'My lifestyle is different to some other Sri Lankan players. That doesn't mean I'm a bad person'

"If I'm at a bar, I'm just there to relax. People think I'm drinking and partying and I can't play cricket. But look at the yo-yo test - I'm always in the top three" AFP

"Can I have a selfie?"

The question came out of nowhere, a grating interruption to Danushka Gunathilaka's train of thought, and without any of the usual apologetic preamble for the interjection. It came from a middle-aged man, who obviously knew his cricket, as so many people do in Pakistan. But Gunathilaka was more than mildly annoyed by the intrusion - and perhaps the manner of it - gently but firmly declining, saying he was busy in conversation with me.

The man persisted, promising he was a major fan of the Sri Lankan cricket team, and reluctantly, the 28-year old opener acquiesced. He posed for the selfie but also reprimanded the man, saying, "Don't do it again, okay?"

Half an hour later, three young women - possibly in their early 20s - approached with the same request, and while the look on Gunathilaka's face suggested mild irascibility, he obliged without resistance this time, rising and posing with each of them.

Punctuating those two incidents, the waitress at the Pearl Continental Hotel in Lahore, where the Sri Lankan team was staying, brought us our coffee, and thanked Gunathilaka sincerely for apparently having helped her out with tickets to a game.

Make of these instances what you will, but each of them represents a snapshot of the kind of person Gunathilaka is, occasionally arrogant but usually willing, at times cold but almost always courteous. It didn't escape my attention that what he had experienced at a posh hotel with tight security in Lahore was small fry compared to the lack of privacy he'd routinely have to put up with in his home town, Colombo; Gunathilaka confirmed he hadn't gone out in that city for over three months. That is saying something because he is, famously, no home bird.

"I don't like to have dinner in my [hotel] room. I'd much rather go out," Gunathilaka tells me. But given the stifling security necessary for international cricketers in Pakistan, he isn't going to be able to leave the hotel. His Airpods remain in his ears throughout the interview; I never quite figure out why. The look, along with his flashy haircut, is very on brand for Gunathilaka.

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Gunathilaka's is a stubborn, even defiant, streak of individuality that he insists on maintaining in the face of what he calls "unnecessarily negative media coverage that focuses on personal life" in Sri Lanka.

"Some people are really jealous, I think. My lifestyle is different to some other Sri Lankan cricketers. But that doesn't mean I'm a bad person. A lot of people just report on what they see on social media, and the impression they give is not at all true.

"Some people think I'm cocky, but I'm not. If someone talks to me, they will understand. A lot of people in Sri Lanka think you should be in your room and go to bed early to be a good player. Even cultural things - like they expect you to get married, and if you're not, they make assumptions about your character. What does that have to do with my career?

"If I'm at a bar, and I'm with my friends, I'm just there to relax. If people see me there, they'll think I'm drinking and partying and I can't play cricket. But look at the yo-yo test - I'm always in the top three in terms of fitness in the team. My lifestyle helps me relax.

"I don't have a private life. They're always saying I'm going clubbing and what not. I haven't been out in Colombo for the last three months. When I want to go out, I go to Galle, to this specific bar to have a drink. It's full of tourists, so I'm not going to be recognised. If I'm out in Colombo, everyone knows me, and at some point it gets annoying too. I can't be myself then."

The most significant off-field issue that has plagued Gunathilaka involves the time he broke curfew during a Test in Colombo against South Africa - something he accepts he deserved punishment for. But what transpired afterwards would swallow the story of the curfew altogether.

The friend he went out with that night was arrested by police on suspicion of sexual assault, following complaints made by a Norwegian tourist. Gunathilaka was believed to be in the hotel room where the assault was alleged to have happened at the time it took place. Gunathilaka claims it was a case of insurance fraud on part of the accuser, and the charge against his friend was later indeed dropped. Gunathilaka was accused of no criminal wrongdoing, but the fact that he was an international cricketer meant it left an ugly blot on his reputation.

"It was an irresponsible decision on my part. I know I made a mistake. I broke curfew and I apologised to my team-mates and the board after the match. But nothing that I actually did was a matter of police interest, and the sports minister clearly said this in the media. I was performing well at the time, but all the media could talk about was stories that were made up, when all I did wrong was break curfew."

But that isn't why we were meeting for the interview. A week earlier, he had caressed a century of chanceless elegance and clinical efficiency in Karachi that took Sri Lanka close to a series-levelling win. Gunathilaka's aggression against pace was especially notable; on more than one occasion, he charged at Wahab Riaz, who was bowling well in excess of 90mph, and he timed sixes off each of the three Pakistan fast bowlers. It was the first time a Pakistani audience was introduced to the left-hander. Many wondered why he hadn't played more of a part in the Sri Lankan side over the years.

"I love to play on fast wickets. Chandika Hathurusingha was trying to give me a long run and he wanted me to play all three formats. But after that incident, everyone put me down. I was doing very well at the time. I know that incident was my fault, but I'm not the only player to ever break curfew. That's not an excuse, but Hathurusingha still kept pushing for me. Then I got unlucky with my back injury at the Asia Cup."

There have been several run-ins with the board, and in a couple of instances there was direct sanction from the authorities, and it is clear incidents off the field have not helped. In 2017, Gunathilaka was suspended for six white-ball matches for misconduct, with ESPNcricinfo understanding he missed a training session, turned up for a match without his gear, and was found to have had an indifferent attitude towards training - all during Sri Lanka's home series against India. The suspension was later revised to three matches and he was fined 20% of his annual contract fee.

His shots on the field are sigh-inducing at times, but the numbers don't have the same effect. For a top-order batsman with his technique, an average of 18.68 in eight Test matches, and the fact that his hundred in Karachi was one of just two in 38 ODIs suggests consistency has proved elusive too.

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"I haven't got a proper run in the team, I think. Look at the New Zealand tour earlier this year. I scored 43 and 71, and even though I got a back injury, I got 31. After that, my doctor said I needed to go to England and get injections for my back. But there was reluctance from the management at the time to send me to the UK. I'm a nationally contracted player. They wanted me to be treated in Sri Lanka even though the injection I needed they didn't have in Sri Lanka.

"But then Ashantha [de Mel, chief selector] stepped in, and said I should be sent to the UK for treatment. I stayed for one month in England and made a recovery. I really must express my gratitude to Ahsantha, who stood up for me. Without him, I'm not sure I would have got the treatment I needed."

The back injury, a recurring problem Gunathilaka has dealt with for the best part of three years, has been another frustrating speed-breaker to his progress. (Half an hour into our chat, he got up from the sofa and sat down in a chair opposite, saying that was better for his back.) He revealed he still plays with some pain in his back.

"I can manage right now, though. But I need to get another two injections. I didn't have time then to get all five injections; I got only three. The doctor said I needed to have the other two when I could as soon as possible. I want to do that because when I play, I commit myself fully, especially in the field, where I dive around and give my all. I don't want to give 80% in the ground."

It is something his dad - the man responsible for getting him into the sport - would be particularly proud of. Gunathilaka's own story is an often told one in the subcontinent. Born to a father who "loved cricket more than he knew how to play it", Gunathilaka would sit and watch every game with him. At the school he went to in his early years, in Panadura where he was born, he was coached by former international Sajeewa de Silva, who played eight Tests and 38 ODIs for Sri Lanka.

Gunathilaka showed promise that won him an offer from Mahanama College in Colombo, a prestigious all-boys school, albeit one that, besides Gunathilaka, has never produced an international cricketer.

"We had cricket in Panadura but they don't have a good cricket team. When I went to Colombo, I played for the Under-19 and A teams, and that's how I ended up playing for Sri Lanka. It used to be the case that if you didn't have much money and didn't go to a good school, you couldn't become a cricketer. The good thing is, now you don't need to be at a big Colombo school, because they have scouts everywhere to keep an eye on talent. So many players from deprived villages have played for Sri Lanka now. If they see someone playing well, they don't care where they're from."

Gunathilaka doesn't shy away from engaging with the difficult issues; it's one of the pleasures of talking to him. When I asked him who he'd put in charge of Sri Lanka cricket if he called the shots, he went quiet, earnestly reflecting on the question.

"I think one person can't do it," he eventually said. "You have to involve the right people. For example, if they were willing to, getting Sanga [Kumar Sangakkara], Mahela [Jayawardene], Rangana [Herath] in would be a major help. But what makes me a little sad is legends like Sanga, Mahela don't actively involve themselves in our system. They give advice in the media, but I wish they got into the system and tried to change the culture if they really wished to see systemic change."

It's easy to come away imagining Gunathilaka offers excuses for not living up to expectations, but that would be a curmudgeonly view to take. It misses the fact he plays in a country where the board, even by South Asian standards, is especially dysfunctional, with more coaches and captains discarded over the past decade than people care to keep count of. Political interference is so transparently rife that Shammi Silva, the current president of SLC, barely spoke a single sentence at his press conference in Karachi that did not include the words "the minister thinks". It left little doubt over who calls the shots in Sri Lankan cricket, and if that's meant to guarantee stability for the team, it is safe to say it hasn't worked out like that.

While Gunathilaka might be candid in his views on the problems he thinks exist in Sri Lankan cricket, its media and society, he still balks at the idea of plying his trade elsewhere.

"Fordy [Former Sri Lanka coach Graham Ford] talked to me at one point, saying if I was having trouble within the Sri Lankan system, he could link me up with a county offer in England. He even said I could qualify for Ireland if I played in that system for two years. But I don't want to do that. I love Sri Lanka, even if people here have made wild assumptions about me that are false.

"Even in the board, sometimes we felt there is no particular standard being applied. More than 40 players played for Sri Lanka while Sanath [Jayasuriya] was chief selector," Gunathilaka said. "I was told, 'You're not consistent'. But if you're constantly afraid you will be dropped, how can you be consistent? No one scores a century every two or three games unless you're Kohli or Steve Smith. Players and captains keep changing.

"Angelo [Mathews] was the one who really backed and supported me. He saw my potential. I made my debut under him and played a good knock in my fourth game, in New Zealand [scoring 65]. He was genuinely shocked. He told me, 'I didn't know you were that good.'

"When Hathurusingha came, he taught me a lot and I felt the support from him. I was given a lot of drills and taught new skills that assisted me in improving my game from Thilan [Samaraweera, batting coach]. They tried to give me a long run, but the selectors didn't agree with them."

It was around that time the curfew incident happened, and for a selection panel that Gunathilaka believes was looking for any reason to drop him, it was a gift. "They wanted the type of guys who go to bed at nine and eat at seven."

Gunathilaka is emphatically not that guy. He believes it is his maverick streak that has given him a larger profile in Sri Lanka than a man who has "played only 40 ODIs and 18 T20s" could reasonably expect.

"I think I'm very popular in Sri Lanka, with people stopping me all the time to have a chat and ask for pictures. I think it must be because of my Instagram, where lots of people stalk me. It gets so much sometimes I feel I'm more popular than Angelo Mathews!"

If he's joking, he does a good job of hiding it. The casual, sky-high confidence comes a little too naturally to him; one can almost see how it would grate sensitive egos in SLC, of which there are several.

I had asked Gunathilaka to give me half an hour, and here we sat, nearly 90 minutes into our conversation, with him never once revealing a hint of impatience. It's just one of many contradictions in a man who spent half the interview addressing grievances about unfair media treatment. But then again it is that complex character that makes him such a polarising yet fascinating figure. He may present an excuse with what seems like alacrity, but there's enough introspection to suggest he could learn from his own mistakes.

I got up to pay for my cappuccino, but Gunathilaka would not hear of it. "God knows Pakistan has already spent enough on us!"