Thilan Samaraweera knows a thing or two about resurrection.
He was out of the Test team for 18 months, branded as a stonewaller who thrived on flat tracks. He was criticised for not being able to force the pace. He moreover had only 21 runs to his name from his last five Test innings in early 2006 when he was dropped.
He worked on his game, narrowing his stance, elongating his back-lift, adding strokes without reneging on his classical upbringing, to make a stunning run-filled comeback.
But Samaraweera hardly had time to savour his return. Having made back-to-back double-hundreds against Pakistan earlier this year, he was on his way to the ground in Lahore for the third day of the second Test when terrorists attacked the Sri Lankan team bus.
A bullet pierced Samaraweera’s left thigh. “At that time I never thought I would every play cricket again,” he said on Tuesday night after his maiden ODI century.
“Fortunately, the bullet didn’t do major damage. The doctors told me the bullet was stuck close to the knee. They said neither my nerves nor bones were damaged, so I would definitely play again.”
The recovery after the two-hour surgery, during which the doctors extracted the bullet, was painstaking. Samaraweera has said in interviews that he was psychologically shaken. He could barely sleep; firecrackers would fill him with dread.
The physical aspect of his rehabilitation was just as challenging. Most athletes often take for granted their physical wellbeing: not only are they comfortable in their bodies, they are also supremely confident in their powers of recovery from normal malaises; so when something goes drastically wrong, acceptance doesn’t come readily.
When he started batting after the incident, Samaraweera found he was worried about his front leg, which was still sore. The front foot is central to the method of most batsmen from the subcontinent, and Samaraweera had to retrain his body and mind with hours of repetition.
He wasn’t quite himself when he made his return in the home Test series against Pakistan in July, but his lack of runs didn’t dishearten him. It motivated him. He responded with two big hundreds in the Tests against New Zealand, setting up the series win.
It was this strength of will and depth of desire and a corresponding failure of the young middle-order batsmen to seize their opportunities in limited-overs cricket that created space for his one-day return.
Sri Lanka needed a trouble-shooter in the middle-order, a man of intelligence and skill to follow Tillakaratne Dilshan, Sanath Jayasuriya, Kumar Sangakkara, and Mahela Jayawardene. Samaraweera seemed the man best for the job. An improved strike-rate in Test cricket (he scored at 60 runs per 100 balls in the Tests against New Zealand) strengthened Samaraweera’s case.
Samaraweera made an unbeaten 38 to help Sri Lanka win a low-scoring stoush against Pakistan, but his other scores in the ODI series were 6, 10, 0, and 2. Before his 104 against New Zealand at the Premadasa Stadium on Tuesday, his one-day career, spanning 11 years and 21 matches, had an undistinguished average of 16.60.
“I thought my ODI career was over but I believed in myself,” said Samaraweera. “We have been struggling in the middle order and I’ve had a dream run in Test cricket over the last 18 months. This is the first time I’ve got a decent run [in ODIs]. Normally I get one game and then I’m sitting out.”
Playing to his strength
The team management, led by Sangakkara, asked Samaraweera to bat as if it were a Test match. As New Zealand’s coach, Andy Moles, said, the situation, with Sri Lanka struggling to bat 50 overs, played to Samaraweera’s strength. “The loss of early wickets meant he could come in and just knock the ball around, which is his strength,” said Moles.
“In the past when he’s played ODI cricket he’s had to come in and go at it with a heavy run rate from ball one and he’s struggled a little bit, but today he was able to play himself in and he played beautifully.”
Samaraweera also showed he could shift up a gear, making his second 50 in 44 balls with orthodox strokes, custom designed for greater vigour, and a few innovative ones such as the paddle sweep against the seamer.
Most batsmen had trouble with their timing on the slow strip, but in the second half of his innings against a slightly harder ball that was introduced in the 35th over, Samaraweera looked in fine touch.
Sterner tests, particularly abroad where he hasn’t had sufficient opportunity to prove himself on return, await him. This much is certain, knowing what he has done already: he won’t flinch.