An innings worthy of an explosive celebration
Thilan Samaraweera has waited more than three years to pull out his machine gun outside Asia. The last time Samaraweera scored a century outside his comfort zone of the subcontinent was in 2008 in Trinidad, when he had not yet displayed his unique celebration to the world.
The celebration was first used in an international match in Lahore, in March 2009, on the back of a second double-century against Pakistan in the series. When Samaraweera brought up the milestone he pointed the handle of his bat at the crowd and fired some mock rounds. In a cruel twist of fate, the next day Samaraweera was shot in the thigh in a terrorist attack on the team bus. He was the most seriously wounded of the Sri Lanka players and took three months to recover before making a comeback in July.
Since then, the machine gun has come out four times: in Galle, twice in Colombo, and now in Durban. Much symbolism can be inferred from it. Perhaps Samaraweera is celebrating life after a close shave in which he could have lost his. In Durban, perhaps he was sending a message to the selectors, who dropped him for the series in the UAE against Pakistan, a team against whom he has an admirable record. Perhaps he was aiming at his critics, who question his age, his commitment and his record outside the subcontinent. His own explanation for the celebration was simple. "I did it in Pakistan in 2009 and it is something I do occasionally in first-class cricket as well," he said, without giving away anything more.
Whatever the significance of it was, this innings was worth that celebration. His two to extra cover made him only the second Sri Lanka batsman, after Hashan Tillakaratne, to score a century in South Africa. It is a statistic that speaks volumes about the amount of application and adjustment required of subcontinent batsmen if they are to perform well in South African conditions.
Samaraweera did not allow the bowlers to dictate to him and forced them to bowl in areas he wanted the ball, primarily on the stumps, allowing him to score two-thirds of his runs on the leg side. Of the first 26 runs he scored, 20 came in boundaries, four of them off overpitched deliveries. He was proficient against the spinner and although he survived nervous moments on the first day, including a missed stumping and a chance that fell short of first slip, was gritty and patient when he needed to be. He spent 52 deliveries in the 80s and another 29 in the 90s, biding his time before inching towards his milestone.
It is a century that he will remember as being potentially career-prolonging and match-winning and one that demonstrates the rewards of a focused approach. Samaraweera said that it was the entire team that had upped their intensity after the loss in the first Test. "Over the last five days we practised really hard. The team management have done a great job, they have supported us well. The senior players talked a lot after the Centurion game. We said, honestly, we didn't bat well; it was a very hard wicket to bat on and we gave 400 runs away, so we didn't do well in either batting or bowling."
Samaraweera has been credited with being one of the most inspirational and level-headed members of the squad, and his hundred in Durban could well spur the whole team on. He, however, laughed modestly when asked about his role in the team and said: "This is my comeback tour and I am really happy getting a hundred."
The innings could represent a coming of age for Samaraweera and represent his growth from that day in 2008 when his hundred in Trinidad marked a defining point in his career. "I got that hundred at a crucial time in my life," he said, referring to the three barren years that has passed before, in which he could not muster a score of more than 65 in the 20 innings he played. "I thought that would give me another stable three years of Test cricket."
That is exactly how long Samaraweera remained a fixture in the Sri Lanka Test team before he was dropped after a poor series against Australia in August-September. The snub came despite a decent tour of England on which his 87 in Southampton was crucial to earning Sri Lanka a draw. Samaraweera said he did not think he would play for Sri Lanka again after he was not named in the squad for the series in the UAE.
"There were very frustrating moments because I had done really well over the last three years. I was not in the UAE for the Pakistan tour and I thought I will never play for Sri Lanka again. Luckily, Mahela [Jayawardene] had a bad knee and I was called up as back-up for the South Africa tour."
Jayawardene recovered from his injury but the need to play an extra batsman and not an additional seamer, as they did against Pakistan, gave Samaraweera his place back in the starting XI and he is determined to keep it. "Now, I have to start again and prepare for a new era," he said.
The era may have already begun. Samaraweera's century stand with debutant Dinesh Chandimal formed the spine of Sri Lanka's first innings and could be the beginning of a new middle-order partnership for Sri Lanka. The young wicketkeeper Chandimal combined the flamboyance of traditional Sri Lankan stroke-play with the sense of Samaraweera and the result was a respectable 58, which could have been more if not for a rash shot. Samaraweera said Chandimal lived up to his potential and showed promising signs for the future. "I told him to enjoy the occasion because there is no need to prove he is good enough to play Test cricket. I controlled his game a little bit in the middle but I didn't want to get too involved because he is a natural stroke-player."
Their partnership could prove crucial to Sri Lanka's chances of winning their first Test on South African soil; something Samaraweera thinks is within reach. "I don't think the pitch will improve over the next two days. It's getting worse and worse. We thought that on day three or four it might have uneven bounce but we had that yesterday also. We were really surprised at the spin Herath got and he will play a big part. If we can get a lead of 350, it will be a difficult score to chase."
Sri Lanka will still need to bat authoritatively to put the match out of South Africa's reach and they will need meaty contributions from the top seven. Samaraweera had one piece of advice for his team-mates about how to succeed on the Kingsmead strip: "Bat straight."