Thilan Samaraweera

'Players these days are lucky - they don't get chewed out like we used to'

Thilan Samaraweera talks about the Lahore attack, copping a earful from Ranatunga, and finishing with a higher Test average than Aravinda

Interview by Andrew Fidel Fernando

"I never felt I was scoring too slowly compared to my team-mates. But then, my batting did put my daughter to sleep" © AFP

Pakistan is a country that has imposed itself on my memory. I hit my first overseas Test hundred in Faisalabad at a time when people were saying I could only get runs at the SSC, so that was nice. It's also in Pakistan that I got my two double-hundreds. And then, you know, I was shot there.

I used to ride my bicycle to go and watch Marvan Atapattu bat at Ananda College. If he wasn't batting, I'd get on the bike again and ride to Nalanda to watch Kumar Dharmasena or Chaminda Handunetti. That was what I did for fun when I was younger.

Brian Lara - uff, what a special batsman. I still can't believe what he did on that 2001 tour. Chaminda Vaas was at his peak. Murali was at his peak. West Indies lost 3-0. It was actually so much fun watching him as a fielder. I was stunned I managed to get him out at a crucial stage in Galle - he must have thought I was someone who actually turned the ball and he got caught at short-midwicket trying to hit to the off side. In our next series, he hit a six off me that must honestly have gone about 150 metres.

In a country like this, hearing criticism from one ear and letting it fly out the other side is essential for a player. The media guesses a lot, don't they? They'll create a story when they don't have one.

Our father died when I was ten. Myself and Dulip played for Sri Lanka, but I think my oldest brother was the most talented of the lot. He had to take on a lot of responsibility after that, though.

"I was stunned I managed to get Brian Lara out at a crucial stage in Galle - he must have thought I was someone who actually turned the ball"

You know, I never felt I was scoring too slowly compared to my team-mates. But then, my batting did put my daughter to sleep.

I had a mark on the wall of my master bedroom that represented the release point of whichever bowler I was going to face soon. So, if you take an example, it could be Stuart Broad. His arm comes up here - quite high. So I'd stand there in my bedroom and play shots to him. I'd leave, I'd duck, I'd drive, I'd cut. Only after you leave do you realise how much those little things could have helped you.

Players these days are lucky - they don't get chewed out like we used to. One day, while playing for SSC, I dropped a catch off Chandika Hathurusingha. Pramodya Wickramasinghe was the bowler. Straight away Arjuna Ranatunga started having a go at me. I don't think I've ever been yelled at like that in my life. Look, don't ask, because there's no way I can tell you the content of what he said. Thankfully Hathu got out soon after.

The best piece of advice I ever got was from my brother, Dulip, who had played seven Tests for Sri Lanka. Before my debut he said to me: "Don't be like me. Don't just play 10-15 Tests. Do something for Sri Lanka." Now when I look back, I think playing 81 Tests for Sri Lanka was not an easy thing. I'm not just another Test cricketer.

Only Roshan Mahanama and Arjuna had been Schoolboy Cricketer of the Year two years running, before me. I did it in '94 and '95. Those really were wonderful years. I was very popular at school.

"It took about 18 months for my wife and daughter to recover from [the Lahore attack trauma]" © AFP

When there's inconsistent selection, as a player you feel that even your own dressing room is creating doubts in your head, let alone the doubts that the opposition is creating. You can prepare for the opposition, but when there are doubts from the dressing room, that can really affect you. You don't know where you stand. I've experienced that, and I think that's happening in the Sri Lanka set-up now.

It was only when the bus stopped at the ground that I realised I'd been shot. I couldn't move my leg. I thought I wouldn't play again. The doctors at the hospital told me, "You're very lucky", and I didn't believe them. I thought they were just saying that to console me.

I was thrown into the midst of an unnecessary problem in the 2006 tour to England. Sanath Jayasuriya was coming to join the team mid-tour, and the team management was telling me to go up the order and open. I refused. I knew that decision wasn't being made for the good of the team - it was just a way to deal with that situation. That's not an excuse for my failures, but that became a big problem. I didn't have my head in the game in that series.

The bowlers were very tired when I hit that hundred on Test debut. The guys batting above me had just scored and scored and scored.

Meditating was something that really helped me in cricket. I was a naughty child, so to stop that, my older sister had taken me to the temple when I was about 12. Late in my career, I started meditating again. I cleared my mind and focused on my breathing. Maybe 15 minutes - maybe 20. I'm not sure if you can even call it meditating, but it did help.

"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'"

There are way too many teams in Sri Lanka's domestic cricket now. This has been said a lot. There's almost no point talking about it. There are 23 teams, which means each week, you need 46 opening batsmen alone. Then when you take out the national players, who are usually away on national duty, and if there's an A team series as well - I mean, you can imagine what the quality is like.

Even though I was a sportsman the teachers at school were set on me doing well in my O-Levels. There was one science teacher who used to come all the way from Kegalle, and some days he'd stay in Colombo and give me private lessons from 8pm to 10pm before getting on the bus to go home. I remember them almost as gods.

Arjuna used to be such a great example in my first years at SSC. I mean, here was this guy who was a huge personality in international cricket. But see, even for a club game, he gets there early and plays the game at an intensity you wouldn't believe. In that SSC team, only two players avoided getting an earful from Arjuna in the time I was there. Marvan was one of them.

It was actually in Pakistan that I first did the machine-gun celebration after I got to a hundred. After I got shot, my mother told me to stop doing it. But I did do it afterwards. It's not something that meant anything special really - I just did it for fun.

Across 81 Tests I hit only seven sixes. Two of those were in one over against New Zealand, in Galle. One went so much further than I thought actually, so I lifted up my arm and showed the dressing room my biceps.

"After I got shot, my mother told me to stop [my machine-gun celebrations]. But I did do it afterwards. It's not something that meant anything special really - I just did it for fun" © AFP

Fair to say the SSC is my second home. I'm very attached to the club.

When you play in England, you learn a lot - even in county cricket. Some days there are three different sets of conditions - rain, sunshine, and then the darkness when the ball starts to swing.

The attack must have been two or three minutes, but it felt like 24 hours. In Sri Lanka you get trained at school as to how to react when there is an unexpected attack. All that training came into play when we got attacked in Lahore. As soon as Dilshan yelled out that they were shooting at us, we all hit the floor. I heard Mahela scream, and I thought, "Okay, he's been shot." Then Tharanga Paranavitana yelled out, and when I turned to look at him, there was blood on his shirt. When he fell onto his seat, I thought he'd fallen over dead. The physio had to pull him down. As people were screaming, I thought they were getting hit, and one by one, dying.

The highest-pressure match I ever played in was the World Cup semi-final at Khettarama. There were 35,000 people in and we lost some quick wickets. They started hooting at us also. When I looked up at the dressing room, I saw Herath, Malinga, Mendis and Murali. To get them all out you only need an over sometimes. Thankfully Angelo and I stayed not out and finished it.

Actually, I'm happy about my Test average. 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.

"The best piece of advice I ever got was from my brother, Dulip. Before my debut he said to me: 'Don't be like me. Don't just play 10-15 Tests. Do something for Sri Lanka'"

The pre-season training Australian players have is terrific. All their gains are made then, and they are all primed by the time the season actually starts.

I watched Mahela bat on TV in 1998, when he hit 167 against New Zealand. Amazing. That wasn't a pitch, it was a paddy field.

I'd called my wife before I got on the bus on the day of the attack. About ten minutes later, she had got a call from someone - she still doesn't remember who - telling her I'd died. She fainted. Then as soon as she regained consciousness, she called Mahela, who had told her: "Thilan's here, but he can't talk." That only increased her doubts. Then she called Kumar, who had given the same answer. It took about 18 months for her and my daughter to recover from that.

I'm in the right place with this Bangladesh coaching team. When I played cricket I learned a lot from Chandika, and now as a coach I'm learning from him as well.

I had almost no preparation for that South Africa tour where I scored two hundreds. I got a call from Dilshan about four or five days before the tour and he told me to pack my bags. Our practice match was then rained out. Before I got the hundreds, though, I managed to top-score in both our innings in that first match. That gave me the belief for the next two Tests.

"I couldn't even go to the supermarket after I played the last shot of my career. Even the checkout guy was asking me: 'Why, sir, did you hit that shot?'" © AFP

Shoaib Akhtar bowled a spell to me and Jehan Mubarak one time that I was afraid to even watch from the non-striker's end.

The win in Durban wasn't just down to me. Dinesh Chandimal scored runs, Sanga scored runs, and Chanaka Welegedara and Rangana Herath got wickets. It was a special one.

When I got back to cricket, I had this fear of getting on the bus and sitting in the same seat. But doctors told me to talk about it - to talk about the event, and my fears, and to do it lightheartedly. Even now I don't mind talking about it. But one thing is, I'm afraid of firecrackers for life. I haven't lit a single one since - even during our avurudu celebrations.

Sometimes when Saeed Ajmal bowled, I didn't have a clue which way the ball was turning. About 30% I might pick from the hand. The remaining 70%, I was blind. I got out six or seven times to him.

I couldn't even go to Food City supermarket after I played the last shot of my career, in the Sydney Test [it was a hoick across the line early in his innings]. Even the checkout guy was asking me: "Why, sir, did you hit that shot?" I'm telling you, I couldn't go anywhere! You know, only then did I realise the fame I had built up. It's a shot that came out of a lot of pressure. I wanted to go for some quick runs, and it's a shame, because if I had got 30 or 40, we could have won that match. But then it was a bit of fun afterwards, because everyone I met asked. When I was pumping petrol someone told me: "You played that stupid shot, no? Who thought you would do that?" Hilarious.

Andrew Fidel Fernando is ESPNcricinfo's Sri Lanka correspondent. @andrewffernando

 

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