Matches (25)
ENG v NZ (W) (1)
Legends WC (1)
LPL (3)
TNPL (4)
ZIM v IND (2)
MLC (3)
T20 Blast (8)
RHF Trophy (3)

Middlesex's Thilan Walallawita: From escaping the 2004 Sri Lanka tsunami to setting sights on England

Young left-arm spinner aiming to build on impressive debut during Covid-wrecked 2020 summer

Andrew Miller
Andrew Miller
Thilan Walallawita celebrates with Nick Gubbins after taking the wicket of Mark Stoneman, Surrey v Middlesex, Kia Oval, Bob Willis Trophy, August 1, 2020

Thilan Walallawita celebrates a wicket during last year's Bob Willis Trophy  •  Getty Images

In society at large, you'd be hard pressed to pick many silver linings out of a year of Covid-induced lockdown. But on the very local level of English domestic cricket, there have been more than a few upbeat tales - most notably, a glut of young players up and down the land, who were handed unexpected opportunities in 2020 due to the rejigged season, and who seized them with an alacrity that has fast-tracked their development.
One such player is Middlesex's Sri Lanka-born left-arm spinner, Thilan Walallawita - an ever-present member of last year's Bob Willis Trophy campaign, and a captain's delight according to his club skipper, Stevie Eskinazi. With just six first-class wickets at 40.83 in five games - and three more in a richly promising T20 Blast debut at the Ageas Bowl - it would be easy to overlook his impact to date, but few who have witnessed him doubt his potential. Not only for Middlesex, but maybe even for England too.
"I was talking to my friends about how the pandemic helped me a lot," Walallawita tells ESPNcricinfo. "It opened a few doors for me to play in the first team. Last year was a good start, and I was surprised how quickly it happened, but if you have a lot of confidence in life, and believe in yourself, it doesn't have to be a massive jump."
Walallawita's tale is extraordinary on several levels - not least because it could so easily have been over before it had begun. On Boxing Day 2004, aged five, he and his family were travelling back from a Buddhist temple in Galle when they encountered the full force of the devastating tsunami that struck Sri Lanka's coastline, killing more than 30,000 people.
"I have clear memories of that day," he says. "That's the kind of memory that will never go away.
"We were coming back from the temple and decided to stop for a coffee. All of a sudden, we could hear some weird noises. My dad went outside to check, and he rushed back to tell us the waves were going back and building up, and getting higher and higher.
"We jumped in the car, and tried to cross a bridge to escape, but as soon as we got to it, it collapsed. So we parked our car in the front garden of a nearby house, and started running up the nearest hill. I can remember I was trying to be brave, but the same time I couldn't hold my tears back.
"My parents went back the next morning to check where the car was. There were dead bodies and cars everywhere, it was horrible.
"They found the car inside a house, and there was another car inside that house too. But the funny thing is, that car is still up and running to this day. We spent a lot of money to repair it, but it's still working."
His story is one that will warm the hearts of cricket lovers across the country, but more than that, he's an incredible bowler, with a mature head on very young shoulders
Middlesex captain Stevie Eskinazi
Six years later, the family emigrated to North London, where Thilan's father Ajith had been a long-standing club professional for Potters Bar CC. "He always wanted to come to England, and build our life here," he says. "We came for the education, and the better standard of life, and it's been extraordinarily good for us."
Now, at the age of 22, and after a period of stacking shelves in Sainsbury's in between sessions at Middlesex's academy, Walallawita stands on the verge of securing his British passport, and beginning the qualification process that might one day see him returning to his native Sri Lanka as an England Test cricketer.
"One hundred percent, I definitely want to play for England," he says. "That's been one of my dreams since I moved here as a young kid, and hopefully if I have a few good seasons in the next few years, there will be a chance of me playing in the English team. That's the goal and the dream.
"It's been a long process to get my British citizenship, but it should happen by the end of next month, and that will be a huge weight off my shoulders."
The lot of the young English spinner has been much discussed in recent times - Walallawita is just a year younger than England's Dom Bess, who recently endured a rough tour of India. But despite the huge challenges faced by his ilk, Walallawita's impact to date is best expressed by his impressive economy rate of 2.77, a testament to the control that his game already possesses.
"We have high hopes for Thilan, he's a wonderful young man," Stuart Law, Middlesex's head coach, says. "He's still very much on the development phase, but the way he bowls, he can control a run rate, he's got good skill, he's very repetitive in his action, and can land the ball wherever he wants, which is probably the key being a finger-spinner.
"The red ball doesn't really spin a great deal in this country until later in the summer, but he is persistent with lines, lengths, and changes in pace. He's working out how to get batsmen out, so he's a fast learner."
Walallawita has a high-calibre idol on whom to model his game. His hero growing up was Sri Lanka's legendary left-arm spinner Rangana Herath, and though he has not yet had the chance to pick his brains, it is surely only a matter of time - Bess, after all, was among the beneficiaries of Herath's wisdom on an ECB spin camp in India last year.
"He played Test cricket for 19 years so the amount of experience he had is just unbelievable," Walallawita says. "The main thing I'd want to pick his brains for is his tactical side. It would be a great opportunity for me to meet up with him if I go back to Sri Lanka."
And as Eskinazi points out, any such opportunity would not go to waste. "Thilan's basically a sponge," he says. "He is honestly one of the nicest people I've ever met. No one's ever got a bad word to say about him.
"His story is one that will warm the hearts of cricket lovers across the country, but more than that, he's an incredible bowler, with a mature head on very young shoulders. Accurate finger-spinners who can put the pressure on the batters, like he did last year in August and September, are worth their weight in gold in the UK, both to give the big boys a bit of a break, but also to make a big impact."
Walallawita proved that aspect of his game on debut against Surrey at The Oval last summer, and in each of his appearances thereafter. Only days after being registered with the ECB as an "unqualified" player, he picked off a Test cricketer in each innings - Mark Stoneman and Scott Borthwick - for match figures of 2 for 109 in 29 overs in Middlesex's 190-run victory over their London rivals.
"The Oval was probably one of the best grounds I could have asked to play at," he says. "All my team-mates were very welcoming, and I felt more confident than nervous playing there.
"When I was playing in the second team, I always got the ball early doors and tended to bowl about 15 to 20 overs a day. The first team is a completely different story. When the captain needs me I need to be ready.
"Last year I got some opportunities. I've got to bowl 17 overs straight at Hampshire which I loved, and I've been working on getting my shorter format game-plans ready. As soon as my coaches gave me the opportunity, I said I will never let you down."
Walallawita's opportunities in 2021 may have to wait a while yet - partly because spin bowlers rarely get a chance for a starring role in early-season England, but also because he is currently Middlesex's one injured player, after sustaining a hamstring problem in pre-season.
"His injury's come at a bad time because he wanted to get out and play cricket, but he's got to learn that that's part of professional sport as well," Law says. "These injuries do happen, but he'll be all right, and on the table for selection soon, I'm sure."
There is, however, one aspect of Walallawita's game that may require some extra attention if he wants to ensure he remains in contention when conditions are not in his favour. As his Middlesex predecessor Ollie Rayner once admitted, the key advice he would give to any aspiring English spin bowler is "learn to bat".
A fallibility in that department has held back many talented spinners in the past, notably Monty Panesar and more recently, the Surrey prospect Amar Virdi, and it's an issue that Law is already keen to address.
"We're trying to turn him into a hitter down the order," he says. "His best defensive shots are cover drives and pull shots, which admittedly is not a bad defence to have."
"I couldn't agree more with Ollie Rayner," Walallawita adds. "But I'm very confident that my batting is coming along nicely this year. Every day is a learning curve for me, but yes, I like to play my shots, and entertain the crowd a bit!"
With a fair wind, and fairer weather this summer, perhaps he'll have both a crowd to entertain in the first place, and a chance to do it with the skills that have marked him out as such a richly promising talent.

Andrew Miller is UK editor of ESPNcricinfo. @miller_cricket