Thirimanne century could prove career-defining
When he looks back on his match-winning 101 in the Asia Cup final, the highlights reel in Lahiru Thirimanne's head is unlikely to include the single that took him to 39. The shot Thirimanne played, moreover, was that banal middle-overs staple: the push, with the spin, for a single. That particular single, though, was significant. It nudged Thirimanne's batting average from 29.9761904761905 to 30.
An ODI average of 30 isn't a massive deal, you might think, but it's probably the equivalent of a Test average of 40. In most cases, the difference between averaging 29 and 30 in ODIs - and between 39 and 40 in Tests - is usually the difference between feeling like you still need to prove yourself and feeling secure about your place in the side.
It's slightly different for Sri Lankans, though. Throughout their history as a cricket team, their batsmen have been slow starters in ODIs. It took Sanath Jayasuriya till his 235th match for his average to stabilise itself above 30 - that is, for it to never dip below that mark again.
It took 102 matches for Kumar Sangakkara, 149 for Mahela Jayawardene, 111 for Aravinda de Silva, 155 for Tillakaratne Dilshan and 86 for Arjuna Ranatunga. The quickest of Sri Lanka's top seven ODI run-getters to achieve a stable 30-plus average was Marvan Atapattu, who got there in his 23rd match. He, of course, began his Test career with five ducks in his first six innings.
Sri Lanka's selectors have always given their talented batsmen a long run in the side, believing they have the game and the temperament to eventually come good. Time and again, they've been proved right. Sri Lanka's current set of selectors, chaired by Jayasuriya, have given Thirimanne that sort of run in the side. The Asia Cup final was his 62nd ODI. It was the perfect stage to play what could prove a career-defining innings.
Two things worked in Thirimanne's favour during the first half of his innings. Early on, Pakistan's attentions were mostly fixed on Kusal Perera, who was worrying them no end with his Jayasuriya-esque flicks and jabs, powered by an iron bottom-hand grip. This took some pressure off Thirimanne, and allowed him to remain inconspicuous and play at his own pace.
Saeed Ajmal then came on, bowled a maiden to Kusal, and struck twice in his second over to dismiss Kusal and Sangakkara. His next over, to Mahela Jayawardene, was another maiden. When Misbah-ul-Haq took Ajmal out of the attack, he had bowled four overs, out of which Thirimanne had only faced two balls. The first of those had squirted off his inside-edge for four. Even during the opening game of the tournament, in which Thirimanne had scored a century, Ajmal had been the only Pakistan bowler to trouble him.
None of this, of course, is to knock Thirimanne's achievement. Sri Lanka were under tremendous pressure when they lost their second wicket. They still needed more than 200 to win, and their momentum had stalled to a considerable extent.
Thirimanne began the process of regaining Sri Lanka's momentum in Mohammad Talha's first over. Talha started with a deep backward square leg and a square-ish fine leg. Third ball of the over, Thirimanne bisected them with his pull. Two balls later, when Talha drifted too straight, he sent fine leg running the other way, once again in vain, with a deft flick off his hips.
Those two shots showcased Thirimanne's timing and placement as well as his ability to keep his head about him under pressure and look for scoring opportunities. He has shown those qualities right through the Asia Cup, and given credence to the comparisons that are often drawn between him and Sangakkara. It helps that they share a tall stance and a cover drive on one knee with a full flourish.
In this innings, on a slow pitch and against a group of fast bowlers who didn't pitch it up all that often, Thirimanne didn't get to play the cover drive that much. Instead, he exploited the V behind the wicket, and picked up a couple of boundaries with open-faced steers past the wicketkeeper that brought Ranatunga to mind.
After he had moved into the 70s, Thirimanne picked up a cheeky boundary off Umar Gul with one of these late dabs. Next ball, he blocked solidly, back to the bowler. Gul raised his arm, as bowlers often do, as if to throw the ball at the stumps. Thirimanne said something. Gul, moving closer to the batsman, responded with an observation of his own. Thirimanne, like Ranatunga and Sangakkara, didn't seem to mind a bit of chat.
None of this affected Thirimanne's batting. He flowed on, smoothly, content to stay within the confines imposed by the pitch and the lengths Pakistan bowled. It took until he had moved to 81 for someone to give him a wide half-volley, and he pounced on it gleefully.
The next 15 runs took a while coming, as Jayawardene took centre-stage for a while before he and Ashan Priyanjan fell in quick succession. Thirimanne didn't have too much of the strike in all that while. He had been on 85 off 85 balls at the end of the 33rd over. At the start of the 44th, he was on 99 off 105. When he finally flicked Junaid Khan to reach 100, he leaped and punched the air twice, once with helmet on, once with helmet off.
Thirimanne's century was his third in ODIs. All three of them have come when he's batted in the top three; in those positions, he averages 49.08 in 14 innings. At No. 4 or lower, he averages 22.80 in 33 innings.
Like Sangakkara, whose blossoming coincided with a move up the order - he had spent a lot of the early part of his career at No. 6 or 7 - Thirimanne will probably bat up the order in the long term. In the short term, though, with Dilshan set to return from injury, he gives Sri Lanka a bit of a headache. It isn't one they'll mind too much.
Karthik Krishnaswamy is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo