Sri Lanka’s Thilan Samaraweera isn’t the sort of batsman that cricket fans would travel 1,000s of miles to watch bat. But the quiet achiever from Colombo was one of the cornerstones of Sri Lanka’s stellar middle-order for a significant period of time. Time and again when Sri Lanka found themselves in dire straits, Samaraweera would invariably launch a rescue mission with a bat in hand.
Amazingly, Samaraweera started his international career as an off-spinner. It was his elder brother, Dulip Samaraweera, who was known for his batting prowess. Thilan Samaraweera though, with sheer hard work and determination, carved a niche for himself as a Test batsman.
To trace Samaraweera’s career, we have to rewind back in time to 2001. After an uneventful start to his one-day career, Samaraweera made a spectacular comeback in his debut Test with a match-turning century at Colombo against India in 2001. The injury-ravaged Indian side smelled blood when Sri Lanka lost quick wickets at the end of the second day’s play. Enter Samaraweera, who didn’t just take Sri lanka to safe waters, but put them in the driver’s seat with a well-measured hundred.
A few years later at the picturesque SSC ground, Samaraweera, and his partner in crime Jayawerdena, ground the English attack into the dust with a mammoth partnership of 262. At SSC, Samaraweera was a picture of concentration. The English bowlers must have thought Samaraweera had eyes like a hawk, as he presented a straight bat for most of the innings with his trademark stoic style of batting. As the years ticked by, the SSC ground became his favourite hunting ground with him averaging 77.43 there.
A few critics opined that Samaraweera was a flat track bully who got most of his runs at SSC in Sri Lanka. The unassuming and unpretentious Samaraweera made his critics eat humble pie, as he amassed 339 runs at a stunning average of 67.80 in South Africa during the 2011/12 season. The brave and the valiant warrior spirit of Samaraweera at Durban helped Sri Lanka upset the apple-cart and beat South Africa in their own backyard. In fact, a few weeks earlier, they were soundly thrashed on a treacherous track at Centurion. Samaraweera took his good form to Cape Town and frustrated the South Africans with a backs-to-the-wall century in the second innings of that Test. In spite of Samaraweera’s defiant rearguard action, he couldn’t rescue Sri Lanka from hurtling towards a ten wicket defeat. His heroics in South Africa were a timely riposte to his critics. He carried the team on his shoulders in hostile conditions in South Africa.
What made Samaraweera’s Herculean efforts in South Africa praiseworthy was the fact that a few months earlier, he had been unceremoniously dropped from the team to play Pakistan in UAE in the year 2011. It must have been a bitter pill for Samaraweera to swallow, as during that time he had done well at home against the West Indies and even in England. Just one bad series at home against Australians in 2011 was enough for the selectors to decide Samaraweera’s fate.
There comes a time though when the baton changes hands from an old warhorse to a promising player. As Thilan Samaraweera flopped miserably Down Under in 2012/13, it unfortunately signalled the end of his illustrious Test career. In Australia, Samaraweera looked a pale shadow of his former self. Cricket fans rubbed their eyes in disbelief when Samaraweera played a reckless shot and lost his wicket at a crucial stage of the match at Sydney. He was subsequently dropped for the Test series against Bangladesh, as Sri Lankan selectors opted for fresh blood. Samaraweera soon announced his retirement from international cricket.
Samaraweera, about his omission from the squad, said, “I was shocked with my omission from the squad against Bangladesh.” Samaraweera was also told by the national selectors that he may be needed to play against Pakistan later this year, but Samaraweera refused the offer. “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.”
If not for anything else, Samaraweera should be remembered for his miraculous comeback after a bullet pierced his thigh in a terrorist attack at Lahore in 08/09. It would have affected him not just physically, but mentally and emotionally too.
“It was the worst day of my life. Those three minutes in the bus will stay with me forever. But it’s all in the past now and thankfully I am here to tell the tale,” Samaraweera said.
When Samaraweera played for the first time in ’98 in a one-day game at Sharjah, no one could have envisaged a run-of-the-mill off-spinner aggregating 5000+ runs and averaging 48.76. In many ways, Samaraweera exemplified patience, team spirit and a never-say-die-attitude. He was no doubt a huge pillar of strength of Sri Lankan cricket for more than a decade. Well done Samaraweera on a stellar Test career!Published 07 Mar 2013, 23:35 IST