Mathews hails Sri Lanka opener’s approach after late inclusion
Danushka Gunathilaka was not destined to play the knock he did against India at The Oval on Thursday. In fact, he wasn't even in the Sri Lankan squad for the Champions Trophy and got a chance only because Chamara Kapugedera injured his knee while fielding, less than 24 hours before Sri Lanka's crucial match.
Gunathilaka might not have played the game had Upul Tharanga not been suspended for two One-Day Internationals for a slow over-rate offence in Sri Lanka's first match against South Africa. But Tharanga and Kapugedera's misfortune was Gunathilaka's gateway to glory.
But Gunathilaka was prepared, and grabbed the opportunity when it came his way. Since landing in England a week before the tournament, he, as one of the back-up options, went through his drills waiting for a chance that never might come.
It did on Thursday, and he responded with a brilliant 76 – his highest ODI score – that set up Sri Lanka's successful chase of 322. It was a much needed victory for a side that has been struggling in recent times.
"I was in the 17-man squad and I really wanted to get a chance so that I could prove myself," he told ICC after the game. "Unfortunately, Chamara (Kapugedera) got injured and I got a chance. But once I got it, I was thinking that this is my time, and I wanted to do something for the team. I did that really well.
“I was prepared and ready for the opportunity. We don't know what will happen, so I just practised and did my own routines. I got the chance suddenly and I think I did well."
He certainly did. Sri Lanka had lost Niroshan Dickwella – the batsman who gave them a quick start against South Africa – in the fifth over. The team was struggling for momentum when Umesh Yadav and Bhuvneshwar Kumar were going through a good spell but Gunathilaka took charge. Tall and strong, he drove neatly through the line but when he played the occasional cross-batted shot, the ball went deep into the stands.
Crucially, Gunathilaka did it in partnership with Kusal Mendis. He set the tone early in the stand before Mendis took over, and the duo paced the partnership superbly, taking turns to attack. They added 159 for the second wicket in a partnership that set the platform for the chase.
It was crucial given Sri Lanka missed exactly that in the first game against South Africa, when it slipped to 203 all out after being 94 for 1. But even while focusing on big partnerships, Gunathilaka and Mendis ensured they were always attacking and positive – something their captain has been wanting the team to do.
"Before we went to bat, we spoke about the need to play our natural games," said Gunathilaka. "When Dickwella got out early, we just told each other not to look at the scoreboard. We weren't thinking then that we have to chase 322, we didn't think about that, but only thought about playing our natural games.
"But after some time, after we settled in, we spoke that we have to take charge a bit. We batted close to 30 overs and we did it."
The pair also showed excellent awareness of conditions and opposition, and knew exactly whom to target. Ravindra Jadeja was expected to be a crucial factor in the chase, considering Sri Lanka succumbed to Imran Tahir earlier. But, this time, Gunathilaka and Mendis countered the spinner with aggression, taking him for 36 runs in his first four overs.
The awareness was also impressive considering they were regularly hitting him to the shorter part of the ground.
"This wicket wasn't good for spinners, we just wanted to take chances against the spinners and we did that," explained Gunathilaka. "We didn't plan to target any particular bowler as such, some bowlers have a good day on some days and some don't. So we just wanted to assess accordingly and bat freely."
Gunathilaka came under praise from his captain, who recognised the difficulty of performing on a late comeback.
"Mind you, to walk into a game knowing that he wasn't even in the 15, and knowing Kapugedera got injured yesterday and he had to step in and open the batting against a very strong opposition, it was fantastic the way he batted," said Mathews. "It was very pleasing the way he batted. Kusal Mendis and Danushka played with a lot of freedom, and that really set us a platform. It would make it so much easier for myself and Kusal Perera and the middle-order batters."
Gunathilaka too reciprocated the praise, saying Mathews, Kusal Perera and Gunaratne finished the innings superbly. However, there was one thing Gunathilaka didn't agree with his skipper on.
"I don't think we are underdogs," he said. "We're still a young team, we're not underdogs. We have to improve a lot but as a team we know we can go a long way. We have to beat Pakistan if we want to come to semi-final and we want to do it."