You can see the appeal, right? I mean, everyone can.
It doesn’t matter if you’re a fan so casual you’ve never heard his name. Or if you’re so studious a coach you have run a microscope over technique and pored over reams of datasets. You’re both as likely to be drawn in.
Dunith Wellalage bowls with intensity, bats with heart, races around the field, and catches like a dream. He is 20. This is all that is required for now.
It’s almost impossible not to love a 20-year-old. On the blank white walls of his life, you can project your own dreams for him. He is too fresh to have done anything to offend you, too new to have to churn out runs or wickets, and just too unsullied by experience to be saddled with concepts such as consistency, and responsibility, which so stultify adult life.
Your boss calls you and tells you to do something you don’t agree with, but you do it however grudgingly because this apparently is just what life has become. Then you switch on a TV, or sneak out to a stadium mid-week, and kid who was born well into this century is dismissing Virat Kohli, Rohit Sharma, KL Rahul, Shubman Gill, and Hardik Pandya.
Maybe it’s not that you want to be him, exactly. This is more joy, than envy. Joy that such lives are still possible in which dreams can be chased. Joy that someone has the talent to achieve so abundantly.
This was a big-turning track at Khettarama, which challenged every batter that came to the crease, and suited Wellalage’s uncomplicated left-arm spin perfectly. He bowled at the stumps, and had his natural variation have some balls go on with the arm, and others turn.
It was the kind of surface on which experienced bowlers might say: “You just have to put the put the ball on the right spot and let the pitch do the work”. This is true. But it’s always more fun when it’s a young bowler putting the ball on the right spot. Senior players are decorated by their years. Young cricketers are underdogs.
Undaunted by the occasion, Wellalage began ripping the ball at one stage, changing his angles, and his speeds, but rarely straying from the good length that brought him the majority of his wickets. He appealed in earnest, and because he is who is , the fullest Sri Lankan stadium of the tournament so far appealed alongside him.
Later, when he was batting, also in partnership with Dhananjaya de Silva, who was creating pressure at the other end when Wellalage got most of his wickets, the Khettarama stands bellowed, “Wella, Wella, Wella”. This was first time perhaps all tournament in Sri Lanka that such a fierce cry has gone up in support of a single player.
He remained unbeaten on 42 off 46, having hit the only six of Sri Lanka’s innings, and having appeared capable of facing down the likes of Kuldeep Yadav, Ravindra Jadeja, and Axar Patel, on the same pitch he had earlier caused such destruction. His figures had been 5 for 40 from 10 overs. Kuldeep bowled nicely for his 4 for 43, but two of those wickets were Nos. 10 and 11. Only Rohit, who hit most of his runs before spin arrived, score more than Wellalage.
In his post-match self-examination, Wellalage occupied that space between bracing honesty, and endearing naivety. He wasn’t really thinking about getting wickets, he said, just trying to bowl wicket-to-wicket. The dismissals came all on their own. And that innings that threatened to take the match away from India? Shucks. He was just trying to support the senior batter at the other end.
But there was also this, which hinted that there was a hunger that, while he was Under-19 Sri Lanka captain a mere 21 months ago, getting so quickly to this level did not satisfy him: “After I came to the senior team my plan was to somehow play with these national players for at least a year at a stretch. Because then I could learn what they were doing, how they were handling match situations, and getting the advice of the best coaches so I could improve. If I’ve improved at all, it’s because I’ve been around the national team for more than a year, and have learned from them.”
It is Wellalage, ultimately, who will fill in the details of his own life and career. Soon, the space for our own projections will disappear. But while the rest of us have the space to say it – this seems like a player with serious promise, thanks mostly to unusual determination, though also to no little talent. It is not inconceivable his name will ring around this stadium long after he too has had the burdens of consistency or responsibility begun to weigh on him.