Sri Lanka's next big thing

Dinesh Chandimal has travelled from the wrecks of the tsunami to being the torch bearer of Sri Lankan cricket's future.

Dinesh Chandimal in action at the CB Series in Australia. (Reuters)

Sport sometimes puts life in perspective. Stories of despair, poverty, growing up amidst the rubbles caused by massive human tragedies — surroundings that make most people resign to that fate, blaming destiny for taking away whatever little they had. Yet, a tiny few emerge from these surroundings, willing to undertake a journey with a drive unmatched and unparalleled. Very few succeed, though it must be said and the ones who do, ensure that they value it a lot more than those, who might take it as a given and for granted. This, by the way, is young Dinesh Chandimal’s life story, far from an urban fairytale. In fact, it is one which lends itself seamlessly to the grand Sri Lankan narrative — the very indomitable spirit of community and resilience Kumar Sangakkara alluded to in his MCC Spirit of Cricket speech.

Chandimal can be called Sri Lanka’s first post-tsunami cricketer, mainly for the trauma he underwent in his early cricketing years and start everything from scratch. He belongs to a humble, less than privileged background from Ambalangoda, one of the little coastal towns in southern Sri Lanka that the dreaded tsunami washed away seven years ago. His family lost just about everything they had — the house, materials; his father, a shopkeeper, lost his livelihood. His mother didn’t have a job and with absolutely nothing to sustain themselves with, Chandimal’s cricketing ability — the one thing he was bloody good at — came to the fore. With the help of a few foreign charities which came forward to provide financial assistance through sponsorships, he undertook this great little journey to the top.

At the age of 13, Chandimal joined the Dharmasoka College in Ambalangoda. His first coaches Asoka Kumara and Viraj Chaminda de Silva spotted his prodigious talent and brought him up through various age-group ranks. Consistent performances for the Under-13 ‘B’ team got him promoted to the U-13 ‘A’ side next season, and since then Chandimal has never looked back. Starting off his cricketing career as an off-break bowler, he faced the ignominy of being called for chucking in practice matches for the school.

When he turned 15, Chandimal took up wicketkeeping, a skill which his coach says he spotted at the beach of all places. “I saw him once or twice at the beach, just casually where he used to play some cricket in the evenings, saw his feet movement behind the stumps and thought he could make a good wicketkeeper,” he says.


In 2006, during a televised “Big Match” clash between two fierce rival colleges in Ambalangoda - Dharmasoka and Devananda, Chandimal showed his potential with the bat, scoring 23 and 32 with effusive strokeplay. That is when a move to Ananda College, Colombo, and a shift to the top-order came calling. Two rich, run-filled seasons at schoolboy level followed, a national U-19 call-up for the World Cup and thanks to an invitation by Kumar Sangakkara, Chandimal made the cut for the famous Nondescripts Cricket Club, where he started featuring at the first-class level.

In his very second first-class game, as part of a representational team put out by Sri Lanka Cricket, against the New Zealanders, he notched up his maiden ton against the likes of Daniel Vettori. And since then, he’s only grown in stature as a top-order batsman. Such was his rapid rise, that a prolific run of scores at the domestic level rewarded him with a national call-up in a largely second-string side for a triangular series in Zimbabwe, also featuring India.

'BEST IN THE WORLD'

Playing just his second international game, Chandimal brought up his first hundred against India, 111 off 118 balls with six fours and five sixes. Unfortunately for Chandimal, a heady mixture of political intervention and selection policy meant that he was overlooked during the build-up to the World Cup, and lost his place to returning seniors and experienced players in Thilan Samaraweera and Chamara Silva. It seemed like the snub from the selectors only made him more determined and his returns in the following season are worth a mention — 1013 runs in 9 first-class matches at an average of 84.41, including a massive 244 for Sri Lanka A against the visiting South Africa A.

Ultimately, these efforts and scores were rewarded, when Chandimal was picked for Sri Lanka’s tour of England during the summer of 2011. Though Chandimal did not feature in the Test matches, he made his mark in the one-day series, with a fantastic 105* at Lord’s guiding Sri Lanka’s run-chase along with Mahela Jayawardene who made 79. This was more like an innings with which Chandimal announced himself at the highest level, walking in at No. 3 after Dilshan departed early, he kept his calm when Mahela was going on the attack at the other end, and then once Mahela was dismissed, began consolidating Sri Lanka’s run-chase. The knock not only ensured Sri Lanka’s victory, but contributed massively to Chandimal being a Sri Lanka one-day regular.

A poor run of form in the first three ODIs of the home series against Australia ensured that Chandimal was dropped for the remainder of the series, and his form only worsened at the UAE, where Sri Lanka played Pakistan. But, with continued faith in his ability, Sri Lanka’s selectors picked Chandimal for the tour of South Africa, where their decision was vindicated. Making his Test debut as a wicketkeeper-batsman at Durban, Chandimal scored two critical fifties in each of the innings, coming lower down the order and helping Sri Lanka maximize their score and win the game. Even in the one-day series that followed, apart from Sri Lanka’s embarrassing 43 all out, Chandimal outperformed his peers, with two fifties in five innings.

Romesh Kaluwitharana, the Sri Lanka A coach and someone who has worked with Chandimal closely says, “Despite his success for Sri Lanka at the highest level, I don’t see any change in him. He’s the same guy who came down from Ambalangoda to play his cricket in Colombo, very simple, humble and grounded. Importantly, he’s a very hardworking cricketer and a great listener to begin with, something that makes it easier for us coaches. Whatever inputs we’ve given him as a coaching staff for the benefit of his game, he’s taken everything on board and the results are there to be seen.”

Kalu adds, “He’s a very solid batsman, has a very sound technique and some good scoring areas. What he needs is a bit of shaping and if he can work harder and improve on specific issues like the short ball, shot selection and playing the ball closer to his body, he’s definitely in line to becoming one of the best batsmen in the world.”

Jerome Jayaratne, Sri Lanka Cricket’s Head of Coaching says, “Jerome Jayaratne, Sri Lanka Cricket’s Head of Coaching says, “We identified him very early at 16 or 17 and followed his progress ever since. Even we are surprised by his rapid rise and development. His maturity, even as a 22 year old has just surprised us.” Chandimal, many feel isn’t as flamboyant as say a Mahela Jayawardene or even a Kumar Sangakkara.

FUTURE CAPTAIN?

“He might not be as talented as some of the names you mentioned, but what he does best is maximize his own quality potential, without trying to match some of his seniors, that in itself is a good sign,” says Jayaratne. Perhaps, this meteoric rise is attributed to his background. As Jayaratne says, “There are lot of cricketers who succeed, take it for granted and throw it away, and there are some who can’t have enough of it, because they don’t have things on a platter to begin with and the struggle becomes an integral part of how they see success.” Chandimal belongs to the latter category, where nothing comes easy, and the moment you earn it, you just want more of it. Kalu says, “There is a special kind of determination about these kids who come from outside Colombo and lesser privileged backgrounds.. They don’t just play for themselves, but also for their families, their friends and the village they hail from.”

Is Chandimal a future Sri Lanka captain? Both Jayaratne and Kaluwitharana nod in agreement with a certain sense of approval. “Definitely, he could captain the team in the future. He’s led teams in the past too, but at the moment, his primary objective must be to establish himself as a leading top-order batsman and wicketkeeper (in the Test team),” says Jayaratne before adding, “Once the likes of Sangakkara and Jayawardena retire, it is up to the Angelo Mathews and the Dinesh Chandimals of the world to take over and ensure that we move forward.” Kalu agrees, “I hope he will captain Sri Lanka one day.” Even Viraj Chaminda de Silva, his first coach says, “We are all waiting for it. Definitely, we want Dinesh to lead Sri Lanka. Our dreams, our school’s dreams will also come true.”

Dinesh Chandimal’s story is nothing short of inspirational. Forget rags to riches, this story is about the triumph of human character -- overcoming challenges at every level - both personal and professional. It’s a story that could redefine Sri Lanka’s cricketing future for the next decade or so.

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