January 13, 2012

Samaraweera proves an overseas point

He has averaged more than 50 in his last three series outside the subcontinent, which is much better than the stats of the more illustrious Sri Lankans

When Sri Lanka's squad for the Test series in South Africa was initially announced, Thilan Samaraweera wasn't a part of it. His selection was an afterthought, as cover for Mahela Jaywardene, who had injured his knee. At the end of the series, Sri Lankan fans would have been glad their selectors had an afterthought, for without Samaraweera's dogged displays, Sri Lanka's series would have looked much sorrier than it eventually did. His scores in the series read thus: 36, 32 (Centurion), 102, 43 (Durban) and 11, 115 not out (Cape Town). In each of those three Tests he scored more than any of his team-mates, and finished the series with 339 runs, 159 more than the next-highest (Kumar Sangakkara's 180). In all he scored almost a quarter of the total runs scored off the bat by Sri Lanka (339 out of 1441, 23.52%), and more runs than Sangakkara and Jayawardene managed together in their 12 innings. (To put that in perspective, Rahul Dravid scored 24.19% of India's bat runs on their tour to England last year.)

All this from a player who had been dropped for under-performing just a couple of months earlier, from a series against Pakistan, following an ordinary series against Australia. He scored 86 from four innings in that series, but before that had averaged 50.50 in England, with his third-Test unbeaten 87 helping stave off defeat. That obviously didn't earn him enough brownie points to ride over one poor series.

Two centuries in six innings in any overseas series is an achievement, but it's much more so for a subcontinent batsman to achieve this in South Africa, a land which has consistently been the toughest for batsmen from India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. Samaraweera's tally of 339 is the highest in a series by a subcontinent batsman in South Africa, while he became only the third from the region, after Azhar Mahmood and Sachin Tendulkar, to score two centuries in a series in that country.

Looking only at Sri Lankan batsmen outside the subcontinent (and excluding Zimbabwe), only two - Aravinda de Silva and Asanka Gurusinha - have scored more runs in a series, but both those instances were in an extremely high-scoring drawn series in New Zealand - in the first Test of the series Aravinda scored 267, and Martin Crowe made 299 and Andrew Jones 186.

Most runs in a series by a Sri Lankan batsman outside subcontinent
Batsman Series Tests Runs Average 100s/ 50s
Aravinda de Silva New Zealand, 1990-91 3 493 98.60 2/ 1
Asanka Gurusinha New Zealand, 1990-91 3 370 74.00 2/ 2
Thilan Samaraweera South Africa, 2011-12 3 339 67.80 2/ 0
Aravinda de Silva Australia, 1989-90 2 314 104.67 1/ 2
Marvan Atapattu England, 2002 3 277 55.40 1/ 1
Mahela Jayawardene England, 2002 3 272 54.40 1/ 1
Kumar Sangakkara New Zealand, 2006-07 2 268 134.00 2/ 0
Tillakaratne Dilshan England, 2011 2 253 84.33 1/ 1

A standout feature of Samaraweera's South Africa series was his batting against the local fast bowlers. Of the 339 runs he scored in the series, 260 were against pace, and the only bowler to dismiss him more than once was Vernon Philander, who got him twice conceding 49 runs in 96 balls. Against the other bowlers Samaraweera took the honours: 85 runs off 141 balls against Morne Morkel, one dismissal; 50 off 150 against Dale Steyn, no dismissal; 41 off 65 against Marchant de Lange, one dismissal; and 35 off 83 against Jacques Kallis, no dismissal. As these numbers show, Samaraweera did it the old-fashioned way, digging in, spending time at the crease, and not looking to be too adventurous against fast bowling: he scored only 50 runs against Steyn, but faced 150 deliveries against him without being dismissed once.

In the last decade, no batsman from the subcontinent has scored more runs against pace bowling in a Test series in South Africa.

Most runs by a subcontinent batsman versus fast bowlers in a series in South Africa since Nov 2001
Batsman, season Runs Dismissals Average Run rate
Thilan Samaraweera, 2011-12 260 4 65.00 2.91
Sachin Tendulkar, 2010-11 250 4 62.50 3.15
Taufeeq Umar, 2002-03 220 3 73.33 3.16
Younis Khan, 2006-07 189 5 37.80 3.11
Gautam Gambhir, 2010-11 187 3 62.33 2.50
Sachin Tendulkar, 2001-02 182 3 60.67 4.36

Sri Lankan batsmen have traditionally had a problem against pace and swing - a part of the reason is also lack of opportunities to play in those conditions - which is why Samaraweera's performance is so heartening. Factor in his stats in Sri Lanka's last two overseas series before this one - 202 runs at 50.50 in England, and 187 runs at 62.33 in the West Indies - and it's clear that Samaraweera is among the better overseas batsmen for Sri Lanka. For very long, they have relied largely on Sangakkara and Jayawardene for their middle-order runs, but Samaraweera's stats outside the subcontinent (excluding Zimbabwe) are currently better than those of either of them. Admittedly, he's only played 16 Tests in those countries, but that's also a function of poor scheduling and lack of opportunities, best illustrated by the fact that this was Sri Lanka's first Test series in South Africa since 2002-03.

Among Sri Lankan batsmen who have scored at least 750 Test runs in Australia, England, New Zealand, South Africa or the West Indies, Samaraweera's average is next only to that of Gurusinha, who averaged 43.90 and scored four hundreds in 11 Tests in those countries. Sangakkara is the only batsman apart from these two to have a 40-plus average, though Aravinda's average must be worth more than 39.52 considering the period he played in.

The most disappointing stats among the players in the list below belong to Jayawardene. In 30 Tests in these countries he averages a mere 32.53, which does scant justice to his talent. His poor series in South Africa - 132 runs at 22 - comes on the back of a dismal tour to England, when he scored 103 runs in six innings. Combine those, and Jayawardene has scored 235 runs in 12 innings, with no half-century.

Sri Lankans in Tests in Aus, Eng, NZ, SA and WI (Qual: 750 runs)
Batsman Tests Runs Average 100s/ 50s
Asanka Gurusinha 11 878 43.90 4/ 2
Thilan Samaraweera 16 1070 41.15 3/ 6
Kumar Sangakkara 28 2055 40.29 5/ 11
Aravinda de Silva 25 1818 39.52 4/ 7
Arjuna Ranatunga 19 1215 37.96 0/ 10
Marvan Atapattu 21 1356 35.68 4/ 6
Tillakaratne Dilshan 16 958 34.21 1/ 6
Mahela Jayawardene 30 1822 32.53 5/ 3
Hashan Tillakaratne 23 1095 30.41 3/ 4
Sanath Jayasuriya 29 1488 28.61 2/ 6

During the series in South Africa, Samaraweera also entered the 5000-run club in Tests. Among the 83 members in that group, his average is currently 11th best, and better than the likes of Ricky Ponting, Brian Lara, Dravid, Sunil Gavaskar and Allan Border. That's clearly an inflated rank, but if Samaraweera keeps this form going, he'll end up among Sri Lanka's best. Since the beginning of 2008 he averages 69, with 50-plus averages in every country he has played in except India (37.75). The next-best during this period is AB de Villiers, more than four runs behind Samaraweera's average. It's hard to argue with numbers like those.

Highest Test averages since Jan 2008 (Qual: 2000 runs)
Batsman Tests Runs Average 100s/ 50s
Thilan Samaraweera 31 2900 69.04 9/ 14
AB de Villiers 38 3166 64.61 10/ 14
Sachin Tendulkar 43 4043 59.45 14/ 17
Shivnarine Chanderpaul 32 2415 58.90 7/ 13
Ian Bell 36 2731 56.89 10/ 11

S Rajesh is stats editor of ESPNcricinfo. Follow him on Twitter