Classy de Silva bats in his own universe

Classy de Silva bats in his own universe
© AFP/Getty Images Dhananjaya de Silva’s 153 helped Sri Lanka extend their lead © AFP/Getty Images

Collar popped, jersey (crisp, white) done up to the clavicle, long sleeves clinging to dainty wrists, Dhananjaya de Silva swivels to hit a bouncer between the legside catchers. The ball skims to the rope.

West Indies think he’s got a weakness against the short ball. “Dhananjayaaaa,” Jason Holder had crooned at him, earlier this year when these teams met in Antigua. “Happy hooker, boy, happy hooker!”

Kemar Roach is trying to rush de Silva into the shot. Trying to get him to seize up, swipe across the line, get the ball to pop off the shoulder of the bat to the catching midwicket, or fly off the top edge to fine leg. But when he’s batting this well, time serves at de Silva’s leisure. Haste, hurry, urgency – this is not a universe in which such things exist. Roach tries it again next ball. This time, the hook is even more laidback. The ball glides away behind square this time. A leaf blown by the ocean breeze.

De Silva had arrived at the crease with Sri Lanka essentially 23 for 3, and their most experienced batter likely to come in only way down the order, on account of a quad strain that does not allow him to run. It’s a day four Galle pitch, which is less a strip of clay, more an altar upon which entire batting orders are sacrificed to the spin gods. West Indies had ripped through the middle order in the first innings too. But if there is pressure here, you’d never know it watching de Silva.

Other days there are minimalist drives past mid-on and liquid square cuts, but on Thursday, this is the trademark: the left-armers in operation, he awaits the ball in his slouch, still zen as it pitches, gliding back, the world slowing, an unfurling of arms, bat descending on an angle to deflect the ball past slip. He was dropped trying to play it on five if you can even call that a drop because there was a big deflection and the ball hit only the very tip of the keeper’s webbing. But he keeps playing that shot anyway. No pressure today, remember? Only time.

At the other end, his team-mates kept falling, but even the ones who had hung around batted with a whole other vibe. Pathum Nissanka, hitting his third half-century of the series, was a taut figure of concentration, his strokes well drilled, the approach calculated, and conscientious. There is a method to de Silva’s batting too, but on Thursday, it also exists on a surreal plane. At one point, late in the day, batting with the tail, he moves forward to a delivery that turns away fast and sharp, but before it can spin past the edge or clip it, de Silva has flitted on to the back foot and pushed it off the middle towards point.

West Indies coach Phil Simmons speaks

Is it now too difficult for West Indies to win?

Kind of. We have 98 overs tomorrow and 300 runs to get – it’s a little bit difficult on a pitch that’s going to be turning appreciably tomorrow.

Was it a case of taking the foot off the gas in the last session?

No, I think the guy (de Silva) batted really well, and controlled the game well. The wicket wasn’t ragging as much as we thought it would on the fourth day. He gave one chance in the whole innings, so I think he played us out of the game.

How does the pitch look?

The pitch looks good still. In the first Test the pitch was still good on the fifth day, and this pitch looks as good as that. When it rolls tomorrow, we’ll see how good it stays.

His hundred on day four is the eighth of his career, to go with only nine half-centuries, across 68 innings, so while he has days such as this, he also has very many worse ones. That average still sits a touch under 40. But there is another trend developing. When de Silva scores runs, they are not merely pretty, they tend to be tough. His first trip to triple figures had come when his team was 26 for 5 against Mitchell Starc, Josh Hazlewood, and Nathan Lyon. Sri Lanka had been struggling in Rawalpindi when he produced 102, batting across all five days in between long rain breaks, in the gloom. There was another hundred from 93 for 4 against New Zealand’s superlative pace attack, the breezy 79 on the first day at Centurion, until he tore a muscle, and most of all, the 119 in Delhi to save a Test hit by smog.

On day four at Galle, West Indies had Sri Lanka by the collar when he ambled in; West Indies were gasping, run ragged, when he moseyed out again, 153 runs to his name. He’d struck his runs at 59. No one else who passed 40 on this surface was even close.

If he went into the trenches, he’d have his feet up on a stool, cap low across his brow, softly whistling.

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