The curious case of Pathum Nissanka

Pathum Nissanka
Sri Lanka have made Pathum Nissanka a white-ball specialist based on his red-ball numbers. Courtesy: RANDY BROOKS/AFP/Getty Images

Even though it went largely unnoticed, Pathum Nissanka’s omission from the playing XI during the Test series against Pakistan last year was a bolt from the blue. This year, the selectors went one step further and dropped him altogether from the Test squad against New Zealand. Although his absence was ascribed to the injury he sustained in India, his exclusion from the Test squad to face Ireland makes it conspicuous that he is not a part of Sri Lanka’s Test plans.

This snub from the longest format is perplexing as Nissanka has done nothing to merit such an unchivalrous treatment. The right-handed youngster impressed all and sundry with an equanimous century on debut, crossed 50 in all but one innings against the West Indies at home, and played exceptionally well to keep the celebrated Indian spin twins at bay in Mohali. In fact, the only Sri Lankan batsmen who average significantly higher than Nissanka in Tests are Angelo Mathews and Dinesh Chandimal. Yes, he did nothing to write home about in his last Test series against Australia, but isn’t it a stretch to drop a young batsman for failing in one Test series? Even if we assume it is acceptable, isn’t a Test series against Ireland the perfect opportunity for a young batsman to hone his skills and regain his form?

The appreciable performance of Nissanka hitherto aside, a passing glance at his skill set alone will tell you that this is a young batsman tailormade for Test cricket. His temperament would be the envy of any top-order Test batsman. His predisposition to play the ball late and under his eyes, in concert with his limited range of shots, which unlike in limited overs cricket is a valuable asset for a top-order batsman in Tests, make him an ideal candidate to see off the new ball and wear the oppositions’ first-choice pace bowlers down with doggedly defiant batting. Against spin, he exploits his short stature to bits by playing the ball late off his backfoot, making it difficult for spinners to hit the right length. The 5 scores above 50 and a hundred to his name in just 9 matches thus far are a testament to this skill set of his that is custom-made for Test cricket.

That being the case, Nissanka being dropped in favor of Oshada Fernando for the Pakistan Test series was bewildering. Yes, Oshada had an excellent run at the domestic level, but should he have been given a spot in the team at the expense of a much younger batsman who averages 61.29 at the first-class level? Even if your answer to this question is in the affirmative, now that the selectors have brought down the axe on Oshada as well, shouldn’t Nissanka be the natural successor ahead of an equally impressive Nishan Madushka?

It’s not certain what plans the selectors have got for Nissanka. Do they consider the shorter formats as inferior to Tests and expect Nissanka to graduate to the Test level by playing the shorter formats for a few years? If that’s the case, how did Kamindu Mendis and Nishan Madushka leapfrog him into the Test side? Or else, do they see Nissanka as a white-ball specialist, who does not yet have the skill set to succeed in Tests?

If so, then it is quite an irony since Nissanka was picked into the shorter formats purely on the back of his phenomenal red-ball numbers and without any white-ball credentials, cutting the line ahead of more credentialed white-ball players. A player who made his way to the shorter formats based on his record in the longest format being overlooked for the longest format is preposterous but hardly surprising.

It is hardly surprising because conflating formats is endemic and pervasive in Sri Lanka. Until recently, Sri Lanka’s under-19 squads for the World Cups were picked primarily based on the performance of the players in the longest format. Charith Asalanka made his Test debut based on his limited-overs performance despite having a first-class average of 27.08, ahead of his former teammate Kamindu Mendis who averages 65.21. The hormonal Mickey Arthur’s predilection for getting over-excited over young talents, which also incidentally lead to Nissanka’s premature foray into the shorter formats, saw Wanindu Hasaranga and Dasun Shanaka finding themselves in Sri Lanka’s Test XI without the ability to shore up their inclusion.

But unlike Asalanka, Hasaranga, and Shanaka, who have been allowed to continue playing the formats they are best suited for, Nissanka has been dropped from the format he is well-equipped for in favor of formats that he is ill-suited for. Nissanka’s inability in T20s is fast becoming apparent, and in due course, his unsuitability for ODIs will also be realized. However, when the inevitable happens, he is going to be left stranded having been deprived of the opportunity to master his strongest format.

We are witnessing a promising career being ruined thanks to the management’s inability to grasp the requirements of different formats. Nissanka is going to go down as yet another instalment in Sri Lanka cricket’s mismanagement of talents. If the past is anything to go by, then we can safely conclude that Nissanka’s career has been snuffed out even before it could blossom.