Courage, desire and gritted teeth
"Please Daddy, don't go to practice. That naughty uncle will shoot again." Sidhtya said to her father the first time she saw him put his Sri Lanka uniform on again. "I couldn't stop smiling. I told her, 'This is Sri Lanka, don't worry about that,'" Thilan Samaraweera says.
On March 3 this year, the Sri Lankan team bus was attacked by armed terrorists as it made its way to the Gaddafi stadium in Lahore. The players were not aware of the mayhem outside till their driver shouted at them to "go down, go down" after the tyres of the bus were punctured. Bullets flashed in all directions; one caught Samaraweera in the left thigh, a hand's length from the knee.
"After 10 minutes of being shot the numbness set in," Samaraweera reminisces. His first question to the Pakistani doctors arriving at the scene was if he would ever play cricket again. "They 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." Still, he didn't believe them entirely. "I thought they were lying to me." It wasn't until the next day, back in Colombo, where he was admitted to the Nawalokha hospital that Samaraweera calmed down. "Once our [Lankan] doctors reassured me after removing the bullet, I got confident."
The following four weeks were enormously difficult for Samaraweera's family. "The first week was terrible," he says. Despite living in a country that had been mired in a civil war for over two decades, he says he had never been witness to any shootings or bombings.
He appeared to be doing well on the outside with his recovery, but a blanket of fear had wrapped itself around his subconscious. "There would be some firecrackers outside the hospital which would terrify me. I would wake up in the middle of night scared," says Samaraweera, who couldn't sleep for more than two hours at a stretch during the first week after the attack.
"I would dream of different things and the events of March 3 would come back. I would sit up suddenly. It would take about 15 minutes for my wife to help me settle down." Erandathi Darshana stayed by her husband's bedside continuously for three weeks and endured virtually the same amount of stress as her husband. "Fortunately, both our families took care of my two daughters," Samaraweera says. His elder daughter Osuni, eight years old, was allowed by her school to stay at home for a while.
The shock stayed with the family for a month. "But once I started walking, their nerves eased," Samaraweera says. After three weeks in the hospital, he moved to his in-laws' house, and a week later to his own, and that's when everyone settled down.
"After the first week I could move the leg and started to walk with the help of crutches for three to four weeks," Samaraweera remembers. After a month he started to take a few steps without any help. This was followed by walking up and down the stairs. The Samaraweeras had a "little holiday" during the Sinhalese New Year in the second week of April, going on "small outings".
The physiotherapy sessions designed by Tommy Simsek and Jade Roberts, Sri Lankan team's physio and trainer, helped a great deal. Simsek had one-on-one sessions with Samaraweera for the first two weeks, then Roberts took over and worked with him in the gym, carrying out particular exercises to strengthen the leg muscles.
"I was really surprised with his determination to get back to 100% fitness after going through such an incident," Roberts says. He is optimistic about Samaraweera getting back to complete fitness soon, and does not rule out him playing in the forthcoming home series against Pakistan.
Fellow players visited him (and the six others who were admitted to the hospital). Muttiah Muralitharan, Samaraweera's best friend in the team, was very worried initially and called frequently from South Africa, where he was playing in the IPL. He would ask Samaraweera if he (Murali) was bowling well. "If you are bowling four overs for 20 runs, why you are asking if you are good?" Samaraweera would tease. His favourite IPL team is Chennai, he says, but he denies it has anything to do with his friendship with Murali.
"No one said to leave cricket," Samaraweera laughs, when I ask if anyone in his family suggested he forget the game after the attack. "My family was emotional, and they were really happy the first day I walked without crutches. They were really happy…" He remains silent for a minute.
It is difficult for him to revisit the incident. In fact, this is the first interview where he has opened up as much as he has done. He consulted three psychologists, who recommended that he overcome his fear by revealing every minor detail.
Samaraweera can count himself lucky to be back playing the game so soon. Other sportsmen have found it difficult to come to terms with life after being struck down by similar injuries. Monica Seles is the most prominent case of an athlete who suffered after a similar life-threatening incident. She never regained the form that had elevated to world No. 1 after she was stabbed by a deranged devotee of her chief rival, Steffi Graf, during a 1993 tennis tournament in Hamburg. Seles later admitted that the stress of not playing in the wake of the attack led to an eating disorder.
"I don't like to talk about it in general, not even with my family or friends, as I'm uncomfortable psychologically," Samaraweera says.
Didn't the sessions with the psychologist have a positive effect? "After a point it was really frustrating to talk about the same thing," he says. "I just wanted to go home and spend time with the family and kids. I didn't want to talk about the past. I just wanted to move forward."
Another thing he wanted to do after getting back on his feet was to hold a bat. "I wanted to bat immediately." The last week of April was the first time he held a bat, during an indoor nets session. He faced 10-15 deliveries; the physio had told him not to go beyond that.
"My first feeling was that I was scared about the front foot [tightly bandaged at the time], which is the most important movement for a right-hand batsman. I felt a little uncomfortable in the left knee." Two days later he hit some more balls and things started getting back to normal.
He will play his first practice game in a week's time, followed by another a week later. He hopes that if he manages to return to normal fitness, he will have a chance of playing in the tour game against Pakistan, before the first Test on July 4.
"I really believe I can play, because if I play the first Test it will be my 50th," he says. If he does manage to do so, really would be an occasion to celebrate. It is a challenge Samaraweera is up for, according to Roberts. "He is really, really motivated and keen to succeed and is showing that in how he trains and works out every day."
It probably safe to say that what athletes fear most is being kept away from their sport. It's underlined when Samaraweera talks of how he is raring to get going again, despite having almost lost his life. "I'm not scared," he says with conviction.
"What will be interesting for me, if I'm selected to play in the Pakistan series, is what I feel when I board the bus. If I will be sitting in my usual seat, in the sixth row, in front of Murali… if that will bring back memories of Lahore. I'm not sure, but I'm looking forward to it."
Samaraweera disagrees that near-death experiences change beliefs. "It has not changed me, really. This is another example in life and one has to move on. It is not the biggest thing in my life. It could have happened to any person, not only a sportsman."
It has been more than an hour. I finally ask: what happened to the bullet? There is a moment's silence before Samraweera erupts into laughter. "I have the bullet," he says. The doctor gave it to Erandathi, saying it was a "lucky bullet", because nothing happened to nerve or bone though it pierced 12 inches into the leg.
"I can't tell you where I keep it but it is in my house,' Samraweera says. "I think I will keep it all my life." Doesn't it hold a bad memory? "At the moment it is a terrible thing, but with time it may be something like a lucky thing which I can look at and think about in the future."
Nagraj Gollapudi is an assistant editor at Cricinfo