Thilan - 1000 Test runs in a year and still hungry

By Sa’adi Thawfeeq
By dropping Thilan Samaraweera from the Sri Lanka Test team soon after the 2006 tour of England the national cricket selectors unintentionally did his career a great favour. At the time he had a decent Test batting average of 41.98 and had played in 39 Tests accumulating 2089 runs with five centuries (highest 142). He had a very poor tour of England by his standards averaging just 4.25 from four Test innings. The selectors usually don’t give explanations for dropping a player and one can only assume that Samaraweera got the axe because his batting was not as enterprising as it should be. He dawdled too long at the crease to accumulate his runs and sometimes put the opposition bowlers on top.

The following year Samaraweera was relegated to the Sri Lanka ‘A’ team and asked to lead them on a tour of England. That’s where he met Chandika Hathurusingha, the former Sri Lanka opener and then coach of the Sri Lanka ‘A’ team.

“During the tour we had a lot of discussions and how I should work out a way to regain my place in the Test squad,” said Samaraweera. “We started to put into practice what we discussed and I did a lot of changes to my batting to get back into the side. I also received help from Trevor (Bayliss) and Paul (Farbrace). They all agreed to the change.

“I changed a lot of things but the main factor was a clear mindset and to look to score runs. Earlier I used to occupy the crease and score runs but now as I go in I always look to score runs. That is the crucial part.”
The transformation of Samaraweera has been remarkable for since his return to the Test team for the tour of Australia in 2007, his batting has reached another level where he is not only scoring runs at a brisk pace but contributing immensely. On his return to Test cricket Samaraweera has accumulated 1698 runs (avg. 73.82) from 15 Tests with six centuries and six fifties. This sudden surge in his batting has pushed his Test career average from 41 to 51 putting him in the category of the ‘greats’.

“I am batting better now than when I started my career the main change is my mindset to play positively. It depends on the situation also,” Samaraweera said.
“Soon after the Lahore attack I thought I’ll never play cricket again. When I played in the home series against Pakistan I struggled at the beginning but I found my batting rhythm in the SSC Test when I scored 73 in the second innings.”

What followed after were two big hundreds against New Zealand (159 at Galle and 143 at SSC), performances that won him the Man of the Series. It was during his SSC innings that Samaraweera became the second batsman for 2009 to score 1000 runs in a calendar year. He did it in a matter of 8 Tests whereas England captain Andrew Strauss took 12 Tests.

“I consider it a great achievement getting 1000 runs in 8 Tests. I feel this is the beginning of my cricketing career I want to continue like this for as long as possible. This type of form you don’t get everyday. The other factor is, if I am in good form, I want to contribute as many match-winning performances as possible to the team,” said Samaraweera.

Sanath Jayasuriya (1997 and 2004) and Kumar Sangakkara (2004 and 2006) have achieved the feat twice and Aravinda de Silva (1997) and Mahela Jayawardene (2001) once each.
Samaraweera’s approach to his batting was so different to what people have come to accept that the national selectors were impressed and decided to include him in the one-day international series against Pakistan to bolster an unstable Sri Lankan middle-order.

“My role in the one-day team was to rotate the strike and stabilise the middle-order. When I came into the one-day squad I was under a lot of pressure because people thought I didn’t belong there and that I cannot score runs quickly,” said Samaraweera.

“For the first time I got a decent run in a one-day series against Pakistan. After I scored 38 not out in my second match I gained a lot of confidence, full credit to the team management for having confidence in me. They told me ‘don’t go to prove yourself just enjoy yourself and bat like you do in a Test match. If you get to 30 or 40 you can pick up the strike rate’.”

Samaraweera kept faith with the selectors by going on to score his maiden hundred in one-day internationals with a match-winning knock of 104 off 124 balls that rescued his team from a disastrous 69-5 to post a decent total from which point they were able to win by 97 runs. Unfortunately he couldn’t continue from there onwards when he suffered a thigh strain and took no further part in the tri-series.

Samaraweera who turns 33 on Tuesday (the start of the ICC Champions trophy) said he seldom idolised any cricketer. “My brother Dulip Samaraweera played for Sri Lanka. I always had a lot of chats with him that is the only thing, I don’t have any idols.”

The next important goals for Samaraweera are to ensure that Sri Lanka qualify for a place in the Champions trophy semi-finals and help his team secure their maiden Test victory on Indian soil. “We have never won a Test in India the main goal for the Test team is to work hard towards achieving that. After the Champions trophy we have one month to work hard and push ourselves to beat India. I want to contribute as much as I can towards achieving that goal.”


A coach’s viewpoint

“Anyone performing well is always reluctant to make changes to his game. Thilan was averaging 40 at the time in Tests and he was happy with the way he was playing. He did not feel his game needed a change until he was dropped from the Test side in 2006.That’s when he came to me and wanted to work out what was wrong with his batting,” said Chandika Hathurusingha, the batting coach of the Sri Lanka team. “When you are in the team, very few players think of undergoing any changes. For every cricketer there is another level to achieve only if they are ready to accept the challenge. Unless you try you won’t know how good you are.

“What I did with Thilan was I opened his mindset and got him thinking positively to his approach in batting. I made a few adjustments to his batting. If you focus on the changes and not on the result, the result will take care of itself. Thilan had imposed on himself certain technical restrictions which had made him bat in a conservative way.

“I am not surprised by his results. All credit to him for his perseverance and his determination to maximise his potential. He is keen and intelligent and he always comes for a feedback with me. It’s a two-way process which is also beneficial to me as a coach.
“The main reason for his success is he is brave enough to talk to someone like me and make changes. It is the braveness in him to make the change that has made him what he is today.
“Thilan’s consistency is remarkable. He is so confident of himself that he has now even made it to the ODI team and has done well.

“He is intelligent enough at reading the game and is as good as anyone. He watches cricket and talks cricket intelligently and has come out with very good suggestions and ideas which only an intelligent cricketer like him can come up with. He is a glowing example to the younger players.”

Hathurusingha’s role as shadow coach of the national team is to be part of the supporting staff generally helping the batters and also the bowlers. “In comparison to being ‘A’ team coach there are certain limitations because I come under a head coach Trevor Bayliss and work under his guidance. As ‘A’ team coach I had to plan everything and take decisions on my own. The environment is also different. The senior team is always playing to win, with the ‘A’ team although winning is also important it is a case of making the players challenge themselves for places.” – [ST]