lankans succumbed to spinners to be bowled out for 132 runs and South Africa won by nine wickets. Notably, part-timer JP Duminy took a hat-trick and leg-spinner Imran Tahir finished with four wickets.
Chandimal was Sri Lanka’s leading batsman during the team’s tour of England early this year. As his career is developing, there are calls for him to settle down as a specialist batsman rather than a wicketkeeper-batsman and bat higher up the order. Currently Chandimal occupies the No 6 slot. Sangakkara was a revelation the moment wicketkeeping duties were taken away from him. As a specialist batsman, the former captain averaged 66 while as a wicketkeeper batsman he averaged only 40. As Chandimal has emerged as the team’s leading batsman, he could too set the benchmark batting at a higher position and playing as a specialist batsman.
He is destined for greater things and Sri Lankans believe Chandimal is the man to break many of Kumar Sangakkara’s batting records.
Compiled by Rex Clementine, a cricket writer based in Sri Lanka.