Samaraweera proves his worth, again
One of the most startling stories in Sri Lankan cricket is that of Thilan Samaraweera's machine gun celebration. In Lahore in March 2009, he nestled his bat under his armpit and sprayed pretend bullets out of the handle for the first time in international cricket. He had capered thus many times before in first-class cricket, he says, but as even the old man and his dog have long since taken their leave of domestic cricket in Sri Lanka, only his team-mates and maybe the groundstaff would have witnessed his hijinks before Lahore. As fate would have it, Samaraweera had a bullet travel 12 inches into his thigh the morning after the double-hundred that sparked that celebration.
It is not a celebration he has had chance to bring out yet at the P Sara, for he is still 24 runs adrift of a fifteenth hundred, but it is one he has earnt already in the second Test. It is also a fitting way for Samaraweera to enjoy his milestones, for throughout his cricketing career, but especially in recent years, he has proved himself a fighter. More so than any of the decorated men he bats below.
Tillakaratne Dilshan may man the cannons while Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara command heavy cavalry, but Samaraweera does his work in the trenches. Today, he went to work injured. He split the webbing on his bottom hand attempting a catch at slip on day two, but despite the pain, he has lifted Sri Lanka beyond the follow-on total and have them now striving for a draw or better. No one will say his defiance was pretty - it rarely is - but on a day when Tim Southee had the ball moving as much as it has in this Test so far, and with Trent Boult and Jeetan Patel also threatening, New Zealand will feel they should have had more than 3 wickets in almost 70 overs.
Samaraweera stood with Suraj Randiv for 97 unbeaten runs. Rescuing his side from a mire of the top-order's making is a craft in which his aptitude seemingly increases with each series. In Sri Lanka's most celebrated Test win in recent years at Kingsmead, Samaraweera came to the crease at 84 for 3, then saw Jayawardene depart to leave Sri Lanka 117 for 4, but still managed to wrestle his side to 338 alongside a debutant and the tail to set up the first-innings total that let Sri Lanka establish a large lead. In the next match 98 for 4 was his lot, and he guided Sri Lanka with an unbeaten 115 to at least ensure South Africa would have to bat again, if only for two balls.
At the P Sara, he was the only batsman in Sri Lanka's top six not to be troubled by New Zealand's fast men, and Southee's movement in particular. While others peddled wafts outside the off stump, Samaraweera's judgment was defined by parsimony. Though he left plenty alone, when Southee threatened the stumps, Samaraweera adjusted for the movement and middled almost everything.
It is strange that he is now perhaps Sri Lanka's best batsman against the moving ball. For three years now, his average has been above 50 - the figure which supposedly distinguishes the very good batsmen from merely the good - but Samaraweera has been accused of making cheap runs to qualify. Nothing about his innings at the P Sara was cheap, and those who have watched him bat in the last year can no longer question his true worth to the side. He has overcome that perception, just as he overcame a gunshot wound, and the inability to break into the national side as an offspinner. It should not be forgotten that he was not born with bat in hand. He had taken most of his 357 first class wickets at 23.43 before realising he would not play as a slow bowler in the national side while Muttiah Muralitharan was there, and transformed himself into a Test batsman. The traits that served him on that journey characterise his innings as well.
Sri Lanka's coach, Graham Ford, confirmed after day three's play that Samaraweera was battling through pain in his injured hand, and hoped his fortitude was instructive to the youngsters in Sri Lanka's squad.
"It hasn't been comfortable for him, but it goes to prove how tough the man is both mentally and physically," Ford said. "Sometimes batting is not fun, but lot of hard work. There are lot of players who work really hard and reap the rewards, and Thilan is a fantastic example. Any youngster who is aspiring to play Test cricket needs to have a look and understand that even though it's tough, even though it's painful, you've got to dig deep and fight hard for your team."
Samaraweera has plenty yet to achieve in this match to make Sri Lanka comfortable, and in a few weeks, he will again be tested in Australia, where the improvements to his technique against fast bowling will get a thorough work-out. On Colombo's evidence, his innings' will have to serve as Sri Lanka's ladder out of trouble there as well. He has become his team's man-for-a-crisis, and if Sri Lanka are to fight their way out against New Zealand, and in the ambushes that are to come, you suspect his machine gun will need more use.
Andrew Fernando is ESPNcricinfo's Sri Lanka correspondent