Thursday, 10 October 2013

Dilshan's retirement is another blow to Sri Lanka's Test cricket.

Tillakaratne Dilshan is nearly 37 years old, so his retirement from Test cricket shouldn’t be a surprise, but somehow it is. Maybe it’s the fact that he is one of the best fielders in the Sri Lanka team, swooping on balls in the point region with the agility and speed of one half his age. Maybe it’s the rollocking strike rate of 65 in Test cricket, and the way he gets there by slashing and slicing anything marginally off length through the off-side.

Maybe it’s the fact that, for some reason, Sachin Tendulkar is still hanging on in Tests at 40, that makes 37 seem an early retirement. Maybe it’s because that the position he made his name in, opening the batting, is one he only ascended to in 2009. While opening he averaged 42.54, and scored half of his centuries, in less than half of his matches whilst averaging 40.02 at other positions.

Maybe it’s because before he was 30, he had only scored four Test centuries, and after he was 30 he made 12. He may not have got less attacking as he got older (if anything, more) but he certainly must have matured in the elder years of his career.
Out of the golden generation of Sri Lankan batting, all aged within a couple of years of each other, Dilshan is the second to retire from Test cricket after Samaraweera earlier this year, leaving a massive hole in Sri Lanka’s batting. The opening slots will now have two inexperienced players, piling even more pressure and responsibility on Sangakkara and Jayawardene at three and four.

It seems likely that Dilshan retired from Tests in part to play on to the 2015 World Cup in Australia and New Zealand. Interestingly, Dilshan has also been left out of the preliminary limited overs squad for the New Zealand home limited overs series’ in November, as has Sangakkara, presumably both being rested before the Pakistan tour.

Dilshan becomes one of a few Sri Lankan players to quit Tests and continue playing international limited overs cricket. There was Malinga who went to preserve his body, Muralitharan to extend his career and get to the World Cup, and Jayasuriya as well.

The lack of Tests for Sri Lanka makes it more tempting for players to just play the shorter formats. Sri Lanka have played just three Tests this year, and will add just one more (starting on New Years Eve. It must be hard for Dilshan to maintain the appetite and skills for Test cricket whilst playing in T20 leagues all over the world, and getting paid well for it.

It’s not like Dilshan was honing his skills at First-class level before these Tests. Perhaps the fact that he was named in the Board XI squad but not the team in the current First-class domestic triangular should have given an inkling of his plans. Since the beginning of 2009 (incidentally, the year after the IPL started) he’s played one domestic First-class game.

Dilshan’s Test retirement comes down to a mix of factors and competing formats. Lack of Tests leave him with space to fill in his schedule. Domestic T20s pay him well for a little work at something he’s good at and fill that space.

By giving up three Tests a year, Dilshan no longer has to worry about long-form batting technique, while continuing to make a fair bit of money. It’s hard to criticise him, the problems are structural and lie with the boards. If Sri Lanka decide to play ten Tests a year - two three Test series and one four Test series - and maybe these will problems decrease.

It’s also easy to see why Thilan Samaraweera gave up international cricket. As a stodgy middle-order batsman, with a poor ODI cricket, he was essentially a Test-only player at this point in his career. Then he was left out of a home series against Bangladesh earlier this year (missing out on easy runs on the deadest of Galle pitches), but told he may be needed for the away series against Pakistan in January 2014.

Naturally, after being told that he was only wanted for the harder assignments,he realised that meant little international cricket, and it was a well reasoned decision to call it quits. As he said himself, "I may not have retired so early if the Test series against West Indies and South Africa had not been postponed because as a cricketer you'd always want to play against the number one team which is South Africa at the moment.

He also said that "I never wanted a farewell match because if you're not good enough to be in the 15-man squad, there's nowhere in the world you can play in the first XI," the 36-year-old Samaraweera said. "I didn't want to be selfish and deprive a youngster of his place by requesting to play in a farewell Test."

Admirable sentiments, and ones similar to those of Rahul Dravid when he left Test cricket. Two similar batsmen in some senses, and also it seems, two similarly good men. Dravid with was clearly the greater player, but what might Samaraweera have been had he had more of a chance to play abroad, and outside the subcontinent?

Dravid played 57% of his Tests away, and averaged slightly more than at home, whereas Samaraweera played 44% of his Tests away and averaged significantly less away than home. His best away series came when he became only the third batsman from the subcontinent (after Tendulkar and Azhar Mahmood) to make two centuries in South Africa in 2011/12, including a match winning one in the Durban Test.

He also averaged over fifty in the previous two series outside the subcontinent, and if Sri Lanka had played more overseas Tests in his early years, it’s not unreasonable to assume he may have improved quicker and made more of an impact.

The same comparison can be made between Sehwag and Dilshan, two similar middle order players, turned openers. Sehwag played exactly half of his Tests abroad, but Dilshan only played 44% of his Tests overseas. However, Dilshan did better overseas than Sehwag proportionally to his overall average (although worse on raw average).

Losing both Dilshan and Samaraweera in one year to retirements from Test cricket, bodes poorly for Sri Lanka’s future. There are some good young prospects in the system, but few ready for Tests yet. The opening berth may be filled by Kaushal Silva or Upul Tharanga, along with the incumbent Dimuth Karunaratne, whilst the middle order spot should go to either Kithuruwan Vithanage or Lahiru Thirimanne.

Any of those players could make a success of themselves in time, but in the meantime, the Sri Lanka Test team is left with just three established batsmen in Sangakkara, Jayawardene and Matthews, only the senior two of whom are proven century makers in Test cricket. With few tests on the calendar, there could be a long period of rebuilding ahead.

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