There is a distinction between Duvindu Tillakaratne and his father, former Sri Lanka Test captain Hashan Tillakaratne.
While the excess height and head of hair are the more obvious differences when Duvindu stands next to his father, the bigger and most significant dissimilarity is that unlike Hashan, who was one of Sri Lanka’s most reliable middle order Test batsmen, the son is cutting his teeth as a left-arm spinner.
Just one season into domestic cricket, Tillakaratne, a slow left arm orthodox spinner, is making a name for himself, backing up a commendable return in last season’s Premier Tier A tournament with a more impressive performance in the Mercantile limited over tournament, where he finished as the leading wicket-taker.
Playing for Badureliya in the Premier Tier A, Tillakaratne picked up 29 wickets in six matches, evidently adjusting to the tough changes that come with transitioning from a school cricketer to a club cricketer quite quickly.
“It was tough because (for someone) playing school cricket till then, first class cricket is a huge leap forward. There are some important aspects that you need to concentrate on. When you come to club cricket I think your basics need to be spot on. You’re playing on better wickets, the batsmen are much better. So you need to concentrate a lot on your basics, because as a spinner you should be able to spin the ball on good wickets. That’s what I focussed on. And also my fitness, to be able to bowl long spells, in a more consistent manner. I worked on those two things and also my fielding,” Tillakaratne said.
Eleven of those 29 wickets for Badureliya last season came in one match against NCC, and included the wicket of his twin brother Ravindu.
“I got the opportunity in the second match of the season, and it was against Bloomfield. I got three wickets in that match. From that I got the confidence that I could perform at that level, and from there onwards I was pretty confident. I was picked to tour Bangladesh with the Sri Lanka Emerging team (for the ACC Emerging Teams’ Cup), because of my performances for Badureliya,” Tillakaratne said.
He didn’t feature in any of the matches in the ACC Emerging Teams’ Cup, sitting behind Amila Aponso in the pecking order, but he returned and represented MAS Intimates in the Mercantile tournament, with no one bettering the 20 wickets he took in eight matches in the 50-over competition.
The opportunity to play with and against national cricketers in the Mercantile tournament had not only helped him develop, but also made for challenging competition. He started the tournament with a bang.
“To be frank, I think this is the toughest One Day tournament in Sri Lanka. You have the national cricketers playing in it and it’s more competitive compared to the club tournament. I got the opportunity to play in the first match, because the captain, coach and senior players had faith in me, and I managed to pick up six wickets in that game, which was against Kanrich Finance. From there I managed to get the confidence. I’m a confident player, so if I feel that everyone believes in me, then that’s a huge boost for me. Picking up those six wickets I didn’t look back and finished with 20 wickets in eight matches, with another six wicket haul against Hatton National Bank, and then another three wickets in the final,” Tillakaratne said.
“Playing with players like this – we have more than 10 national players in the squad – I learnt a lot from them, especially from Tillakaratne Dilshan. Everyone treats me like their little brother on and off the field, and playing with these guys has changed me a lot for the better.”
Most of his success, he says, has come from bowling ‘wicket to wicket’, where the probability of getting dismissals is higher.
“I like to bowl wicket to wicket and I like to let the ball do the talking. So when you do that, even if the ball does not spin there is a chance of me picking up a wicket – leg before or bat pad,” Tillakaratne explains.
It’s a skill he picked up and perfected after making two difficult choices as a 16-year-old – moving from one school to another, and going from fast-bowling all-rounder to left-arm spinner.
Failing to get the chances he felt he deserved while at S. Thomas’ College, Mount Lavinia,
Tillakaratne moved to Trinity College, Kandy where he flourished under their coach Sampath Perera.
“S. Thomas’ gave me a lot and I learnt a lot from that school, (much of what has) made me who I am today. I was there till October 2013, and I wasn’t getting the chances I should have got. So I spoke with my dad and we decided it was best for me to go to Trinity. I was also happy with that idea and it was pretty exciting for me to go to another school and start over. I anyway had the idea of going to Trinity, because I was a Thomian and wouldn’t think of going to Royal. That was the option for me,” Tillakaratne recalls.
After discussing a possible switch with Perera, and the coach’s promise to polish up young
Tillakaratne into a better cricketer, he packed his bags and left home to move into the Trinity College boarding.
“It was a gamble, but I took that, we took that as a family and the first year at Trinity they accepted me with open arms and they were very friendly,” Tillakaratne said.
He spent the first year at Trinity playing for the second XI team as a fast-bowling all-rounder before an open spot in the first XI for the following season led to an unusual proposition from Perera. With left-arm spinners Lakshan Jayasinghe and Charith Sudaraka both overage for the next year Perera promised Tillakaratne that he could be the team’s lead left-arm spinner for the next two years, suggesting a change.
“That (first) year at Trinity was more of a learning curve, because that was the year Sampath Sir turned me into a left-arm spinner. He identified my potential to be a left-arm spinner and he taught me the basics, fine tuned my skills, and he gave me that confidence. He said he believed in me to become Trinity’s left-arm spinner for the next two years. So that was a huge confidence boost for me and then I just worked on my basics,” Tillakaratne said.
A fear of failure was one of the first hurdles Tillakaratne had to overcome if he was to succeed, and some tough love from his coach eventually gave him the confidence he needed.
“I was a very scared person. I was scared to go to the middle and fail. One day, while we were playing a match in my first year, I couldn’t do any variation because I was scared that I wouldn’t land it in the right areas. So what he did was when I came out of the field he gave me a very good lecture, and he told me that if I went to the middle and got scared then I would have more reason to be scared when I came off the field,” Tillakaratne said of a stern warning given by his coach.
“It helped me realise that I had nothing to lose and that I had to go to the middle and be fearless. From that moment onwards, I didn’t worry about the result, whether I would fail or not and from then onwards I started picking up wickets. The very next week I got a 12-wicket haul in a first team match.
Right now I still thrive on that confidence I got from that moment.”
The change bore almost immediate results, with Tillakaratne playing all the first XI matches the following season and picking up 64 wickets. Mid-season he earned a call-up to the national Under 19 team, alongside his brother Ravindu, for a tour of Bangladesh.
He saw even more success in his final year at Trinity, picking up 106 wickets and being awarded the most prestigious award at Trinity College, the Trinity Lion. The same year, he enjoyed what he called the most ‘happiest moment’ at Trinity College. It is a moment that proved that even though he left S. Thomas’ College, there was still a bit of Thomian in him.
“The first two years I played for Trinity, I played the Royal matches and we lost both matches outright by an innings. The third year, we thought to ourselves that somehow we were going to beat Royal, and it was played at Asgiriya. They batted first and were bowled out for 190 and we got over 400 in response,” Tillakaratne recalls.
“On the second day the game was heading for a dull draw, and we needed six or seven wickets to win in the last 15 overs. I managed to pick up six of them, and on the last ball of the day, I managed to pick up the last wicket. That was definitely the happiest day of my school career because I always wanted to play in the Royal-Thomian and beat Royal. I couldn’t do that as a Thomian but I did it as a Trinitian.”
The experience at Trinity not only helped Tillakaratne grow as a cricketer, but also mature as a young man.
“It was a hard life at Trinity. I was at the school boarding, and I was homesick all the time. But I knew if those three years I worked really hard and I got through that I would achieve something afterwards. So that certainly paid off, and I consider the foundation of my career, because if I had not gone to Trinity I don’t know where I would have been right now,” Tillakaratne said.
Not knowing how to do things for himself – he says he didn’t know how to use public transport or how to wash and iron his own clothes – Tillakaratne found a friend in Sudaraka, who took the fresher under his wing and treated him like a little brother.
“He taught me how to do things, and when it came to the art of spin bowling, he taught me a lot. That experience at Trinity, it actually turned me into a man. I learnt to do things on my own,” Tillakaratne said.
Being their father’s sons, Duvindu and Ravindu, were exposed to Hashan’s cricketing life, which created an enthusiasm at a young age.
“That atmosphere we got as young boys – we were always with cricketers, we were always in the changing rooms – was what made us cricketers today, otherwise I don’t think that would have happened. When your father is a cricketer you want to be someone like him, he used to be our hero. We always wanted to copy him and we wanted to become national cricketers. Even now, he supports us a lot and tells me the basics, from a captain’s point of view. That experience is unmatchable,” young Tillakaratne adds.
Tillakaratne recalls bits and pieces of his father’s career, but the fondest was as a six year old, watching his father do something he would never do again.
“I remember the 2001 double hundred he got (the only one in Hashan’s career) against the West Indies at the SSC. My brother and I were cheering him on. That was a very fond memory,” he said.
Having that surname, he claims, has made getting to where he is all the more difficult, contrary to what is believed about the brothers.
“He has never pushed us in an unfair way. People think because your father is a cricketer it is much easier for us to get in the team. But it’s actually twice as hard, because no one is willing to support you because there are a lot of politics involved. It comes down to performance, as long as we perform, no one can say anything, even if you’re the son of a former cricketer. It’s the performance that does the talking,” Tillakaratne explained.
“Something our father always said is to let the performance do the talking. We live by the motto ‘Hard work and Performance.’ And we don’t talk about anything at all – focus on performing well and working hard. Nothing else will get you into the national team. Maybe it will get you into the team, but you can’t stay in the team. If you go through the process in the right way, performing, that experience will keep you in the team for a long time.”
Now a part of the national pool of spinners, Tillakaratne has the fortune of training with the greatest left arm spinner the country has produced, Rangana Herath. And the veteran spinner has become somewhat of a mentor to the young pretender, offering advice from his years of experience.
“I learned a lot from Rangana Aiya at practices. He gives me tips such as how to vary pace and change the angles and also how to read the batman as much as I can and how to anticipate what the batsman’s next move is.”
Herath’s is not the only advice Tillakaratne can rely on. During India’s recent tour to Sri Lanka, he was drafted in as a net bowler for the Indian team, and while he couldn’t pick the brains of the two best spinners in the world, Ravindra Jadeja and Ravichandran Ashwin, he was able to connect with the latter’s coach Sunil Subramaniam, who is also the administrative manager of the Indian team.
“He gave me a lot of advice and he still keeps in touch with me,” Tillakaratne said.
As for which cricketers he models himself after, Tillakaratne’s answer shows the kind of versatility he wants to give any team he plays for.
“I like to watch Ravindra Jadeja and Mitchell Santner. They are both good left-arm spinners who are also all-rounders. I’m always looking to take things from them and add it to my game. Right now my bowling has been doing the talking and my batting hasn’t flourished. I want to focus on changing that,” Tillakaratne said.
If his bowling continues doing the talking when he represents Badureliya in the Premier Tier A tournament that starts this weekend, a second generation Tillakaratne could soon be knocking on the door of the national selection.