Thilan Samaraweera resuscitated Sri Lanka in the first ODI of the Compaq Cup tri-series with a century of uncommon skill and application.
After New Zealand’s bowlers, through control on a track not germane for stroke-making, had reduced the host to 69 for five, Samaraweera raised a sixth-wicket stand of 127 in 22.2 overs with Angelo Mathews (51). His 104 (124b, 10x4) helped Sri Lanka score 219 for seven in 50 overs.
Earlier, Kumar Sangakkara had little hesitation in batting after winning the toss. It appeared the sensible thing to do, for sides have struggled chasing under lights here at the Premadasa Stadium. Only once has a chasing side gone on to win since July 2007.
Sangakkara, within good reason, would have factored for at least a par batting performance from his top-order. Things didn’t unfold as he might have wished.
Daryl Tuffey, part of the New Zealand squad for the Champions Trophy but reportedly not in the scheme for the tri-series, got a start. Perhaps his five-wicket haul in the warm-up game convinced New Zealand to pencil him in. It was his first appearance for New Zealand since March 2007; he had, in the intervening period, played in the Indian Cricket League (ICL).
The track’s slowness was apparent almost immediately. Tillakaratne Dilshan threw his hands at Tuffey’s deliveries, inside-edging one to the long-leg boundary. He wasn’t as lucky next ball, for he chopped it onto his stumps.
Matters were to deteriorate. Shane Bond, making his return to one-day cricket after his time in the ICL, surprised Mahela Jayawardene with bounce. It was a freak occurrence — most balls were dying on Brendon McCullum, the wicketkeeper. The batsman guided the ball to the lone wide slip.
Sangakkara, in the early part of his hour-and-nine-minute stay, showed how one could bat profitably on the surface. The left-hander waited on the ball, playing it remarkably late. He also walked across his stumps to wrist deliveries to leg — one such stroke, off Tuffey, was timed exquisitely. It was one of only two fours in the first 26 overs.
Jayasuriya, struggling with his form and Bond’s back-of-a-length discipline on the turgid track, flashed gratefully when he was offered width. It went no further than third-man.
When Sangakkara succumbed to Ian Butler — the batsman attempted to turn the ball to leg, but completed his stroke early as the ball stopped on him — Sri Lanka had slid to 38 for four.
Samaraweera had walked eagerly to the centre after the fall of the third wicket. His countenance suggested that the challenge excited him. He began the rescue effort with Thilina Kandamby, working the ball around as the field had diffused slightly.
Kandamby, who had barely cleared mid-wicket after advancing to Daniel Vettori, fell to a similar stroke, Ross Taylor taking a fine catch.
Vettori brought Bond (first spell: 5-2-9-2) back, and the paceman cranked it up a notch. He didn’t hit full pace in his first spell, even experimenting with cutters, but in his second spell, he hurried Mathews a couple of times.
Samaraweera cuffed Bond on the up for the first boundary in over 23 overs — it wasn’t a classical straight drive, and it couldn’t afford to be, for the length required mediation from the bottom hand.
Mathews was less certain against Bond, top-edging a hook for four, but crucially he survived. He grew assured in Samaraweera’s presence, his robust hits off Butler and Nathan McCullum showing his ball-striking skills.
Samaraweera was outstanding. Twice against Vettori, he showed great skill in harnessing the pace and angle of the delivery. On the first occasion, he went back almost onto his stumps to late-cut; on the second, he stepped down the track, one step towards the bowler, the other to the leg-side, so he was positioned to hit inside-out over cover — the footwork drove the stroke, making way for the bat to swing through, uninterrupted.
Sri Lanka delayed the Batting Power Play till over 45. Samaraweera detonated. Butler was twice forced through cover, the placement exceptional, for the gap was minute. When the bowler overcompensated in line, Samaraweera leg-glanced him past short fine-leg.
The 32-year-old’s batting is sometimes as seen as belonging to another age, but he showed he isn’t behind the times, pulling out a lap-sweep against Tuffey. Another attempt, later in the innings, saw him bowled behind his legs, but he had done admirably to give Sri Lanka, without an injured Muttiah Muralitharan, something to bowl at.