'Thought my career had ended' - Samaraweera
For Thilan Samaraweera, it has been a topsy-turvy few months. He averaged 50 in Sri Lanka's away Test series against England last summer, only to have his form fall away badly in the home Tests against Australia in September, when he scored 86 in four innings. He was dropped for the Tests against Pakistan in the UAE that followed and, after being initially ignored, added to the Test squad that toured South Africa as cover for Mahela Jayawardene, who had picked up a knee injury prior to the series.
He responded with a typically dogged century in the second Test, in Durban, which set Sri Lanka up for their first Test victory in South Africa. He scored another hundred in the third Test, albeit in a losing cause, to finish the series with 339 runs (almost twice as much as the side's second-highest scorer Kumar Sangakkara) at an average of almost 68. This, against a fiery pace attack that included Dale Steyn, Morne Morkel, Vernon Philander and Marchant de Lange in various combinations.
Samaraweera had sensed that he might get an opening for the South Africa tour after Sri Lanka lost to Pakistan, and he was prepared. "[After being dropped] I thought that I might miss another four to five weeks of cricket because in the UAE you get flat tracks and I thought no-one will remember Thilan Samaraweera. But suddenly we had a bad Test and ODI tour.
"So I thought I would have another chance to get back into the team against South Africa. I trained hard with Romesh Kaluwitharana [the Sri Lanka A team coach and former national wicketkeeper] and his management, and they encouraged me. However, when the team to South Africa was picked and I was not in it, I thought that was the end of my career. I will have to start looking for other things to do."
Samaraweera had been honing his skills against short-pitched bowling with Kaluwitharana. He had had Sri Lanka A's bowlers dish out fast, short deliveries to him at indoor nets sessions, and once he heard that he would be going to South Africa, he chose to continue working with the A team. "I was really surprised when I learnt that I was going to South Africa. I was at home, with my kids, when at around five in the evening [the captain, Tillakaratne] Dilshan called me and told me to get ready to go to South Africa.
"I had seven days to train [before leaving for South Africa] and I resumed practice with the 'A' team. This time, Marvan [Atapattu, the Sri Lanka batting coach] was around. I thought this was another opportunity to prove myself."
Samaraweera had just one worry: he had not had an ideal amount of match practice in the lead up to the series. "When I arrived in South Africa, the Sri Lanka dressing-room atmosphere was fantastic. Coach Geoff Marsh, the team management and the players said that I deserved to stay in the dressing-room. That kind of welcome helped me clear my mind. I had only one doubt in my mind going into the Test series: I had not played any cricket after the second Test against Australia [in September]. The three-day practice game was washed out and I managed to bat for only 20 balls."
The coach, though, helped calm that fear. "On one of those rainy days, Geoff told me of an instance when Jesse Ryder had got 175 against Australia A in a side game, but didn't get many runs in the Test matches. He said when you go into the Test match and if you hit a four, you'll get the confidence you need.
"In the first Test, I got 36 and 32. I gained a lot of confidence after those two innings because it was one of the most difficult pitches I have played on and against one of the toughest bowling attacks in the world. The South Africa bowling was close to, if not on par with England.
"In the second Test, in Durban, it was a good batting track and I took time to settle down and get to fifty. At that time I was desperate to score a hundred. After the hundred, I was so relaxed that I batted really well in the second innings and went out and played my shots. But I reckon my best innings was in the third Test, in Cape Town, on a very difficult track."
It was his performance on the tour of England though that gave him the confidence he needed to perform in foreign conditions, Samaraweera said. "When I toured England in 2006, I finished the Tests with an average of 4.25, but when I went there again five years later I averaged over 50. That I believe was the changing point, where I thought I could bat on any kind of surface. We played at the Rose Bowl and I missed a hundred because of the rain. There was another 40 overs to go and we had five wickets in hand. I was 87 not out."
Samaraweera's aggregate of 339 is the highest in a series by a subcontinent batsman in South Africa, and his two hundreds on the tour made him only the third Asian after Azhar Mahmood and Sachin Tendulkar to score two centuries in a Test series there. Exceptionally, 260 of those runs were scored against the pace bowlers, and Samaraweera faced 150 deliveries against the current No. 1 Test bowler, Steyn, without being dismissed. He said Morne Morkel was the most challenging of the South Africa quicks.
"Everyone is now talking highly of Philander; he is a very difficult bowler to face but I rate Morne Morkel as one of the most difficult bowlers I've faced. Morkel is quick and he gets more bounce than the others. Dale Steyn is an unbelievable bowler, he runs at the same pace at 4.30 or 5 in the evening as he was at 10 in the morning."
One of the reasons for Samaraweera's success against these fast bowlers was an adjustment he made to his batting when working with Atapattu. "I spoke to Marvan and I made a slight change to my batting. My initial movement was going across the stumps but I changed it to going back, to give me more time to see the ball as well as any late movement. I practiced that adjustment in the nets and, luckily, my footwork turned out fine.
Above all, it was the yearning to prove himself that inspired Samaraweera, and the resultant success has left him confident about his future in the game. "After the Australia series, I wanted to prove myself again and worked hard at my game. I think I have another two-and-a-half years of cricket ahead of me."