(LANKAPUVATH | COLOMBO) – When Sri Lanka won the 50-over World Cup in 1996, Dasun Shanaka, then just five, didn’t realise the enormity of the night, or why his parents and neighbours celebrated wildly in the Colombo suburb of Negombo. “I was too young to understand the importance of it,” he tells papare.com. “But I too joined the celebrations and someone told me that I need not go to the school the next day because it was declared a public holiday.”
But something tugged deeply at his heart, something pulled him into the game. He had seen teens in his neighbourhood and schools play cricket, but he was too young to be with them. So he went to his uncle, a regular in the softball cricket circuit, where he watched grown-up men blasting the ball into the distance. “That’s where my dream began, I too wanted to hit the ball hard and long. That’s where I got my (six-hitting) instincts too,” he says.
Two and a half decades later, he is living his dream, burnishing his reputation as one of the cleanest six-hitters in the game, and making his name as one of the smartest managers of men. His onslaught in Pune, where he struck half a dozen sixes en route to the fastest half-century in this format by a Sri Lankan batsman, was not an isolated instance. He hits a six every eleven balls he faces in T20s and a four every ninth ball (that is he hits a four or six in every five balls he faces!). That he went unsold in IPL auction (or for that matter does not feature in BBL and CPL) is a mystery, more so if you weave in his bowling, fielding and leadership aptitude, but he keeps on unfurling the sixes in the shirts of his country as well as the franchises in Bangladesh and Sri Lanka premier leagues.
Even among Sri Lanka’s fabled six-hitters, he is different. Sanath Jayasuriya and his old pal Romesh Kaluwitharana were terrific square of the wicket on the off-side. Mahela Jayawardene and Kumara Sangakkara would harness the bowlers’ pace with supple wrists and dexterous hands. Thisara Perera was all muscle. He borrows from all three schools—a bit of Sangakkara-Jayawardene timing, shades of Perera’s power and the six-hitting mentality of Jayasuriya and Kaluwitharana. Shanaka himself is at a loss of words to explain the science behind his six-striking. “It comes naturally to me, and I have not tried to change too many things. All I know is that I like to hit sixes and I hit sixes,” he says.
There is a striking simplicity to his boundary hitting. He stands still at the crease, there is no pronounced movement either backwards or sideways, builds a stable base and swings through the line of the ball. The stance is semi-open so that he could clear his front leg to facilitate the uncluttered arc of the bat-swing, residuals of a technique honed by softball cricket. He is not robustly-framed, like some of the fiercest six-hitters like Kieron Pollard or Marcus Stoinis; he is not blessed with the grace and timing of lucid six-gatherers like Suryakumar Yadav, but he generates power from his bat-swing and that stable base. He is not a 360-degree six hitter, but does not pretend to be one either. Most of his sixes are thus struck in the arc from long-off to deep mid-wicket. He is stationed at the crease in such a way that even his pull shots are struck in front of square rather than behind it.
The natural gifts meant that he gathered easy attention. For St. Peter’s College and Maristella College, he racked up six-hitting records that remain unbroken to this day. When he joined the SSC, he made coaches gush about his talents after striking 16 sixes in a game, the most in a single game after Chris Gayle.
Yet, he is a grossly understated batsman. Perhaps, it was because of projecting himself as a seam-bowling all-rounder. Interestingly, the larger cricket world first noticed him when he took three wickets without conceding a run on his Test debut against England at Leeds in 2016. Those three scalps were Alastair Cook (just 20 runs short of 10,000 runs then), Nick Compton and Joe Root. He thus became one of three cricketers to have picked three wickets on debut without conceding a run (the others were Mike Selvey and Richard Johnson, both Englishmen). Then like Selvey and Johnson, his Test career fizzled out.
Perhaps, he is understated because he wants himself to be understated. Not for him the swanky cars and night-long parties, fancy villas or actor- girlfriends (he married his childhood sweetheart). Not for him the craving to gather un-scattered attention, rather, he deflects glory to others. Even at his finest hours, when he guided his team to Asia Cup triumph, he withdrew from the arc-lights and thrust others, like Bhanuka Rajapaksa and Wanindu Hasaranga, into the forefront. Humility is an attribute that is often attached to him by the Lankan media and coaches.
Perhaps, he is undervalued because his leadership skills overshadow other merits. There is a historical irony to this. Arjuna Ranatunga’s batting remained under-appreciated due to his captaincy just as the leadership of Sangakkara was lost in the weight of his runs and beauty of his stroke-play. Shanaka’s captaincy style too is different from both. He is not confrontational like Arjuna Ranatunga, not charismatic like Sangakkara, but like both he brings the best out of his players. The team is still transitioning, prone to erratic form, as when they underwhelmed in the T20 World Cup despite winning the Asia Cup a few months ago, but he has assembled a promising group from shambles.
When he took over, two and a half years ago, Sri Lanka cricket was in deep mess. Several senior players were feuding with the board, a pay dispute raging; many of them were reluctant to captain the country due to the allegedly whimsical ways of the board; some were blown into the wilderness. But Shanaka remained unswayed by the tumult off the turf and threw his uncompromising support behind the players he thought would form the nucleus of the team. He cajoled back Rajapaksa to the team, persisted with Kusal Mendis during his dark days, stuck with Pathum Nissanka, despite his middling form, made the grounds fertile for Hasaranga and Maheesh Theekshana into the deadliest T20 spin-bowling pair in the world and bled in young seamers like Kasun Rajitha and Dilshan Madhushanka.
He, though, is stern. After the Afghanistan defeat in Asia Cup, he publicly criticised the shot selection of his batsmen. “But we took it in the right spirit because it was Dasun talking. We know he gets angry only when it needs to be,” Rajapaksa would say. That shows the trust the team has in Shanaka. He was once caught spatting with coach Mickey Arthur during a match. But later, the South African himself would extoll him. “Dasun is special in that he has great belief in himself and empowers the team. He leads by example in his performance, training and practice and has the ability to take people on the journey with him,” he once told Island.
As efficient a captain as he has been, or as under the radar he wants to fly, it’s time his big-hitting prowess gets its due recognition. Maybe, a big-franchise contract would help. Maybe a moniker could help. Something like the Negombo Nailer. Or maybe, more evenings like the Pune evening would help. (Indian Express)