A near-death experience

Samaraweera recalls the attack by terrorists on team bus

A near-death experience
"The two double hundreds I got in Pakistan were quite satisfying… Of course, I also got a bullet there,” remarks Thilan Samaraweera and trails it off with a hearty laugh.  

It’s been eight years since the terrorists attacked the team bus that was carrying the Sri Lankan cricketers in Lahore, and Samaraweera, who was seriously injured after a bullet pierced 12 inches into his left thigh, can even laugh off the incident now. It wasn’t so when their team bus was ambushed by 12 masked gunmen and the ensuing exchange of fire left six Pakistani policemen dead.

“I never thought I will come back and play cricket again,” he tells you on a more serious note. “Thankfully, the operation and my rehab went really well but it was tough to overcome the mental scars. I remained scared for a long time to come; it was a difficult phase to cope with, no doubt. I used to get nightmares. The thought that I may not play cricket anymore spooked me and often left me restless. Finally, I spoke to one psychologist and he suggested me to laugh off the incident and that was the only way, he said, I can overcome the problem,” he remembers.  

Samaraweera was in the form of his life during Sri Lanka’s trip to Pakistan in 2009. He had scored 231 in Karachi in the first Test and had followed it up with another double (214) in Lahore before the tragedy struck him. His then skipper Mahela Jayawardene, Kumar Sangakkara, Ajantha Mendis and Tharanga Paranavitana too were injured but none so seriously as Samaraweera. Lying motionless on his hospital bed in Lahore, the right-hander went through an emotional upheaval.     

“When I got admitted to hospital in Lahore, the doctors conducted all the tests and scans, which I had no idea of because I was unconscious,” he continues. “They told me not to worry and that I will be back playing cricket again. I said, “this is bull****”, because I couldn’t feel my leg, nor could I move it. After that, the Sri Lankan government flew in four surgeons and two nurses and one of the surgeons told me, “don’t worry, you will play for Sri Lanka again.” That gave me some hope, but still doubts persisted about my future at that time.

That Samaraweera came back and went on to play for the island nation for almost four more years, including in the World Cup final in 2011 against India, is a tribute to strength of his character.

It’s also a bit unfair that he is remembered more for this unfortunate incident than his batting exploits spread over 81 Tests and 53 one-day internationals. Samaraweera retired with 5462 Test runs at an average of 48.76 which is the third highest for a Lankan batsman after Sangakkara and Jayawardene. Even the great Aravinda de Silva averaged less than 43. History, perhaps, will judge him better but when he was playing alongside Jayawardene and Sangakkara, he forever lived under their giant shadows.

“I knew it was going to be that way,” he says. “Every cricketer goes through those kinds of moments in his career.

“No one talks about VVS Laxman, they all talk about the Tendulkars, the Dravids, the Gangulys… I knew at one stage, they will drop one of the top four players and that time it was Mahela, Sanga, (Tillakaratne) Dilshan and me, and I knew it would be me whenever that happened. In 2010-11, I realised that I have to do well in every Test series otherwise I am the first one on the chopping block. I couldn’t afford to fail even three-four innings. That insecurity when I came into the dressing room was a bit hard for me,” he recounts.

Samaraweera’s performances against India weren’t insignificant either, starting with a century on his Test debut.

“In 2005, I had a tough series against India in India. Anil Kumble and Harbhajan Singh gave me some real tough time in that series. Before that I thought I was a very good player of spin but when I came up against them, I realised how bad I was against spin. It helped me improve my game against spin, and when they came to Lanka in 2008, I scored a century at SSC. That hundred strengthened my mindset. We went on to win that series and that has to be one of the most memorable wins for me as part of the Sri Lankan team,” says Samaraweera who shifted his base to Australia in 2014.

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