Thilan Samaraweera's retirement March 6, 2013

Sri Lanka's man for a crisis

Thilan Samaraweera's ability to lift Sri Lanka out of a pit of the top order's making was an emphatic endorsement for substance over style

One of the most startling tales in Sri Lankan cricket is that of Thilan Samaraweera's machine-gun celebration. In Lahore four years ago, he nestled his bat under his armpit and shot pretend rounds out of the handle for the first time in international cricket. 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 an odd thing to be remembered for. Thirty years from now, perhaps his ordeal will come up as a piece of cricketing trivia, and some long-toothed tragic will know the name of that fellow who was shot in the middle of a Test match. But Samaraweera deserves better than a grim footnote. That story is moving and his comeback compelling, but for much of his career, defiance drove him at the crease, and for that, Sri Lanka's more beloved batsmen have owed him much.

In his later years as an international cricketer, before the Australia tour that heralded his departure, Samaraweera's ability to lift Sri Lanka out of a pit of the top order's making was an emphatic endorsement for substance over style. Tillakaratne Dilshan might have manned the cannons, while Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara commanded pretty cover drives, but Samaraweera often went to work when walls were caving in, and most times, he dug his side through to the light, if not always to victory.

As late as 2008, he was marked by some as a backyard bully, but Samaraweera spent the next few years proving that criticism misguided. Since 2008, his away record has been vastly superior to his team-mates', and among the best in Asia. He began his domestic career primarily as an offspinner, and has 357 first-class wickets at 23.43, but he finished in internationals with the most robust technique against the moving ball of any present Sri Lanka batsman, and a better head for pace and bounce than many more talented men from the subcontinent.

His most memorable, and perhaps finest stretch, was the year-end tour to South Africa in 2011, where he was Sri Lanka's best batsman in every Test. Against the fast men, Samaraweera piled on better numbers than any Asian had in South Africa since 2001, while his team stumbled to an innings defeat and a ten-wicket loss around him. Typically, he had produced his best work against the most hostile attack he has ever faced, in their own conditions, after he had been dropped for the previous series. Without his 102 in the first innings in Durban, Sri Lanka would likely still be awaiting their first win in South Africa.

It is a shame that his last act as a Test batsman was the sickening swipe across the line in Sydney, when the team was in the sort of mire for which his cricket seemed created. In many ways it suited a man like Sanath Jayasuriya to cut his last ball in international cricket in the air to point, but Samaraweera's demise did not fit him at all. On that tour, he had let the psychological beatings from previous innings dent his steel, where usually his strength only bloomed in adversity.

Perhaps he will reckon it is better to go out this way, than have allowed a bullet to end his career, as it so nearly did. To have forged and re-forged his technique after being unfairly dropped from the top level, and hopes of a recall seemed slim, he must count a sunny disposition among his virtues.

After Lahore, Samaraweera did not can the machine-gun century celebration, or think it an ill omen. Though his batting was dour at times, he was too good humoured for such superstition, at the crease, at practice and with the media. With little on the horizon for him in the next year, and with so many young batsmen beating at the selectors' door, he has chosen the right time not to launch another comeback.

Andrew Fidel Fernando is ESPNcricinfo's Sri Lanka correspondent. He tweets here

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Rohan on March 7, 2013, 21:46 GMT

    'Samaraweera Cricket' represents Sri Lanka's hole in the game. His job was to put up a defense when we failed. If Sri Lanka had an extra offensive reliable batsman, 'Samaraweera Cricket' would never have been needed. The guy can't complain much but to cherish the opportunities he was given. His retirement ironically represents the fate of Test Cricket.

  • Shanmuga on March 7, 2013, 14:03 GMT

    I'd always consider him as someone who outperformed beyond his abilities through sheer guts & determinatio, say like Ashanka Gurusinghe! And that's a sheer joy for most of the fans too as watching sports is not only about appreciating true skills & natural ability alone! But, I'd not put him among the top 5 srilankan bats as it would not do justice to the likes of Mahela, Roy dias, etc., but definitely in the top 10. Hearty wishes for his life after cricket!

  • Dummy4 on March 7, 2013, 9:59 GMT

    I take issue with the claim he did a machine gun celebration the day before the Lahore attack. The first mention of this I can find is in Durban 2011 to signify his comeback from the harrowing experience in question. Although it makes for an interesting article, I fear its not factual. I'd like to be proven wrong though.

  • Dummy4 on March 7, 2013, 9:54 GMT

    We miss you.. a great batsman for SL... youngsters cant fill your place for a long time.. i dont care the age. but care the talent..

  • Ian on March 7, 2013, 7:43 GMT

    Sri Lanka's best Test batsman from 2008 - 2012. Began his international career as a spin bowler who could bat. Hard working cricketer who transformed himself to become a quality Test batsman. Salute!

  • Timothy on March 7, 2013, 6:42 GMT

    The wall of SL test team no man can do what he did at No5.

    You will be missed

  • Prashan on March 7, 2013, 0:22 GMT

    Amazing transformation for a man who came into the club circuit as an off spinner. Looking at his domestic bowling stats, I am at a loss to figure out as to why he was hardly given the ball in test matches at least to break partnerships. Thanks a lot for your contribution to SL cricket and wishing you the very best in your future endeavors.

  • nikhil on March 6, 2013, 23:00 GMT

    @jonathanjosephs: He was adour but gritty batsman, who was a fantastic player in SL and Pak conditions. Never aesthic., but he was a very conistent if slow run scorer in these two countries. a good player overall, better than SSC-bully Mahela. Thilan deserves to be called better than Mahela. What say my dear SL friends??:) He was lukewarm away, as he averaged only 27 in ind, 28 in Eng and 30 in Aus, and 30 odd in WI but he was always ready to guts it out even if he did not have the strokeplay or lot of talent. fifth best batsman from SL after aravinda, Sanga, jayasuriya, and dilshan. Ahead of Marvan and Mahela. Lion Hearted player with a great smile. Soft spoken Nice man too, like most SL players. this was an honest and true tribute to THILAN. whats say SL friends? Criicinfo please publish.

  • Dummy4 on March 6, 2013, 22:06 GMT

    i am a big fan of sam. he is such a gutsy player. very few in the cricket remember he was the next best off spinner of sri lanka to murali when he started international carrier. even as we can to mr. fernando (who is sri lanka correspondent :)) i remember he was abolishing international teams with taking 10 wickets pieces for first time for A team inn 1997 like .but unfortunately his faith didn't read him as a spinner n came back very strongly as a full batsman . but i still regret that he has kept away his balling skills which could easily made him to be a genuine all-rounder like Kalis easily .we were so lucky to see him from school age. may be the most promising no 5 player ever e made which overtook arjuna even easily at test level. would like to wish him a great family life after .