Paul Wood | 11:27pm gmt 27 Oct 2009
Chris Gayle, Virender Sehwag and Sanath Jayasuriya are the kind of opening batsmen that ask questions of the new ball bowlers as averse to allowing them to seriously examine their defieiciencies in the opening exchanges. Bowlers around the world are aware of the small margins of error against these powerhouses, pressure on the bowlers is inevitable, they need these batsmen out and the sooner they can remove them, the less chance the ball will be thrown to them looking like it has spent ten minutes in the company of a rather brutal dog.
It is a style of batsmanship that requires an excellent eye, a fearless approach to hitting the ball in the air, a willingness to accept a calculated series of gambles, and no less skill. The new name, not to world cricket, but to occupying this role at the top of his nation's Test order is Tillekeratne Dilshan.
The exciting Sri Lankan has re-invented himself, to a degree, in recent times. For the majority of his 57 match Test career (and indeed his ODI career) Dilshan has entered the innings at number six, giving depth to the batting line-up but not being handed the responsibilty at the top in which to illuminate proceedings with his carefree, yet explosive approach.
Duing the recent New Zealand series, Sri Lanka experimented with Dilshan at the top of the order, to offer the side balance, but also with Sanath Jayasuriya no longer in the Test frame, he offered them what Sehwag offers India, and Gayle West Indies, a different proposition to bowlers armed with a new pill. It wasn't a completely new role to him as he had experience of opening in ODI's, but Test cricket is a different ask entirely.
He remained true to his positive intent, backed to play his natural game by captain Kumar Sangakkara, Dilshan returned scores of 92 (off 72 balls) and 123 not out (131 balls) in the opening Test at Galle. He made two further starts in Colombo in the followng Test (29 & 33), but was unable to capitalise in such spectacular fashion again.
Dilshan seems unsure whether the opening spot will be where he remains, it was an experiment and it is believed that Sangakkara and the management have offered him his middle order place back should he want it.
There is no doubting that Sri Lanka's middle order is fulfilling its capabilities of making big scores when set. Sangakkara, Jayawardene, and now Thilan Samaraweera are each scoring consistently, and this allows Dilshan to tee off at the top, with such steadying assurances below him. Of course scoring runs on a relatively easy paced pitch in Galle against one of the weaker attacks is somewhat different to decimating South Africa's attack on a lively deck.
So does Dilshan have the necessary technique or style to make this experiment become a permanent thing ? He is savage on anything slightly over-pitched, he has exceptionally fast hands that hit through the line of the ball with a blur, his driving can be equally ferocious, and he is rarely found wanting when offered width.
Shahid Afridi of Pakistan is similar in style and begun his Test career as an opening batsman for Pakistan. He averaged 37.17 in that position, but Dilshan's shot selection is far more impressive, and he is now much more experienced than Afridi was at that stage.
What struck me when I saw Dilshan open up against New Zealand was how open the face of his bat can be when he is driving straight deliveries. On an number of occasions he was going through cover and extra cover from a delivery that was arrowing in on his stumps. When you can simply play through the line it should not cause too many concerns, but in more seamer friendly conditions, this can become problematic. Although unorthodoxy has never worried the Sri Lankans unduly in the past!
Dilshan is also light on his feet, enabling him to commit forward or back with speed, it also shows in his electric fielding.
Could it be possible that Dilshan is used at the top when the pitch and conditions suit ? Or will his ability be backed to succeed on various wickets ?
My feeling is that I would like to see Tillekeratne Dilshan remain at the top, take that centre stage, as averse to sitting in behind their run hungry middle order, which may lead to more than a few long hours on the balcony with his pads on. His ability to dictate terms early on will undoubtedly cause bowlers one or two causes for concern, even in bowler-friendly conditions, his risk-taking can upset opponenets rhythm and take them away from their original gameplan.
At 33 years of age and over 3,400 Test runs under his belt (at a healthy average of 43.03), Dilshan has the experience to overcome most propositions, but perhaps his performances away from the sub-continent (where he has played 73% of his Tests, not including five Tests in Zimbabwe) will dictate how significant a player Dilshan is for Sri Lanka.
He was recently in the cricketing spotlight for his newly developed 'Dilscoop' shot during the ICC World Twenty20, a shot that requires courage and flamboyance, these are two of the attributes that Tillekeratne Dilshan brings to the top order, and long may it continue.