Unsung Samaraweera anchors Sri Lanka
Thilan Samaraweera's record, his average of 53.34, is often seen with an asterisk next to it. Only one of his 12 centuries has been scored out of the subcontinent. He usually seems to be one of three or four centurions in an innings. Except for the centuries in Faisalabad when he came in at 9 for 3, and at Queen's Park Oval when he scored a second-innings 125 from 35 for 4, Samaraweera is usually perceived to be one who capitalises on bowlers tired down by Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene or blasted by Tillakaratne Dilshan.
Some even call Samaraweera a boring batsman. While it is unfair to call Samaraweera boring, that defining innings is indeed missing. This unbeaten 137 was not that innings, but it was halfway there. And despite a strike-rate of 47.56, which is considered slow in today's cricket, this wasn't boring. The way he handled the spinners on a responsive pitch was anything but.
This wasn't an easy century. It came when, for the first time on this tour, no Sri Lankan batsman had dominated the Indian bowlers enough. Sangakkara had, but he threw it away without finishing the job. The pitch was taking turn when Samaraweera came in at 157 for 3, Pragyan Ojha was bowling a good spell, and Jayawardene wasn't exactly comfortable. So he had to contend with bowlers who had their best first day of the tour, bowlers who for the first time sensed they could keep an innings century-less.
Jayawardene soon got out, and Samaraweera, almost unnoticed, reached his fifty by stumps. Ojha said after the day's play that he was getting appreciable turn, and if the batsmen pushed forward blindly he thought he had a chance. Samaraweera doesn't push forward blindly. Although his first movement is forward, but he is adept at moving back swiftly or reaching the pitch of the ball to play either a defensive or a forceful stroke.
Samaraweera hardly ever misjudged the length, and when he did his soft hands ensured the edge didn't carry. His comfort at the crease contrasted with that shown by Angelo Mathews and Prasanna Jayawardene.
Ojha was difficult to negotiate in a 13-over spell of 19 runs and two wickets before lunch. The tail was in. Samaraweera shielded them after Suraj Randiv got out slog-sweeping and Lasith Malinga didn't stay long enough to be shielded. With Mendis, who is not one who can be expected to hold one end up, Samaraweera's partnership lasted 13.4 overs, adding 35 crucial runs, out of which Mendis scored 3.
"The thought process then was that I had to bat through Ojha," Samaraweera said. "Mendis told me he was a little difficult to handle, that was the reason [for refusing singles]."
While Samaraweera kept refusing singles, his lack of power showed. He was buying time, but not actually hurting India. Gaps existed, but for across-the-line shots. Samaraweera, though, relied on the more orthodox ones, making room and cutting late, and exploiting the square field. He punished any slight error in length. He managed a slog-sweep off Amit Mishra, and couple of chips over extra cover off Ojha, but immediately after Mendis and Chanaka Welegedara got out in the same over.
By then Samaraweera had taken Sri Lanka to a healthy total. "I have got some hundreds at crucial moments," Samaraweera said. "When top order has not scored runs. Against Pakistan we were 9 for 3, I got a hundred and against Bangladesh we were 20 for 4. I don't think I have got [all the] runs when the top order has scored runs. I have scored runs when they were important for the team. But this is a special one because this is a real Test wicket. Your skills are tested here unlike in SSC. I am happy to get a hundred here."
It wasn't an innings that grabbed you by the throat and asked you to watch. It wasn't one that came in a dire situation. But it came at a time when it could have all gone wrong for Sri Lanka. It came on a pitch where it wasn't difficult to look unattractive. Neither happened. Sri Lanka can thank Samaraweera for that.
Sidharth Monga is a staff writer at Cricinfo