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He chose a crucial time to score his maiden ODI century, and did so in a manner that confirmed he has turned a corner in his stop-start career
September 8, 2009
The Dialog pop-up question on my cellphone flashed the umpteenth market-driven gimmick of the day: "What is the term used for a batsman capable of batting for a long duration throughout the innings?" I'm pretty sure the answer isn't Thilan Samaraweera. Not just yet, at least.
Sri Lanka's victory would not have been possible without Samaraweera. He was the difference between a meek surrender and a crushing win. Like India have done with Rahul Dravid, Sri Lanka recalled Samaraweera into the side to smooth over the cracks. The message was not getting through to Chamara Kapugedera, so out he went and in came Samaraweera. It was a decision taken to bolster the batting and take the pressure off Tillakaratne Dilshan, Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara. It worked, and how.
Nearly 11 years after his one-day debut, Samaraweera chose a crucial time to score his maiden century in the form, and did so with a temperament and class that confirmed he has turned a corner in his stop-start career. Ultimately, this one selection decision saved Sri Lanka the blushes.
At 69 for 5 in 26.3 overs, you would have thought Samaraweera would consolidate. Instead, he counter-attacked brilliantly, to a degree aided by the bowlers, who tried too hard to knock the batsmen over.
There was no panic and there were plenty of spectacular shots, especially towards the end of his 127-run partnership with Angelo Mathews. He and Mathews - whose innings Samaraweera termed as "brilliant" - backed their ability to match New Zealand's bowlers and counteract Daniel Vettori with some classical batting.
What was most admirable about Samaraweera's innings was his placement and rotation of the strike. He has never been a big hitter of the cricket ball and cannot savage attacks like Dilshan or Sanath Jayasuriya, but by nimble dabs and touches he was able to keep his own score ticking as well as give Mathews plenty of strike.
Some of the purest shots of the day came between overs 24 and 30, against Vettori and Shane Bond, when Samaraweera casually turned the ball across his pads at the very last second, and got over the bounce to dab singles in front of the fielders. With utmost care, either dropping the ball at his feet or deflecting it wide of point's hands, Samaraweera negated New Zealand's best pair. Vettori was forced to take Bond off after a two-over spell. Such skillful single-pinching can be like a torrent of boundaries for bowlers.
It was an inspiring blend of the format Samaraweera has dominated and the one he wishes to dominate. He needed to show Test-match grit from the depths of 38 for 4 in 16 overs. He began steadily - his first 20 runs came off 41 balls. He brought up his half-century off 78 balls and then stepped on the gas, scoring his next fifty in 43 balls.
An increased strike-rate in Tests has helped his one-day batting and it's clear his mindset is positive. When the bowlers sagged even a bit, he found the boundaries; when they tidied up, he found the gaps. A century off 122 deliveries, that too after the top order wilts, is special.
"I thought my ODI career was over but I believed in myself," Samaraweera said. "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. I'm under pressure because a lot of people have said I can't play one-cricket. The management has told me to bat like I did in the recent Tests if I get 40 -45 overs. Once I crossed 50, I felt I could play some shots and I did."
Coming into this game, Samaraweera's record in a one-day career spanning 11 years and 21 matches showed an average of 16.60, with a highest of 38 not out. It was indicative of his previous avatar, one in which he was judged on the basis of a stonewalling and inconsistent Test approach. Improved shot selection has resulted in his Test successes this summer, and it helped him today as well. Bowlers have found out they need to earn Samaraweera's wicket now, and it is proving to be rather a tough task.
In the end, Sri Lanka's win over New Zealand was a surprisingly resonant one, considering that it was difficult, at about the halfway mark of their innings, to foresee them crossing 170. Samaraweera's century found its reward in a comprehensive victory.
Maybe in time to come people will text the name Samaraweera and hit the jackpot.
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