Thirimanne shows the future is not bleak
From all the innings, shots, wickets and catches Mahela Jayawardene oversaw as captain of Sri Lanka in 2012, his favourite moment was an instance of exceptional gall from Lahiru Thirimanne. Sri Lanka were five runs short of victory in Pallekele in their first Super Eights match of the World Twenty20, but they only had two balls remaining, with Tim Southee at the bowling crease, delivering one of the spells of the tournament. Thirimanne, fresh from the dugout, had not managed a convincing stroke from either of the balls he had faced, yet on the penultimate delivery of Sri Lanka's innings, he knelt and played a scoop he had never tried before in international cricket, sending Southee's yorker over short fine leg for four, and the stadium into raptures.
"For Lahiru to have the courage to do that and back himself was fantastic," Jayawardene said months later, while reflecting on the year's events. "I think among the young group, he has that mindset to handle those really tough situations." Courage, self-belief, fortitude. They are the same virtues that fashioned Thirimanne's 91 in Sydney, and provided the backbone of Sri Lanka's first innings after the team had shown little of the above with the bat in their last Test.
Not many of the 26,000 at the SCG knew Thirimanne upon his arrival at the crease, and until five days before the match, he had no idea he would be playing a New Year Test either. Yet, when he departed short of the three-figure score he deserved, the stadium rose to give him a warm ovation. They only need to think back to last year's Test to recall knocks that dwarf Thirimanne's 91 in heft, skill and allure, but there was much to enjoy about the steel in his defense and the defiance in his strokes, and they did not withhold their appreciation. Perhaps the crowd had also heard on their earpiece radios by then, that Thirimanne had stepped off a plane only 36 hours before his innings began.
If Thirimanne was not nervous when he arrived at the crease, the lbw shout and referral off his first ball certainly would have put him on edge. "I thought that was out," he said at the end of the day, but he did not allow that rattling introduction detract from focus or technique. He left positively and even early in his innings, his scoring strokes were assured. As he grew more accustomed to the pace of the pitch, he drove the quicks on the front foot with the same comfort with which he dispatched Nathan Lyon through the offside, leaning back. Australia cannot have had long to analyse footage of Thirimanne to deduct a plan of attack, but if there are glaring vulnerabilities in his game, he did well to hide them. Few Sri Lankan batsmen graduate from the domestic system without a major weakness that must be ironed out at the top level.
Thirimanne had replaced Kumar Sangakkara, and the bent-knee cover drive he wielded with increasing command throughout the day bore strong parallels to Sangakkara's signature stroke, only it was less clean. Like Thirimanne, Sangakkara had a limited range of strokes once, but a strong mind and tireless work ethic transformed him into one of the greats of the modern game. It is encouraging that Thirimanne already seems to possess an iron temperament, but he would do well to emulate the hunger and commitment Sangakkara has ridden to acclaim, if he is to make good on the potential his innings made plain.
Before receiving the call from Sri Lanka's selectors, Thirimanne's last match was at the Nondescripts Cricket Club in Colombo, where even the likes of Mitchell Johnson might find getting the ball above chest height a fruitless pursuit. The SCG may be the least daunting Australian venue for Sri Lanka, but the bounce and carry in the pitch on day one is a world removed from the featherbed on which he scratched out a limited overs half-century a week ago, and he has had just one training session to adjust to batting in conditions that have not flattered his teammates in the first two Tests. Uncluttered by the baggage of the Melbourne massacre perhaps, Thirimanne relied on resilience to compensate for unfamiliarity.
"It was a bit difficult to adjust, but it's all about mindset," he said. "You have to adapt to any conditions quickly if you want to play international cricket. Whether we are playing ODIs or Test we have to get our mindset right. I adapted really well today. I am disappointed to have missed a hundred, but I'm happy with my performance."
Just as Rangana Herath has shown Sri Lanka there is life after Muttiah Muralitharan, there are signs from the likes of Thirimanne and Dinesh Chandimal that Sri Lanka can be hopeful about their batting beyond the careers of the four ageing men who have begun winding down their careers. On day one in Sydney, a 23-year-old propelled Sri Lanka towards respectability with spunk and composure. The visitors may still be placed poorly in the match, with a second-string pace attack now tasked with reining Australia in, but fans at home will take even more pleasure in Thirimanne's innings than the SCG crowd that witnessed it, because suddenly, the future does not look so bleak.
Andrew Fernando is ESPNcricinfo's Sri Lanka correspondent. He tweets here