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Dinesh Chandimal - The force awakens

Dinesh Chandimal's return - a lesson for every youngster.

26.12.2004: A date that is permanently etched into the memory of many an inhabitant of the island nation of Sri Lanka, all for the wrong reasons.

The southern hemisphere was regaling itself with Boxing Day matches. The Sri Lankan team was involved in one of those matches, facing New Zealand to kick off the first of the five ODI matches.

It was a warm Sunday morning. The beaches were all set to host the weekly cricket fiestas in the sand baked golden by the pristine tropical sunshine.

In the coastal town of Balapitiya in the southern Sri Lanka was a teenage boy, gawking at the TV with eyes firmly super-glued to the proceedings of the match, much like many other boys.

Sri Lanka attracts many for many reasons. The winter in the temperate regions lures migratory birds towards the estuaries of Sri Lanka. The moderate climate brings visitors from all parts of the world. The spices enticed the Portuguese and the strategic location invited the British. But what Sri Lanka attracted on that day was unprecedented.

The fateful day

The Indian Ocean that bellows at every portal of Sri Lanka decided that it was time to pay a visit to its pearl. The boy’s mother saw the giant wave and the boat that it expectorated towards their house tearing everything apart on their way and called out for her son.

Lokuge Dinesh Chandimal parried his gaze from the TV screen and stole a glimpse of the fatal wave and immediately set off on a run.

The run was hardly different from the run he embarked on the night of the sixth day of the month of April in 2014. He had been stripped off captaincy midway during the WT20 and was forced to stand the mortification of dropping himself from the team. Rumours assert that he cried, but they are what they are – mere rumours. But on that night, when Sri Lanka won its second biggest world title, there was nothing that could bridle Chandimal. He ran. He ran like a toddler after a butterfly.

He was the captain of the side when the tournament began. But he was carrying drinks in the final. Life, at times, hits people hard. But it couldn’t have hit anyone harder. Yet, Chandimal hurtled to the middle of the stadium with intemperate joy and passion. He was no more the captain. He no more had a place in the team. But his team had won a World Cup and that was enough for him. “Whoever brings the cup home, it’s for the country, isn’t it amme (mom)?” his mother quoted him saying in an interview. His career had faced a tsunami but his selflessness knew no bounds.

The vigour and the earnestness of both his sprints were the same. The contexts differed. The purposes were polar opposite: the first was to save his life, the second was an emancipation from mortal liabilities, an exposition of altruism and selflessness – to rejoice his team’s triumph masquerading his own pain. But at the end of both, he was shattered.

Starting from zero, once again

The teenaged Chandimal lost everything to the buccal chasm of the tsunami. He was homeless and all his cricket gears were washed away by the giant waves.

But there is always an eerie apathy in the way he faces his life's greatest challenges. In England in 2014, he fell to his irresistible impulse to hook. He saw the ball being pitched short; he hooked; he saw it settling in the hands of the fielder at long leg.

"I'm someone who's always looking for runs, and maybe that's why I play the hook when I see a short ball," he shrugged off his struggle in 2014. But was he complacent? No, he knew that it was a weakness, yet, he didn't let it wear him down. With time, he realised that taking a step back was sagacious. "Maybe I won't hook early in the innings anymore, but after I've watched for a bit, I will go to the hook shot I've always played well in the past." He might crouch but would never prostrate.

After the tsunami, he had to start his life from scratch. Yet, he didn't complain. He didn't give up. Nor did he lament about the quandary he was in. He tore through all his challenges like a boost mode activated Temple Run player.

His father lost his livelihood and Chandimal's family's economy was in dire straits. His initial foray into cricket as a spinner was harried once his action was found to be illegal.

Everytime life threw an obstacle he transformed it into a stepping stone and hurtled forward. He didn't let his family's economy weigh him down and took the keeping gloves to have another shot at cricket.

Thus, he grew up in stature as a wicket-keeper in Dharmasoka College but his batting still stuttered. However, his never-say-die attitude earned him a scholarship to Ananda College, one of Sri Lanka's prestigious schools.

He never went down

There his batting started to bloom and hence, he was named the captain of his school's first XI, the first student in the history of his school to become the captain after entering the school through a scholarship.

The additional responsibility foisted paid dividends as he led his school to 13 outright wins, a record that still stands. As a batsman, he became the first schoolboy cricketer to score in excess of 1000 runs in a year and in 2009 he won the schoolboy cricketer of the year award.

Barely out of his school he ended up being the highest run grosser in the domestic inter-provincial T20 tournament in 2010.

His opulent performances earned him a place in the WT20 squad in 2010. He made his T20 debut against New Zealand and concocted an important partnership with Mahela Jayawardene on a slow surface.

From then on he never looked back. In 2011, he scored a century at Lord's and followed that year becoming the highest run scorer in ODIs for Sri Lanka in 2012.

The heart of a lion

But problems love sleeping underneath Chandimal's bed. For reasons only known to none, Chandimal was pushed down the order. A top-order batsman was given the long handle and was forced to slog at the death.

But he never complained. He stoically tried to perform the role his team wanted, out of his character. If that struggle wasn't enough, one of Sri Lanka's coaches tried to perfect Chandimal's technique and ended up ruining him altogether. 

It is no secret that Chandimal has a bizarre technique. His batting principles were not minted being guided step by step by the cricketing manuals. Instead, they are raw, homespun skills gained by strictly adhering to individuality.

If the textbook asks you to drive a ball through covers, Chandimal flicked it over midwicket. He slogged when one should have defended and scooped when one should have glanced. Balls that should go to the point boundary flew over long-on.

The fatality called perfection

"Runs is cricket not batting beautifully,” says Garfield Sobers. It is not to mean Chandimal's batting is divested of beauty: anyone who admires a tad of presumptuousness can behold the pulchritude in his adventurous batting. As long as he scores run, it will be preposterous to dig into how they come.

Even Brian Lara, one of the most prolific batsmen of all time, had an unorthodox way of batting. "I have seen Murali turn the ball square across him, with no midwicket, enticing him to play against the turn, and I have seen Brian keep driving, flicking and sweeping into that one vacant spot," Sangakkara wrote about Brian's innings against Sri Lanka in 2001. Though Chandimal is not in anyway comparable to Lara in stature, it must be  noted that Chandimal's approach to batting is similar to that of Lara.

The clichéd adage "if it isn't broken, don't fix it" was thrown to the wind and steps were taken to make him more mainstream. He has a predominant bottom hand, which made him vulnerable against certain balls, but good batsmen have always fashioned a hand-made solution to counter such weaknesses.

But in the quest to make Chandimal a perfect batsman, his grip was re-modeled. What if Dhoni had been told that there was too much bottom hand in his helicopters? What if Dilshan had been told that his head wasn't still when he played the Dilscoop? What if McCullum had been told that he gets too much across the line when playing the McScoop?

Sri Lankans have had a history of embracing idiosyncrasies instead of feeling apologetic about them. No one tried to mess with Sanath's square stance or Murali's wristy off-breaks. Malinga was allowed to have his slingy action and Mendis's carrom balls were all appreciated.

But such was Chandimal's fortune that he found himself at the receiving end of something unprecedented in the Sri Lankan cricket culture.

With a modified technique, Chandimal found coping difficult. His technique didn't comply with his mind. His bat couldn't do what his mind wanted. He was as if his soul was put into another body and gradually perished trying to conjure a harmonization between his mind and body, but cacophony was all that resulted in.

In 2013, runs off his bat dwindled. Yet, the hopes placed on him were so much that he was made the captain of the national T20 side. His effervescence immediately rubbed off on his team-mates as Sri Lanka surged to the top of the rankings. But the struggle with his bat kept continuing like the far-stretching horizon and culminated with him dropping himself from the XI in the 2014 WT20.

The post of captaincy was confiscated after the WT20 and Ashan Priyanjan replaced him in the ODI team. After a solitary failure in the first test against South Africa at home in 2014, Chandimal was relegated to the A team.

In 2015, he found his way into the test team against New Zealand and made his return to the ODI on the same tour. In the league stage game against Australia in the 2015 world cup, he found his magic back as he single-handedly brought Sri Lanka close to an improbable victory smashing a 24 ball 52 but an injury to him shattered all Sri Lankan hopes.

After the retirement of Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara, Chandimal was given a permanent place, but yet, his batting struggled. There is a fable about a fox which tripped over a pot of ink, bathed itself in the blue ink, entered the wild and made the fauna believe that he was a new animal. But cometh the full moon day, he found resisting his inveterate penchant for howling difficult and caved into his instincts.

The force awakens

Dinesh Chandimal’s full moon day came during the first test against India in Galle in 2015. With five wickets down for just 95 in the second innings, Sri Lanka was glaring at an innings defeat. There was a deficit of 97 to erase and Chandimal was prodding and blocking balls to delay the destiny.

Call it an epiphany or a catharsis, with the mounting pressure and a raging Indian team, Chandimal’s true self broke the shackles, perhaps even without the right hander’s knowledge. All the indoctrinations, all the pre-disposition for perfectness, all that was consumed from the textbooks were thrown into the Galle sea-breeze. Chandimal’s bottom hand emerged like a butterfly out of a cocoon and balls started flying to all parts of the ground.

He swept, reverse-swept, slogged and socked all Indians bowlers, so much so, that even Ravi Ashwin was clueless. Outside the stadium Ranil Wickremesinghe, the prime minister of Sri Lanka was promising to take the nation to a new era; inside the stadium was Chandimal, taking himself and his team to where they actually belong. He ended up scoring 162 off 169 balls and Sri Lanka clinched victory from the den of defeat.

That was the oracle for the rambunctious stroke maker that he decided to embrace his singularity. This year he has scored 901 runs in tests and is the leading run scorer this year for Sri Lanka. In 2014, he could only muster 165 runs in 4 tests. At last, all the hopes that were mounted on Chandimal started bearing fruits.

The selectors, acknowledging his re-discovery of his true-self, have appointed Chandimal as the captain for the two T20Is against New Zealand.

In his short career, he has seen it all. He has been a victim of a tsunami; He has been a wonder-boy; He has been a star; He has won matches; He has flopped; He has been sacked, axed and fired; He has captained; He has dropped himself; He has scored a century at Lord’s. And yet, he has had the courage to pursue the love of his life- cricket.

After his adventure into the stratosphere and the underworld, he seems to have finally struck the right chord. His career is a lesson to all youngsters who try to be the perfect someone instead of being the uninhibited themselves. When perfection pervades, predictability succeeds.

The catastrophe that can result from lack of uniqueness is well explained by the theory of evolution. Imperfection is the mother of evolution. Chandimal is unique; he is imperfect. That is what makes him unpredictable; that is what makes him a match winner. The team needs a match winner. Sri Lanka needs imperfection; the nation needs Dinesh Chandimal.

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