The underrated fighter
After the ICC World Cup 2011, Sri Lankan cricket experienced a bad transition period. They lost Test series against England and Australia and at home, Michael Clarke’s Australia started off his journey in a commendable fashion by beating Sri Lanka at their own backyard and the defeat tasted bitter for Tillakaratne Dilshan and his men, who, a few years ago, were hard to beat at home. Under Dilshan and the presence of legends like Mahela Jayawardene and Kumara Sangakkara, Sri Lankan cricket was going nowhere and after an innings defeat at Centurion in the first Test, an unknown fear overshadowed the hearts and minds of Sri Lankan cricket fans.
Had the wheel completed its circle?
Someone had to stand up and turn the fortunes of Sri Lankan cricket and it could only be possible by scripting a win against South Africa.
In the second Test at Durban, Sri Lanka found themselves in a similar position at 117 for 4 against the fury of Dale Steyn and Marchant de Lange. One man from Colombo, who boasted the track record as a classy batsman right from his school career at Ananda College, Colombo and whose outstanding performances in successive years earned him the Observer Schoolboy Cricketer of the Year titles in 1994 and 1995, thought of unleashing his strong temperament and balancing act.
Thilan Samaraweera was one of those batsmen who would not attract anyone to watch his batting and sponsors to run after him, but whenever his team demanded stability, Thilan always rose to the occasion and delivered, He was like West Indies’ Larry Gomes who stood up and faced the challenges when the big guns failed to fire.
Thilan scripted a hundred on a tough track and helped Sri Lanka to post 338 in the first innings while in the second, he stitched a useful partnership with Kumar Sangakkara to stretch the lead and boost Sri Lanka’s morale, which propelled the wily Rangana Herath to gun down South Africa at Durban and instill Sri Lanka’s lost self-belief.
“Thilan was out of the side and had come back in for a very tough tour. To do what he did in that first innings for us was incredible. It was a make or break series for the guy,” Kumar Sangakkara said about the impact of that hundred later on.
That dramatic win helped Sri Lanka to rediscover their lost mojo and brought them back into the track as they experienced some of the most dramatic victories till 2014. How vital a role Thilan’s brave knock played to bring Sri Lankan cricket back to its old form, cannot easily be described in words.
In Test cricket, Thilan contributed effectively, but he decided to left international scene in 2013 in anger after being omitted from the 15-man squad which was declared to play the first Test against Bangladesh.
“I was shocked with my omission from the squad against Bangladesh. There was no point in waiting for nine months. I respect the decision of the selectors to go with young players and decided it was the right time for me to retire”.
It was a woeful end of a fighter who always played a vital role by coming out to bat at number five and six. His 50-over career did not go smooth, but in Test matches since 2008, his contributions can never be undermined. His batting averages in 2008: 72.75, 2009: 72.59, 2010: 114.25, 2011: 41.75 and in 2012 despite a disastrous tour down under he averaged around 32.59. His career came to an end after that poor series on Australian soil, but he cannot be blamed alone. Even the big guns did not fare well.
He played his last first class match against Northamptonshire at Worcester in September, 2013 and decided to leave playing cricket. He played 81 Test matches for Sri Lanka since 2001 and scored 5462 runs from 132 innings at an average of 48.76.
Also, Thilan holds the record for scoring the most runs in ODI cricket with only scoring centuries without even dismissed between 50-99, he never had scores of unbeaten innings between 50-99.He has scored two one-day international (ODI) hundreds without a single fifty.
“From among the Sri Lankans, I’m third after two of our greatest batsmen. Maybe in 40 years’ time – can you imagine – some fellow who hasn’t seen me bat might look at our averages and think: ‘Ah, this Thilan Samaraweera was so much better than Aravinda de Silva’. I think that’s wonderful,” he said in an interview a few months back.
Life after cricket
After retirement, Thilan decided to take coaching as a career and immediately, Cricket Australia signed him up to work primarily with the next generation in the National Performance Squad and in the pathway program, with a focus on batting. He was also appointed as the batting consultant of the Australian team which toured Sri Lanka last year.
Before the start of Sri Lanka tour, at the Bupa National Cricket Centre at Brisbane, Australian cricketers kept in contact with Thilan and polished their technique under his guidance. Australia fared poorly in Sri Lanka as a young Lankan unit thrashed them 3-0 in Test series, but few batsmen did reap rewards due to Thilan’s advice and one of them was Shaun Marsh who notched up a hundred in the third Test.
Marsh was one of Thilan’s students at Brisbane and after that hundred he said, “It’s been really good to chat to him and get a bit of an insight into the sort of conditions we’ll be facing in the next couple of months.”
Samaraweera’s impact on Bangladesh cricket
Bangladesh cricket’s supremo Nazmul Hassan and charismatic coach Chandika Hathurusingha realised the value of Thilan and decided to appoint him as the batting consultant of Tigers. Mr. President said, the board was in process of appointing more coaching staff ahead of a flurry of international cricket, including a tour to New Zealand in December-January, maiden Test in India, Sri Lanka and Ireland tour and Champions Trophy in England.
Thilan was contracted till the Champions Trophy and since his appointment, Bangladesh batting has experienced a positive impact due to his coaching. In an interaction with Bangladesh media Thilan said his main priority would be to make the Bangladesh batsmen strong mentally and improve their temperament while playing Test cricket. Moreover, he emphasised on improving the technical aspects of Bangladesh batsmen.
Certainly, since Thilan was appointed as the batting consultant of Bangladesh, from a technical point of view, the top order of Bangladesh batting lineup realised the importance of playing the ball late, running between the wickets, astute footwork and initial trigger movement of going back rather than front on tricky wickets. The Bangladesh batsmen put a price tag on their wickets and after getting well set at the wicket, they seldom exhibited rush of blood but concentrated more on grafting a partnership.
Tamim Iqbal’s average in 2016 in Test was 57.75 and in the recently concluded Test series against Sri Lanka, he averaged 51.75. This Tamim of 2016 and 17 is a different batsman in Test and 50-over formats. He’s one of those batters whose bat comes down perfectly, goes behind the line of the ball and picks the length earlier than others.
Then Soumya Sarkar’s improvement in Test cricket is evident. With an average of 46.75 this year, Soumya is hinting, he is not a limited-overs bunny but has the technique and temperament to cash in on five-day matches as well. That problem with footwork still persists and not poor like the past, but despite limited footwork, he is able to play strokes with pristine timing and learned to spend more time at the crease.
Sabbir Rahman is another young prodigy who has now realised his potentials as a top order batsman. He did score runs in 50-over formats but later on lost his rhythm which is a temporary loss of form and nothing else. For a brief period, Sabbir was tagged as the Glenn Maxwell of Bangladesh cricket mostly suited to Twenty20 cricket as a lower-order batter.
But Thilan and Chandika’s eyes recognised the hidden talent in him and decided to utilise his ability to time the ball perfectly and keeping the ball on the ground consistently while essaying shots through offside. Sabbir was promoted up the order as a number three batsman and in future, this move will prove effective.
At Wellington, Shakib Al Hasan and Mushfiqur Rahim dominated the New Zealand attack and helped Bangladesh to post 595 for 8 (dec) in first innings. The Test match was lost along with the series, but if one observes closely, Bangladesh batters were able to get on top of the bounce which was never seen on previous occasions.
One can say about the inabilities to handle the rib-cage bowling of Neil Wagner, but they have to keep in mind, such sort of bowling was found tough to handle by the very bests and Bangladesh have little experience of touring outside and playing in tough conditions and such a bowling.
Then the young Mosaddek Hossain showed his class as a Test batsman in the second Test against Sri Lanka where his defence and footwork hinted of a future master of the game.
And, in the Champions Trophy, Bangladesh batting thumped New Zealand in style through sheer mental strength and advanced to semi-final – a great moment to relish for us all.
Be it in Test or 50-over format, Bangladesh batsmen learned how to covert fifties into big scores, a matter which was always emphasised by Thilan since he was appointed as batting consultant. “If you are batting in the top five, you have to score hundreds. If you are happy with 50s, that is not enough,” he said after the collapse at Galle and in the next Test, the Bangladeshi boys did make their runs count.
Thilan kept his word. Under his supervision, Bangladesh batting certainly improved technically and temperamentally.
Was the decision of not extending Samaraweera’s contract good?
On July 20, 2017, Bangladesh Cricket Board (BCB) decided not to extend Thilan’s contract. Samaraweera was appointed in September last year and was given an extension till the Champions Trophy this year, but the board decided not to continue with him anymore. The BCB is already looking for a new batting consultant, and among the names being discussed is a former Australian first-class cricketer and coach Mark O’Neill.
Meanwhile, Akram Khan, the chairman of BCB operation committee hinted of an indifference with Thilan and players which led to the decision of not extending the contract, but it is still not known from any players of what sort of indifference took place between him and players. Should one think of another pathetic politics of some of BCB officials and a section of Bangladesh’s print and electronic media behind all these? One cannot be sure as there is no evidence but only can guess.
One cannot be sure as there is no evidence but only can guess.
The newly appointed batting consultant Mark O’Neil would be on a temporary basis and according to Akram, he would focus more on lower-order batting. I am not sure had any team in world cricket appointed a batting coach for this purpose!
Mark has no experience of playing international cricket; he played 76 first class matches, scored 3739 runs with an average of 35.17. He coached New Zealand for a short period of time and then joined New South Wales as a batting consultant. He also worked as a batting coach for South Australia and Middlesex.
I can’t be sure how good a coach Mark would be, but one thing I can say, the decision to not extend Thilan’s contract was not a smart move. Thilan gelled well with the players and he was taking Bangladesh’s batting in Test and 50-over formats in the right direction.
Was it not ideal to stick with the tried and tested one rather than roping in someone new whose experience and value as a coach is still not proven successful?
What would Akram Khan say?
Thilan Samaraweera’s life would not halt. He would be welcomed in Sri Lanka and Australia, but I do worry about the Tigers, who would be deprived of the services of a very competent batting coach.