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Looking back at Akila Dananjaya's controversial call-up to the Sri Lankan national side

It was Mahela Jayawardene who backed the young off-spinner despite playing only school-level cricket prior to the 2012 World T20.


Sri Lanka v New Zealand - ICC World Twenty20 2012: Super Eights Group 1
The Dananjaya made his debut for Sri Lanka way back in 2012

The 2nd ODI between Sri Lanka and India at Pallekelle was a breath of fresh air for a tour which has been largely one-sided with the Test series finishing 3-0 in favour of the visitors while Virat Kohli's side also won the first ODI at Dambulla quite comprehensively.

Though Sri Lanka failed to win the match on Thursday, the thrilling contest was one which reaffirmed the faith in 50-over cricket, proving that even low-scoring contests can be interesting.

The one man who made it possible for the hosts was 23-year-old Akila Dananjaya who might be officially an off-break bowler but bamboozled the Men in Blue with his subtle variations, including the googly, carrom ball, doosra, and the leg-spinner.

The way he cleaned up the likes of Indian skipper Virat Kohli and KL Rahul was impressive as he picked up six wickets in his opening spell and with India reeling at 131/7, it looked like the magic spell had set Sri Lanka on their way to equalising the series. That was until MS Dhoni and Bhuvaneshwar Kumar forged a match-winning partnership to see the visitors through.

The Indian pair's efforts were remarkable no doubt, but it took little away from Dananjaya's efforts as he was named the Man-of-the-Match for his figures of 6/54 despite ending up on the losing side.

A win for Sri Lanka would have been sweeter no doubt, but it made it a truly special week for Dananjaya who got married to his childhood sweetheart Nethalie Tekshini less than 24 hours before the game.

Considering the manner in which Dananjaya left the Indian batsmen clueless on Thursday, one might wonder that the player was someone who was new on the international circuit - similar to the way Ajantha Mendis wreaked havoc in his early days, most particularly against India. Dananjaya, however, had made his international debut way back in 2012.

The manner in which that came about was peculiar and somewhat controversial, as the then Sri Lankan skipper Mahela Jayawardene fast tracked his selection to the national squad, despite not having any first-class, List A, T20I or U-19 cricket experience.

In fact, Dananjaya had only been playing tier-three school cricket for Mahanama Vidyalaya back in his hometown of Panadura near the Sri Lankan capital of Colombo when he was called up to the Sri Lankan camp ahead of the home series against Pakistan in 2012.

Jayawardene and coach Graham Ford were looking for someone similar to Pakistan's Saeed Ajmal but Dananjaya surprised everyone with his variations and the way he troubled the Sri Lankan batsmen in the net session impressed Jayawardene so much that he wanted him in the national team right away.

Following the series in June/July 2012, Jayawardene ensured that he got to see more of the mystery spinner by selecting him in the Wayamba United franchise led by him in the inaugural edition of the Sri Lanka Premier League.

He picked up nine wickets from 22 overs during the course of the T20 tournament and impressed one and all with his variations and ability to deliver at the big stage, despite his young age.

His performances saw him being selected for the 2012 ICC World T20 but there were still eye brows raised as to how a player with only school-level cricket experience could be selected in the national squad.

Jayawardene, was, however, undeterred in his belief, and Dananjaya repaid the faith picking up two wickets in his debut T20I against New Zealand. He picked another three wickets in two matches, including one in the final against eventual winners West Indies.

He made his ODI debut as well later that year, also against New Zealand, but found himself out of favour with the national selectors, once Jayawardene stepped down as skipper.

He was recalled to the national ODI squad after a gap of nearly five years when Zimbabwe toured Sri Lankan earlier this year and has now truly left his mark at the international level with his performance on Thursday.

Only time will tell whether he manages to escape the pitfall which someone like Ajantha Mendis found himself in as batsmen around the world started picking his variations, but for now, it is the Indian batsmen who have their job cut on breaking the mystery surrounding the 23-year-old.

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