Thilan Samaraweera: a victim of black magic?
Thilan Samaraweera will probably be best remembered as home-test bully as far as test cricket is concerned; averaging a tick over 56 at home compared to his 26.29 away. I'm sure most of us will agree that he probably should have been given more of an extended run in the test team as a batsman despite his limitations, but if you look a little deeper into his career, it makes for very interesting viewing. Given his limited test opportunities, particularly with the ball, it'll be hard to ever get a full grasp of exactly what he was or wasn't capable of doing at the highest level given his career seems to be winding down as he enters his mid thirties. But purely at first class level, he could well be one of the greatest allrounders ever amidst a shocking lack of appreciation.
His batting, known as his stronger suit, has been absolute immense in Sri Lankan conditions. Those who have seen a bit of him will confess that he really doesn't look much at the crease, but his technique is so sound that just clocks up the runs by picking off the bad balls. At his best, he scores a remarkable percentage of his runs in boundaries, just defending the good balls and waiting for something lose to pounce on. So simple, yet so very, very effective. His first class batting record of 8484 runs @ 42.42 looks good, yet nothing breathtaking. That is, though, until you actually stack it up against his peers at the time. Pitches in Sri Lankan domestic cricket have been far from easy to bat on during his career: a fact that many on this forum (including myself, until recently) fail to grasp just how batsmen stack up under these conditions. If you take a quick look at the records of the Sangakkaras and of the world, you'll see a first class average in the mid 40s, but that is of course propped up by the high number of tests they have played averaging near 50. Of recent times, only Jayawardene and Atapattu have really racked up the first class numbers (excluding test matches) that one would generally expect from someone pushing from higher honours.
Assorted Sri Lankan first class batting averages (excludes test matches):
Marvan Atapattu 56.10
Mahela Jayawardene 51.08
Thilan Samaraweera 42.57
Sanath Jayasuriya 37.91
Tillekeratne Dilshan 37.12
Chamara Silva 36.97
Kumar Sangakkara 33.55
Michael Vandort 33.11
Jehan Mubarak 31.32
Upul Tharanga 29.56
This group is the group of those who have been test regulars of Sri Lanka of late - obviously scoring runs is not easy in domestic cricket at all and hence Samaraweera's average of 42.57 would probably be akin an average of around 50 in England or India, for example. He was amongst the three best batsmen in his country in his time and this is obviously nothing to sneeze at. He backed this up in tests by averaging over 50 at home in conditions that suited him and unfortunately was never really given many opportunities abroad to shake his label as a home-track bully. Though, I guess, his career is not over as a test batsman so he may just do so eventually, as doubtful as it may be looking now given his age. Personally I have no doubt he would have achieved more away from home if given more chances or possibly a bit more luck; for a Sri Lankan he actually has one of the better suited techniques I've ever seen for bouncier wickets and the moving ball - I feel he's just been a victim of poor form at the wrong times.
Now, granted, there is a huge leap to make from being a prolific first class batsman in the top echelon of a country's batting stocks to being a truly great allrounder at first class level. And those who have merely seen him bowl the odd over at test level will certainly raise a few eyebrows here. But the fact is, his bowling record is absolutely brilliant in first class cricket. He has been poorly used in test cricket with the ball AFAIC, especially at home, as he clearly had the potential to be much more than the part-timer he was used as. Obviously, the same poor pitches previously mentioned in relation to his batting will be the ones he bowled on, but you don't take 348 first class wickets @ 23.34 bowling rubbish. From what I've seen of his bowling even at test level where he has a poor record, he certainly had all the tools to be a genuinely good off spinner providing the pitch suited - in fact, I'm adamant he was/is a better bowler than Nicky Boje, Omari Banks, Paul Wiseman, Dan Cullen and several others we've seen at test level lately. His bowling, if used correctly, could have been much more effective at test level for mine and his record, although not quite as good as some specialist spinners around in first class cricket during his time, was of certainly of the frontline standard, and he was amongst the top few spinners in a country that produces them by the bucketload for some time during the early part of his career. As his batting progressed, his bowling did indeed decline, but was always still a threat at first class level.
So, for all the supposed black magic Sobers has supposedly dazzled the public with regarding his test performances, Samaraweera has seemingly been the victim of black magic regarding his first class exploits and the limited opportunities he has received at test level, especially as a bowling option. While he's still playing, his limitations as a stroke player may be constantly brought up, but I think he'll be a player people will look back at in the years to come to give far more appreciation to than he's received while actually playing.