Like most kids, Tilan Samaraweera began his journey to a decorated international career in the backyard with his two brothers.
Once he’d experienced international cricket in an underage capacity, his internal fire was lit.
“When I was 19 years old, I could really feel the taste to play for Sri Lanka. I played a game for the Sri Lanka Under 24’s against South Africa and that was when I knew I could make it.”
When the sun set on Samaraweera’s international career of 81 Test’s and 53 ODI’s, with a Test batting average of 48.76, two ODI centuries and bowling averages above 45 in both formats, he would always be remembered for his batting exploits. It didn’t always look like panning out that way though.
“In school cricket I batted number three. When I got to First Class cricket, I couldn’t bat top five. I batted seven and bowled a lot for probably my first four or five years, that’s probably why I debuted internationally as a bowler.”
His international debut came in an ODI against India in 1998, not batting (listed at 10) and bowling 10 overs for 1-41. It was a far cry from the role he would play as an established member of the Sri Lankan team.
Samaraweera would wait three more years for his Test debut, but the wait would be more than worth it.
“It was an awesome feeling, I was super nervous but it’s very hard to describe in words. Luckily for me, India won the toss and batted so I had a day to rest and relax and calm my nerves.”
“We got India all out on day one. I think I came in at about 6-420, our top order were all scoring hundreds. I was lucky to get a start, I got to 50 or so and Hashan Thilekrathna told me to just go for it. I started batting more aggressively in the second half of my innings and was lucky enough to finish with an unbeaten century.”
Samaraweera celebrating a Test century for Sri Lanka
He would also dismiss Indian captain Sourav Ganguly in the second innings as Sri Lanka would defeat India by an innings and 77 runs.
After giving Samaraweera a rosy introduction to Test Cricket. Cricket, being the ultimate leveler that it is, would strenuously put his character to the test.
He was dropped from the national team three times, the second resulting in a two year stint captaining the ‘A’ team where he would transform his game.
“In 2002, I thought I could definitely come back and I think I only missed one tour. In 2005, it was a fair reason that they dropped me, I wasn’t making any runs. In 2011, there was no reason to drop me and I still don’t understand why I was dropped. Every time I missed out, I always had a gut feel I would get back.”
“In my first 40 Tests, I was a very boring batsman. I met Chandika Hathurusinghe and he changed my mindset, he also made some small technical changes and in my last 40 Tests I was a much more aggressive batsman.”
Time out of the national team was an issue as minor as they come in comparison to what Samaraweera would endure later in his career.
He was in the purple patch of his life, on the back of consecutive double centuries, when disaster struck.
Enter cricket’s darkest hour, the 2009 Lahore Terror attack. 12 terrorists armed with assault rifles, grenades and rocket launchers opened fire on the Sri Lankan team bus. Whilst no players were killed, Samaraweera took a bullet to the upper leg.
“My initial thought was that’s it, I’m going to die.”
“I was lying in my hospital bed, and I was actually very scared. I was worried someone was going to come back and shoot me in my hospital bed, I was that scared.”
“In Pakistan, surgeons did a special scan, like an MRI or something, and they told me I could play cricket again. I didn’t believe it and thought they were just trying to be nice to me and keep me happy. I was flown back to Sri Lanka and the doctors told me the bullet had just missed the artery and the bone and I could play cricket again. If it hit the bone, I would’ve been able to get back to day to day life, but I wouldn’t have played cricket again. If it hit the artery, I would’ve been paralysed, so I was very lucky.”
“Full credit to the doctors, physiotherapists, people that helped me with mental therapy. There was a bit of shock at first and I had lots of nightmares, it took about five or six months for me to recover.”
Even after enduring such a horror, Samaraweera remained selfless and concerned with the development of others, believing cricket should return to Pakistan.
“If the safety is there definitely. Otherwise it is very unfair for the younger generation of Pakistan as they cannot see their role models in reality. It has a negative impact on cricket in Pakistan.”
The treacherous recovery would all be worthwhile, when Samaraweera hit the winning runs in a World Cup Semifinal and got to experience a cricket’s pinnacle, the World Cup Final.
“After the attack, I was so scared of firecrackers. I can still remember that at the start of the 48th over, there were 4 runs to get to win. On the first ball I hit a boundary over cover, but unfortunately the firecrackers in the stadium had been fired too early and the umpires made it a dead ball. Unfortunately, I never heard the firecrackers as my focus was in the moment and winning the game. On the 5th ball of the over I hit a boundary and it was a phenomenal moment.”
Samaraweera celebrating after taking Sri Lanka to the World Cup Final
“People are always taking about it (the final) in terms of just approaching it as another game, but it is not like that at all. It’s a once in a lifetime moment for many players. Lots of pressure, anxiety and excitement.”
Post playing, he spent time coaching with Bangladesh, Sri Lankan and New Zealand national teams.
“All three have very different cultures, and they all impressed me in different ways. I enjoyed all three, they were all very different experiences.”
Samaraweera coaching with Bangladesh
Whilst only doing part time work with Victoria before COVID-19 struck, Samaraweera didn’t shut the door on his coaching career should any potential suitors come knocking.
“Oh yes, definitely. I would love to get back into coaching.”
Samaraweera still has issues with Sri Lanka’s national set up, publicly voicing disappointment around clarity from the national selectors, even after his time as batting coach of the national team he hadn’t seen any changes.
“No, I don’t think it’s been resolved. From what I can tell nothing has really changed and there’s not enough clarity about why people are being dropped.”
He also contrasted their first-class system with county cricket in England, noting the array of issues hampering the development of cricket in his birth country.
“England had a phenomenal set up, the standard, the facilities and professionalism is set high. In comparison to Sri Lanka, our standards have started to drop since the mid 2000’s. There are 24 teams and that means there are 48 openers, which is far too many.”
“There is no money rolling in. Senior players are leaving, there are no senior players in the teams it is just kids, they will never learn with no senior players. When I made my debut in 1997 for Colts Cricket Club, there were lots of senior players to learn from. With the amount of teams, there is also not enough depth in the competition.”
Looking back on his career, Samaraweera recalls, his toughest opposition:
“2003 versus Australia under Ricky Ponting. They were an amazing team, especially in that period from 2001 to 2009. They just dominated, they were number one in the world for 95 months, that’s just phenomenal. I really enjoyed the challenge of playing against them.”
The most intimidating bowlers he faced:
“Dale Steyn, he was quick. Morne Morkel, he was tall and quick. Mitchell Johnson, he was slingy and quick. And of course, Shoaib Akhtar, ohh he was very quick.”
The most skillful bowlers he faced:
“James Anderson and Vernon Philander. They are risk position and do lots of tricks with the ball.”
His best innings:
“It’s hard to say, but there’s definitely a few. My debut hundred would be one. I came in at 3-3 for Sri Lanka against Pakistan in Karachi and got a hundred against Shoaib Akhtar. In my come back Test after missing two years against the West Indies, I scored a century and that was special. Against South Africa in Sri Lanka’s first win there I scored a century. My two ODI hundreds are also special.”
The best innings he’s witnessed as a player:
“Undoubtedly Brian Lara in 2003 in Sri Lanka. We won the series 3-0, but he scored 600 runs for the series. Against our attack with the likes of Muttiah Muralitharan and Chaminda Vaas, that was amazing. There was no particular innings that stood out, just his whole series.”
His best wins:
“My first Test match against India was one. In 2008 Sri Lanka won our first Test in the West Indies. In 2011 we won our first Test in South Africa. Also in 2011, the World Cup Semifinal win against New Zealand.”
The teammates he got along with best:
“Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara. We played school cricket against each other and we’re all the same age.”
His biggest influences:
“My two brothers and my sister. My sister really helped me with meditation, and my two brothers were great. Chandika Hathurusinghe was another one. I captained under him for two years at Sri Lanka A, I learnt lots under him when he was the batting coach of Sri Lanka and again when he brought me over to Bangladesh to coach, I learnt lots from him there as well.”
What he would change about his career:
“I’m very happy with my career. One thing I would change though is that I didn’t enjoy my first 40 Tests. I was always worried about my place in the team, if I had to change something, I would enjoy my first 40 Tests more.”
His proudest moment as a cricketer:
“Representing Sri Lanka in the 2011 World Cup in Mumbai was a standout highlight of my career. Unfortunately, we ended up on the losing side.”
Cricket was blessed with Tilan Samaraweera, whilst he wasn’t a batsman that would sell out stadiums, he played vital roles and always found ways to succeed. He fought through adversity, defying odds and opinions. He could’ve been remembered as a terror attack victim whom the cricketing community felt sorry for, instead he is the man that didn’t let a bullet end his international career.