The need to have Arjuna’s thick skin

The need to have Arjuna’s thick skin

In 1988, as young Sanjeeva Ranatunga returned home from Sri Lanka Under-19 trials, his elder brother Arjuna inquired how he was shaping up? “I am doing okay, but you must come and take a look at this black bugger from down south.

He can hit the ball a mile with little effort,” Sanjeewa had said. The next day Arjuna went for the Under-19 trials at NCC and was truly amazed at the potential he saw. Not only did that youngster go onto represent Sri Lanka in the inaugural ICC Under-19 World Cup in Australia, he also went onto become Sri Lanka’s most successful captain ever.  Sanath Jayasuriya is his name.

In a day and age when the national cricket team depended heavily on players from Colombo, we wonder whether the selectors would have reached out their arms to the little heard St. Servatius College, Matara – the alma mater of Jayasuriya, if not for the intervention of Arjuna. We need not remind anyone that Arjuna had substantial influence over the selections, it was ‘My way or the highway.’  

Arjuna made sure that Jayasuriya made his Sri Lanka debut a mere year after his trip with the Under-19 side. All wasn’t tickety-boo earlier on in Sanath’s career. The stats suggest so. But once Arjuna had taken you under his wings, you were going to be his baby. No harm was going to come your way.

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The numbers are simply stunning. It took Jayasuriya four years to make his maiden ODI fifty. It was 39 games after he had made his debut. His left-arm spin wasn’t great either as it had only fetched 27 wickets after the first 39 games.

Many doubted whether the investment was worth it, but Arjuna was convinced that he was doing the right thing. Jayasuriya matured with age and experience and eventually turned out to be the team’s most valuable player and its best match winner. His ferocious hitting, cunning left-arm spin and electric fielding made him an indispensable member of the Sri Lankan side. He went on to become one of the greatest all-rounders to play the game. But would all this have been possible without Arjuna?

Jayasuriya wasn’t the only player that Arjuna handpicked and backed, no matter what. Picking talent early is a skill and persevering with those talents despite hard times requires conviction and a bit of thick skin, especially in this day and age of social media.

The three best talents to emerge in recent times are – Kusal Mendis (23), Niroshan Dickwella (24) and Dhananjaya de Silva (26). All three have come up with match-winning contributions at some point in their careers. For the next 12 years, this trio will form the core group of the Sri Lankan side, but at various times, authorities have meddled with these promising careers.

Mendis’ axing for the tour of India was reasoned out well, but we wonder whether the communication was done properly because when Mendis returned, he looked to have lost some confidence.

Dickwella is the latest casualty. First, he was axed from the Nidahas Trophy and now it appears as if he has been demoted from the position of the 1st choice wicketkeeper in the Test side with skipper Dinesh Chandimal set to take the gloves.

Dickwella has done little wrong behind the stumps. He is among the three best wicketkeepers in the country. He may have disappointed you having not gone onto get big runs after solid starts, but you have got to pick him for his character. There aren’t very many players in the world who will scoop Mohammad Shami over fine-leg for six or tell Virat Kohli to get lost.

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The drama that Dickwella put up in Kolkata last November was a treat to watch and Kohli himself lauded the youngster. “I liked Dickwella’s competitiveness. He is someone who takes a lot of pride in his cricket. I am impressed with what I have seen so far of him. He has got great ability to do something very special for Sri Lankan cricket,” Kohli said.

All in all, his stats aren’t bad either. Dickwella’s specialty is his unpredictability. He puts bowlers under tremendous pressure. In UAE last year, as Sri Lanka ended Pakistan’s unbeaten run, Dickwella was a consistent performer, finishing the series with 196 runs in four innings with an average of 65. There’s the occasional moment of madness like when he sledged Yasir Shah in Urdu.  As long as nothing personal is said, little banter should be fine.

If handled properly, Dickwella can go onto become a successful Sri Lankan captain. His captaincy record at school is quite unique as he won the league, one-day competition, T-20 tournament and the Big Match with Trinity College. No other captain has managed four trophies in a season. Captaining school and the country are vastly different things, but you sensed what he is capable of after that tense Delhi match last year.

A fine rearguard action saw Dickwella add an unbroken 95 runs for the sixth wicket with Roshen Silva. There was a sigh of relief when the two batsmen kept the Indian spinners at bay and ensured a draw. As the batsmen were retreating to the pavilion, speaking to Sanjay Manjrekar, Dickwella went onto say that if Dhananjaya de Silva hadn’t had to retire hurt, Sri Lanka would have rewritten the record books by chasing down a target of 410 runs.

It was not tongue in cheek stuff. He means what he says. Roshen Silva, his partner during the stand confirmed. “Dikka wanted to go for the target. We had to score 117 runs in 50 minutes and he said let’s do history here. Let’s go for it.”

Thankfully, Roshen with over 100 First Class games and having seen funnier things happen in sport, kept his composure. “I told him that drawing a game in India is good enough. ‘Cricket is a funny game. Let’s close shop here.”

Someone with Arjuna’s thick skin should back Dickwella.