'You get tougher and tougher living away from home'
Thilan Samaraweera may have played for 12 years for Sri Lanka but his first season in county cricket, where he is fulfilling "one of my dreams", is bringing its own challenges. Samaraweera's enthusiasm, after fielding for Worcestershire, is in stark contrast to Manchester's rain, wind and unrelenting chill, which are enough to make anyone question the sanity of organising first-class cricket at Old Trafford in April.
"You get tougher and tougher when you field in this cold weather," he said. "It's not easy. You get tougher and tougher living away from home."
Samaraweera's international career may have been overshadowed by those of Sri Lanka's big beasts, Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara. Yet in his own charmingly unobtrusive way he averaged 48.76 in Tests and there is a very legitimate case for him being Sri Lanka's third-best Test batsman, even ahead of Aravinda de Silva and Sanath Jayasuriya.
He earned a deserved reputation as Sri Lanka's stylish man for a crisis - their VVS Laxman - cemented by a pair of centuries in South Africa in 2011-12, including 102 and 43 in Sri Lanka's Boxing Day Test win. Not bad for someone who began cricketing life as an offspinner.
While Samaraweera laments neither winning a Test Match in Australia nor scoring a hundred against them, what particularly grates - because it was so out of character - is the way his Test career ended: an aberrant slog when on nought in Sri Lanka's defeat in Sydney in January.
"Because of desperation I came down the track and tried to hit over the top and got caught at mid-on," he said. "Every time I go to Sri Lanka people ask and remind me about that shot - that's a little annoying because I did a lot of things for Sri Lankan cricket but still people remember that shot. Because every time the team needed me I did better every time - in South Africa, Pakistan, New Zealand."
At the time, no one thought it would be Samaraweera's final Test innings. He had been looking forward to playing Test series against West Indies and South Africa this summer, and then retiring after playing Pakistan in December. The series against West Indies and South Africa were both cancelled.
"That's six Test matches, a tough six Test matches and definitely the selectors [would have] looked at me because of my experience. Unfortunately we cancelled because of the shorter-format cricket and after that I had a big chat with the selectors and they said they would go with two senior players [Jayawardene and Sangakkara] with the youngsters against Bangladesh, and then Zimbabwe in October."
The selectors tried to persuade Samaraweera not to retire from Test cricket - "They said they need me in December in Pakistan" - but he decided against waiting ten months between internationals.
The rescheduling is just the latest piece of evidence that the Sri Lankan board is not prioritising Test cricket. "Definitely I'm worried about the future in Sri Lanka. If you play 12 years of international cricket, you have to play 100 Test matches but in Sri Lanka if you play 12, you end up on 75 [he finished on 81 Tests]."
Samaraweera always regarded Tests as the ultimate goal but it is perhaps not a view shared by many of those involved in Sri Lankan cricket today. One issue is the Sri Lankan first-class structure. "We are a little bit weak on our system - 20 first-class teams, I believe that is too much. It should be six, maximum seven to eight. And we have to encourage playing four-day cricket. At the moment it's only three-day cricket."
Another - perhaps more significant - factor is the proliferation of T20 cricket. "If you send a bad message to the youngsters [about] playing the shorter formats, I think that's kills their technique. You never find good spinners, you never find fast bowlers because of that mindset."
He calls for restrictions on T20 in age-group cricket: "You have to stop Under-19-level T20 cricket in Sri Lanka. If you play T20 cricket at 18, 19, there's no point."
Samaraweera's first-class debut came in 1995-96, months before Sri Lankan cricket was transformed with their victory in the World Cup. But he feels that the legacy could have been so much better.
"The biggest, saddest thing is, after the 1996 World Cup win the board got money, a lot of money. We did well but financially we were very mismanaged. Unfortunately mismanagement happens but people don't take action. That's the way sometime our system goes - we can't control those things."
There are few better players of spin on the county circuit than Samaraweera, whose adroit footwork against Simon Kerrigan's left-arm spin was one of the highlights of the first day of the new season at Old Trafford. It was a matter of considerable surprise and, to all but the most parochial of Lancastrians, disappointment when Samaraweera misread a quicker delivery to edge a back-cut for 28. In seaming conditions in Cardiff last week he made a four-ball duck, but a second-innings 79 illustrated his technical fortitude.
It also illustrated Samaraweera's enduring capacity for self-improvement, nowhere seen better than in his performances in England.
"I travelled here in 2002 with the Sri Lankan team, but I didn't get a game here. In 2006 I had an awful national tour. After that I was dropped. I came in 2008 on a Sri Lankan A team tour and did really well. And in 2011 I averaged 52 in the Test series here."
If that trend continues, county bowlers will suffer this season - though it will be damage of the most gracefully inflicted sort. Samaraweera only wishes that his county chance had come sooner.
"If I got this chance ten years before, I would be a better cricketer definitely."