Five years ago, the name Tillakaratne Dilshan did not necessarily send a chill down the spines of Sri Lanka's opponents. Back then Dilshan batted in the lower middle order, coming to the crease after the mainstays -- the Sangakarras and the Jayawardenes -- played their part. Dilshan's role in the team was confined. He either had to rebuild innings or finish them with a bang, and at times chip in with wickets with his flat off-breaks.
All that however, changed towards the latter stages of his career after he began to open the innings for Sri Lanka in 2009. The batsman who scored only one ODI century in the first 10 years of his career went on to score 13 more since 2009. He scored a thousand runs that year, including four centuries.
Expectedly so, Dilshan, who is playing for the Dhaka Gladiators in this year's Bangladesh Premier League (BPL) T20, in an interview with The Daily Star described the move as the 'turning point' in his career.
“I think that was one of the best decisions in my career. I played at number six or seven for close to 10 years, but I was never in the highlights. I scored in the 30s and 40s regularly, took a couple of wickets and catches but I wasn't noticed enough,” said Dilshan.
The player's urge to bat up the order had increased when he was dropped for a match against Australia in 2008 and subsequently left out of the team for a series against Zimbabwe in the same year.
“I felt that I could do better as an opener but at that time Mahela (Jayawardene) and Sanga (Kumar Sangakkara) were batting well at the top, so it was going to be a challenge to better them. So I told Mahela, who was the captain back then, not to look at me as a middle-order batsman and that I was looking to open in domestic cricket. Mahela straight away told me to do what I was confident in,” said Dilshan.
What happened next, of course changed the course of DIlshan's career. Opening the innings in domestic cricket, Dilshan scored a number of centuries and was also as the man of the tournament that season and made his way back to the national team, this time as an opener for the series against Pakistan in 2009. He opened in that series alongside Sanath Jayasuriya and his scores of 37, 76 and 137 gave him the player of the series award.
Dilshan's career saw another landmark when he was asked to captain the national team following the 2011 ICC World Cup. However, series losses to England, Australia, Pakistan and South Africa compelled the player to resign his post 10 months into the job.
“It was both a good and bad experience. I learnt a lot in those 10 months. I found out the people who were with me and who weren't with me. Those 10 months in my life I learnt a lot,” said Dilshan, adding that he would not take up the captaincy baton again.
“I tried including a number of youngsters in the side. (Dinesh) Chandimal, (Lahiru) Thirmane -- at least eight to nine of them are either playing for the national team or the second team. A few guys didn't like that back then, but I stuck to my decision and I am glad that I did,” he recalled.
Dilshan's next international assignment will be against Bangladesh at home in March. The Tigers will play two Tests, three ODIs and a T20I in a month-long tour of Sri Lanka. The batsman believed that Bangladesh have made great progress in the last couple of years and expected a tough contest in March.
However, at 36, Dilshan has already stated his plan to leave Test cricket soon and continue playing limited-overs cricket for a couple of years more. He would not mind a future with the Sri Lankan cricket board either. “I am still fit, with the kind of fitness I can play for five years easily, and I am in great form but when you think about Sri Lankan cricket, I am happy to give my position to youngsters.”
The manner in which the player has transformed himself in the second half of his career will no doubt let him leave the cricketing circuit on a high note. However, amidst the relief there will continue to remain a tinge of regret, as Dilshan himself puts it:
“When you look back to the 10 years from 1999 to 2009, had I opened I might have crossed 10,000 runs by now. But unfortunately I took the decision a little late. Still, I am happy that I did it while playing international cricket.”