The diminutive frame of 20-year-old Dunith Wellalage was carrying the hopes of a near-capacity crowd at the R. Premadasa Stadium in Colombo with the bat. Earlier, with the ball, he had injected that belief by demolishing the Indian batting to become the youngest Sri Lankan to pick a five-wicket haul.
His spell of five for 40, which included the scalps of Shubman Gill, Virat Kohli, Rohit Sharma, KL Rahul, and Hardik Pandya, would have made Indian fans revisit the horrors of mystery spinner Ajantha Mendis’ haunting spell of 6/9 in the Asia Cup final in Karachi in 2008. Yet, other than utter wonderment at his precocious talent, there was no tangible mystery to Wellalage.
“For his age, he is very mature. The wicket was spinning, so he created an angle where the ball was automatically drifting towards the right-hander’s pads, where the front shoulder gets opened up. That is where he managed to confuse the batters,” Wellalage’s spin bowling coach at Lanka Premier League (LPL) franchise Jaffna Kings, Sachith Pathirana, said as he broke down his ward’s craft.
It is hard to imagine a wicket-haul containing more esteemed names than the one Wellalage bagged, let alone when you are just playing your 13th One-Day International game. Wellalage went about that daunting task with little fuss. He beat Gill’s outside edge off the first ball he bowled with an away-turner to break a threatening 80-run opening stand, and completed his five-wicket haul with a similar delivery that foxed Pandya off the last ball of his spell. In between, he had Rohit castled with an arm-ball while Kohli and Rahul were deceived by the ball stopping in the pitch.
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He not only reduced India to 172 for six but also had an appetite for a fight, lifting Sri Lanka from 99 for six to an almost match-winning position with an unbeaten 46-ball 42.
It is this quality that Pathirana believes could help Wellalage earn an Indian Premier League (IPL) contract and play a role similar to Ravindra Jadeja’s.
“Because he is a left-arm spinner and left-handed batsman, he can play the role of a Ravindra Jadeja in the future. He might have a chance in the IPL, but we know the quality of spinners the Indians have, so he will have to be exceptionally good and consistent to get a contract in the IPL,” Pathirana told Sportstar.
But Pathirana also warns against rushing the youngster, who has also played a solitary Test, in all formats of the game.
“I think he has the capability to play all three formats, but I think Sri Lanka Cricket should not rush him. If he plays more in the one-day format, that will benefit him. I am sure he will have a good future even in Tests and T20Is because of his talent and capacity to adapt to situations,” the coach added.
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Sri Lanka is missing its four first-choice bowlers in this tournament due to injury, which includes leg-spinner Wanindu Hasaranga. However, Pathirana believes that Wellalage will retain his place even when Hasaranga returns and will give Dhananjaya de Silva a fight for a spot in the playing XI in the World Cup.
“I believe he will definitely be included in the 15-member squad for the World Cup. With his batting, he is giving a little bit of a headache to the selectors. He has the potential to play at No. 6 as a batting all-rounder, and his left-arm spin is very crucial. If he doesn’t play and Wanindu Hasaranga comes into the team, we still don’t have a left-arm spinner. I think he is knocking on the door to challenge even Dhananjaya de Silva’s position at No. 6,” he said.
Pathirana was also the spin coach of Sri Lanka Under-19s when Wellalage captained the team at the World Cup in 2022, where he was the highest wicket-taker in the tournament with 17 wickets in six innings, which paved the way for his ODI debut a few months later.
“I was lucky that I was the Under-17 and Under-19 Sri Lanka spin bowling coach when Wellalage was playing. I had a very close look at him in his younger days. He was very mature when he was playing age-group cricket. He managed to continue that form in the A team tours, and now, on the main stage, he has the potential to deliver. He had a brilliant season in the 2022 calendar year. He came very close to breaking the Sri Lankan record of most wickets for an Under-19 player. He managed to take more than 50 wickets in that season,” he said.
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Wellalage was among the top 10 most expensive signings at the LPL player auctions this year, fetching $56,000, and Pathirana said the franchise was ready to go even beyond that to acquire his services.
“We had a plan to retain him because he was involved with us in the earlier stage of the tournament as well. Because he is adding a lot of value with his batting and fielding, we thought we should bid for him. We had a certain amount where we could have gone even higher to get him in this edition.”
It wasn’t only Wellalage, though, who repaid that faith. Pathirana was a proud man on Tuesday, as all 10 Indian wickets were claimed by Jaffna Kings bowlers. Charith Asalanka picked up four, and Maheesh Theekshana got the last wicket to add to Welallage’s five and make it a perfect 10 for the franchise.
“Charith Asalanka was up to the task. I know that the wicket did help the spinners, but he bowled it in the right areas. He can also think of bowling a little bit more seriously and becoming an all-rounder. Maheesh Theekshana was found at Jaffna Kings in the first year . All three players have a lot to offer Sri Lanka in the World Cup,” he beamed.