He conceded 81 runs in the third ODI, went at 10 and over in the next one, and yet, claimed 6 for 29 in the fifth ODI, in Sri Lanka’s 178-run victory over South Africa. So emphatically did Akila Dananjaya bounce back from those Pallekele pastings, that Angelo Mathews has declared him to be “made of steel”. Not only did Akila finish the series in possession of the best match figures for a Sri Lanka bowler against South Africa, he was also the series’ best bowler, having taken 14 wickets at an average of 17.85. Despite the expensive outings at Pallekele, his economy rate also finished at a respectable 5.95.
“Akila’s made of steel – going for runs in the last couple of games and coming back with a six-for in this game was fantastic,” Mathews said. “He has been bowling so well for us over the past year and a half. You can have a couple of off days but he has been consistent with his performances over the past year and a half. He showed once again what he’s capable of.”
At Khettarama, it was the googly that was Akila’s most destructive delivery, claiming the wickets of Aiden Markram and Reeza Hendricks in consecutive balls, before dismissing Heinrich Klaasen and Quinton de Kock as well. It is, of course, unusual that someone who primarily bowls offbreaks has a googly and a legbreak in his repertoire, but an unusual bowler is what Akila has always been. It was on the basis of that unorthodoxy that he made his debut for Sri Lanka way back in 2012, as a 17-year-old. Though largely ignored by the selectors between early 2013 and the middle of last year, Dananjaya has become a more refined bowler over the past six years, and Mathews – who is also a teammate at Colts Cricket Club – has watched him grow.
“There is a big difference when you consider his debut, and you look at him now,” he said. “He bowls with a lot of confidence. He’s not afraid to bowl his variations. And those variations are now also bowled with a lot of control. So those add up to a big difference.”
As Sri Lanka attempt to nail down their World Cup combination, Akila is imposing himself as the team’s lead spinner – a position Sri Lanka have struggled to fill in limited-overs cricket since the declines of Sachithra Senanayake and Ajantha Mendis. Despite some expensive outings, Akila has at least been reliably penetrative, claiming at least one wicket in each of his last six matches. Though the offbreak has always been his stock ball, the wristspin deliveries are proving effective for him, he said.
“I got most of my recent caught-and-bowled wickets with the googly, and I’ve got a lot of wickets with the legbreak as well. In this series I’ve also been trying to turn the legbreak as much as I can. The googly and the legbreak need to get better, so I’ll keep working on those.”