Charith Asalanka, mid-way through a follow-through of a big shot, is gritting his teeth while his bat is twisted around to face the bowler, above his head. If a seasoned cricket-watcher saw a still of this moment, they might guess that something has gone very wrong for Asalanka.
It hasn’t. Asalanka is just fine. He has just shoveled an offcutter from Shaheen Shah Afridi in the air, past mid-off for four. Not hit a four, mind. Shoveled one.
Sri Lanka’s No. 5 batter is many things. A former Under-19 captain, an occasional bowler who can be effective on turning decks (as India found out), and a reliable outfielder. But he is not a pretty cricketer. Even just within this batting group, he has none of Dhananjaya de Silva’s effortless cool, little of Kusal Mendis or Sadeera Samarawickrama’s fluency, doesn’t have the fast hands of Kusal Perera, or the efficiency of Pathum Nissanka.
We do not aesthetic-shame batters here. So we will not call Asalanka’s cricket ugly.
We will instead dwell on his many qualities. No other Sri Lanka middle-order batter can find boundaries so consistently in the first 15 balls of their innings as Asalanka. In this match, he thunked Iftikhar Ahmed over the deep midwicket rope (a go-to area, early in his innings) seventh ball.
And this four, off Afridi’s offcutter, is only the second boundary Asalanka has struck in this innings, but is off his 34th ball, and takes his score to 31. This tells you the other thing you need to know about him – the man knows how to work the gaps through the middle overs. He runs his singles urgently, calls his twos early, and even in tense situations such as this, tends to have clear communication with his partners. If you’re pretty fast, pretty skilful, and pretty conscientious, do you need to bother being pretty?
On a night and early morning (this match finished after 1 am) in which the Khettarama crowd was revelling in their baila breaks, dancing at every opportunity, the papare coming out of the northern stand, the crowd did not have any particular love for Asalanka. They roared for every run off his bat, and moved their hips for every boundary, but they would have done this for any Sri Lanka batter.
Earlier in the evening, when Mendis was making his way through his vital 91, many had had his name on their lips. Later, when Sadeera Samarawickrama was hit in the helmet by an Afridi slower ball and was visibly shaken, needing the physio’s attention, the crowd began to chant, “Sadeera, Sadeera,” willing the batter to recover even while he was undergoing a concussion test. Two nights ago, Khettarama was creaming for Dunith Wellalage, who was spectacular that evening.
Asalanka, may not have ready chants just yet. What he does have is a body of work. Since the start of 2021, no batter on the planet has as many as his 1248 runs at No. 5. This is with an average of 46.22, and a strike rate of 90, if you’re wondering. And this is despite his having only made his ODI debut in late June of 2021. He is almost 300 runs clear of the next-most prolific No. 5 – no less than Zimbabwe’s Sikandar Raza.
There is enough here to seed the thought that there is no one better in this specialised position than Asalanka. He has a decent top order to protect him now, but generally a poor lower middle order with whom to forge partnerships, as was the case against Pakistan.
But there is no shortage of love for him from his team-mates. On the third-to-last ball of the innings, Pramod Madushanka missed with a big heave, but made sure he grounded his bat at the striker’s end while the keeper’s underarm throw went through, so he could protect Asalanka’s wicket as Asalanka ran through to the striker’s end.
Eventually it turns out that Sri Lanka needed two to win off the last ball. And here is the moment that perfectly encapsulates Asalanka – he gets a slower ball on off stump, and instead of trying to bash it to the boundary, he calmly shuffles across, clips it behind square on the legside where he knows there is space, puts his head down, and sprints two.
The ball does not reach the boundary, because it did not have pace to begin with, and Asalanka has not hit it particularly hard. What he has done, is put it carefully into space. So much space that the fielders in the vicinity do not even seriously give chase. There is no point. This is so obviously a shot that is going to produce two runs. It is just enough. No unnecessary risks taken. No glory shots attempted.
When the win is secured, some of Asalanka’s team-mates storm the field and plant big, wet kisses on his head. Almost all of them are six inches taller.
None of them, though, have won a tense match with a measured flick to deep backward square off the last ball, putting their team in a major final. None of them are quite like Asalanka.