Thilan Samaraweera: Sri Lanka’s strong-willed middle-order batsman
Thilan Samaraweera © Getty Images
Born on September 22, 1976, Thilan Thusara Samaraweera is a rock-solid middle-order batsman who played for Sri Lanka through the 2000s. Despite aspiring to turn out as the country’s finest off-spinner, Samaraweera finished as a hard-working middle-order batsman whose mental strength was worth a lot of adulation and praise. Prakash Govindasreenivasan has more.
Sri Lanka’s tour of Pakistan in 2009 was nothing short of a roller coaster ride for Thilan Samaraweera. After India refused to travel for a series to their bitter rivals owing to the 2008 terror attacks in Mumbai, Sri Lanka filled in. Samaraweera, by this series, had worked his way up the batting order and gone from a handy batsman at No 7 to a vital cog in the middle-order at No 5. The climb took a lot of time and energy but Samaweera had both in abundance, more so the latter. By the time the second Test was in full swing, Samaraweera had etched his name in the record books for becoming the seventh cricketer to score back-to-back Test double centuries.
However, what followed was unfathomable. It took away all the joy and satisfaction that came with performing at his best. While on the way to the Gaddafi stadium ahead of the third Test, the Sri Lankan team bus was attacked by terrorists, killing six policemen and two civilians. In the gun firing, a bullet was lodged 12 inches into Samaraweera’s left thigh. Surgery helped him survive but to have overcome the mental trauma of being part of such a horrific event and going on to make a comeback into the side is not a regular story. Samaraweera, in more ways than one, was a resilient fighter.
Samaraweera entered the international circuit with the aspiration of being a successful off-spinner, 11 years before that eventful tour of Pakistan in 2009. However, the presence and growth of Muttiah Muralitharan clipped Samaraweera’s wings as far as turning out as a mainstream spinner was concerned. He made his One-Day International (ODI) debut in 1998 against India at Sharjah. He did not get to bat as Sri Lanka finished on 245 for seven but bowled his entire quota of 10 overs, going for 41 runs and picking up the wicket of Nayan Mongia. Opportunities were limited and Samaraweera had to think of alternatives if he had to cement his place in the side.
The turn of the millennium proved to be good for the man from Colombo as he made a striking Test debut against India in 2001. He batted at number seven but displayed the prowess of a typical middle-order batsman in a Test setup, scoring 103 not out from 175 deliveries. During the course of this innings, Samaraweera showcased his appetite for being part of big partnerships by adding an unbeaten stand of 194 runs for the seventh wicket with Hashan Tillakaratne. This partnership helped Sri Lanka extend their first innings lead to 376 and eventually win the game by an innings and 77 runs.
A couple of months later, Samaraweera followed up the debut century with a solid knock of 77 against the West Indies at Galle adding weight to his reputation as a middle-order batsman and making a case for being pushed up the order. He would have been delighted to have also contributed with the ball in the same game, picking up the crucial wicket of Brian Lara that paved the way for Sri Lanka’s 10-wicket victory. He continued to bat at No 7 and put in strong performances. Action between Sri Lanka and West Indies then moved on to the Sinhalese Sports Club Ground in Colombo where the hosts registered another 10-wicket win. Here too, Samaraweera chipped in with a valuable knock of 87. On both these occasions, Samaraweera also managed to be part of two big partnerships with Tillakaratne.
Samaraweera was growing in stature as a handy batting option. He was not the typical No 7 who would come in after the top order had done the hardwork and throw his bat around to excite the crowd. He carried on the toil and strengthened Sri Lanka’s batting order tremendously. When Zimbabwe toured Sri Lanka towards the end of 2001, Samaraweera welcomed them with an unbeaten 123. The hosts amassed 586 runs for the loss of six wickets in the first innings. He also frustrated the Zimbabwean bowlers by adding two big partnerships — 130 runs for the sixth wicket with Tillakaratne and an unbeaten stand of 136 for the seventh wicket with Chaminda Vaas. Samaraweera then returned to clean up Andy Flower. The hosts went on to win by an innings and 166 runs.
Promotion to No 3
An injury to Marvan Attapattu on the field proved to be a blessing in disguise for Samaraweera. The Sri Lankan opener, who split the webbing on his left hand while fielding, failed to assume his duties as the opener in the first Test against England in 2003 which prompted skipper Tillakaratne to push Kumar Sangakkara to open the innings. The captain also went ahead and promoted Samaraweera to the No 3 spot. The latter took the opportunity by the scruff of its neck and scored his third Test ton. He and Mahela Jayawardene punished England’s listless bowling by adding 262 for the second wicket.
Samaraweera’s first ton outside the subcontinent came at port of Spain against the West Indies. His valiant efforts went in vain as the hosts registered a six-wicket victory. After conceding a slim first innings lead of 16 runs, the Sri Lankan batting order imploded. Before they could realise, they were down to 99 for six. Samaraweera stitched another vital partnership with Vaas —138 runs for the seventh wicket — to delay the inevitable loss.
A bullet was lodged 12 inches into Thilan Samaraweera’s left thigh in the 2009 terrorist attack on the Sri Lankan team during their tour of Pakistan © AFP
Samaraweera’s twin double tons in Pakistan were monumental in many ways. It came as a result of relentless hardwork by the man who had to showcase great level of consistency to push his way up in the batting order. Once he did that, the confidence and the urge to hold on to the spot came along and Samaraweera did the needful. The two double centuries also saw him get involved in three 200-plus partnerships across both the Tests.
Not many cricketers would have displayed the kind of will power that Samaraweera did. After being in the ‘thick of the action’ of a terror attack and getting shot, Samaraweera made a comeback into the side after a brief period, which he spent to recover. It took him a while to get back in to rhythm, but once he did he slammed two consecutive centuries against New Zealand at home.
Thilan Samaraweera played 81 Tests for Sri Lanka and scored 5,462 runs at an average of 48.76. He scored 14 centuries and 30 half-centuries © Getty Images
The South African hurrah
Samaraweera was often criticized for his contrasting form at home and away. While most of his tons came on home soil, Samaraweera had hardly done enough to prove his worth as a worthy top-order batsmen across conditions. On their tour to South Africa in 2011, Sri Lanka started off on a shaky note as the hosts registered a victory by an innings. When the teams travelled to Durban for the second Test, the hosts began as clear favourites with Sri Lanka hoping to put up a fight.
What transpired was an underdog victory thanks to Samaraweera. The middle-order man scored a patient, gritty century to help Sri Lanka post a good total in the first innings. Rangana Herath and Chanaka Welegedara ran through the South African batting order to gain a massive first-innings lead. After Sangakkara scored a hundred in the second essay, Herath’s fifer helped Sri Lanka register a remarkable Test victory — their first in the rainbow nation.
Samaraweera featured in 81 Test for Sri Lanka, scoring 5,462 runs at phenomenal average of 48.76. In One-Day Internationals (ODIs) however, that number dropped to 27.80 as he scored just 862 runs in 53 games.
After a string of poor performances in 2012, Samaraweera called time on his career in March 2013. This also came after he was omitted from the side for the series against Bangladesh.
“I was shocked with my omission from the squad against Bangladesh. There was no point in waiting for nine months. I respect the decision of the selectors to go with young players and decided it was the right time for me to retire.”
Samaraweera was one of the most hard-working cricketers to have emerged from Sri Lanka. His journey from an aspiring tweaker to a rock-solid middle-order batsman with a penchant for runs and big partnerships deserves due credit.
(Prakash Govindasreenivasan is a reporter with CricketCountry. His Twitter handle is @PrakashG_89)