Tillakaratne Dilshan upbeat despite challenges
Few captains have begun their time at the helm facing the scale and variety of challenges that Tillakaratne Dilshan has before him ahead of his baptism as a full-time international captain.
Not for him the comfort of easing in with a home series, with the heat and humidity of Sri Lanka and a slow, low track to suit his side. Instead, he lines up in Cardiff, where the temperature is half what it is in Colombo, and on a pitch with so little to interest the traditionally potent spin department that Sri Lanka are set to play four quicks. His team will meet a fully fit England side that has won six out of seven series over the past two years, and are now training their sights on the No. 1 ranking.
If that wasn't enough, his country's greatest match-winner has retired, as has his best fast bowler (and the youngster talked up as his replacement will be flying home due to a ligament inury), their most promising allrounder is injured, and no one in his bowling attack has a permanent place. Then there are the match-fixing allegations from a former captain, and the controversy over how long his players could stay on in the IPL before beginning preparations for the England series. There's a new coach and a new bunch of selectors as well.
Squad reboots after a World Cup are common, but rarely have they been this wide-ranging. Dilshan himself thinks that Kumar Sangakkara should have remained the captain, instead of stepping down after the World Cup. "After Sangakkara's decision I was a little bit surprised as I think he should have led for maybe another one or two years," he said on Wednesday, "but we all respect his decision and look forward to the future."
Since his elevation Dilshan has set about being an example to his young team. He left India early to be with the side for their entire preparation in England. He's also traded in the fashionable rap-star beard he sported in the World Cup for a more sober version, besides ditching the blond streaks in his hair and the ear-ring.
"I am going to take this challenge of leading a young team. I have young players, but I am a bit lucky as I have two ex-captains who I can go to for advice. This will be good for my captaincy over the next couple of months."
His pre-match conference was dominated by a list of things which disappointed him, though he found enough reasons to remain upbeat. For starters, Sri Lanka's performance in the two warm-up matches, winning both after being in a bit of bother. "Preparations are really good. In the last two matches we played really good cricket. Against the Lions and in the first three-day match, batting and bowling did a great job," he said. "Take the last match, we were well behind after two days, but after that we really batted well, and the bowlers did a great job after giving 400 runs in the first innings to bowl them out for 180. I'm really confident in our bowlers."
Amid all the changes, Sri Lanka's top five remains the same, and that settled bunch has plenty of experience as well. Dilshan has put some pressure on them by deciding that, in the absence of Muttiah Muralitharan, the team needs to play five specialist bowlers, with wicketkeeper Prasanna Jayawardene likely to slot in at the unusually high position of No. 6. Following him in the order will likely be allrounders Farveez Maharoof and Thisara Perera, but the team still looks a bit light on lower-order batting. "We have set these six batsmen a challenge for this series, we have to play 6/5. Murali normally bowled 30 to 40 overs everyday, now we don't have that type of bowler so we need to have five bowlers in our team."
Despite all the problems, Dilshan insisted his side can challenge England. "This is a good challenge to test all our departments," he said. "If we play our brand of cricket, we can beat England." A whole assortment of setbacks means his hopes of becoming the first man to lead Sri Lanka to a Test series win in England looks exceedingly bleak.