21 September 2012 - 05:34pm IST
by Anand Vasu in Hambantota
When Morne Morkel sends down his first delivery to Dilshan Munaweera, the gulf between the two players will be much more than the very obvious difference in height. Morkel, exceptionally long-limbed at 6’ 6”, will be spearing the ball down at Munaweera, who just about touches 5’ 7” in his batting spikes. For Munaweera, who has already come a long way in a short time, the moment of reckoning will come against top-flight bowlers who deal in express pace.
At 23, Munaweera’s experience is limited to Sri Lankan domestic cricket, the Sri Lanka Premier League, and one Twenty20 International against Zimbabwe. He attacks the ball with the freshness of youth that will get curbed with experience, and was propelled to the big league on the back of his SLPL pyrotechnics. Playing for Uva Next, who took the SLPL title, Munaweera topped the run charts, hitting 212 runs from seven matches at a strike rate of 144.21.
Munaweera is an accomplished student, having got through a Grade-Five Scholarship at Prince of Wales before moving to Nalanda to play cricket. Having finished his A Levels in the Commerce stream, Munaweera turned his attention to hitting the leather off a cricket ball. While his first-class numbers don’t set the world on fire – he averages just 31 from 36 matches with three centuries – his approach is perfectly suited to the shortest version of the game.
“This format suits me a lot,” he said. “I have done well in previous years as well. My skills and fitness have improved over the last couple of weeks that I have been with the team. I watch the seniors like Mahela and Sanga closely, and see how they prepare and practice.”
Mahela Jayawardena, for his part, knows just how challenging things can seem for Munaweera, who is attempting to make the transition from playing against domestic cricketers to facing some of the best in the world. “It’s always going to be tough, especially when you’re an opening batsman,” said Jayawardena. “The good thing is that he’s got a free hand. When you are a youngster coming into the set up, there’s not much pressure on you, you just go out there and enjoy yourself and back yourself to play your game. We’re just going to give him the license to go out there and enjoy himself.”
One thing that will help Munaweera is that he’ll be batting with Tillakaratne Dilshan. The two are not strangers. They’ve opened together for Bloomfield Cricket and Athletic Club, Basnahira (in the provincial tournament) and now Sri Lanka. “I’m not looking too far ahead at the moment,” said Munaweera. “I’m just taking it one step at a time, and focussed on doing well against South Africa. I am ready to face the heavy guns in the South African side. It’s a good challenge. We respect them, but, equally, I am representing a cricket nation that has a rich tradition and history.”
Munaweera certainly has the right pedigree, with both his parents having played top-flight cricket. Sudath Munaweera, Dilshan’s father, who was also his first coach, turned out for Colts Cricket Club, while Manjula, his mother, played for Bloomfield.
It’s not a major surprise that the diminutive Munaweera names two other similarly built batsmen as the players he idolises – Sachin Tendulkar and Aravinda de Silva. Munaweera has a long way to go if he wants to emulate his favourites, but he can take comfort from the fact that he’s not the first young batsman to have to learn very quickly when elevated to international cricket.
“Early on, the guy I struggled against the most was Wasim Akram, because of his quality and variations,” said Jayawardena, scratching his chin as he wound the clock back 15 years to recall his early days, including the time he was a part of Akram’s first Test hat-trick at the final of the Asian Test Championship in Lahore in 1999. “Almost every time I played against him early on, I struggled. After 12 years of international cricket he started getting hat-tricks against Sri Lanka. Every time he got me, after the game he would pat me on my back and say ‘keep learning’. And that’s what I did.”
Munaweera is fortunate to have a senior player like Jayawardena, who has given him the license to thrill, but with a protective arm around his shoulder. Not every young cricketer has had that going for him.