Originally published on Cricinfo
There you are, playing for your club in a 50-over competition, wondering when you might get another opportunity in the big leagues. Suddenly, you get a call to join the tour party in Australia. You arrive disoriented with jet lag. You have a net and you are told you are going to replace the injured Kumar Sangakkara.
It's all a blur as you front up to Jackson Bird for your first ball at the SCG. There are about 30,000 Australians screaming for you to make a mistake. That was how Lahiru Thirimanne returned to Test cricket after having been dropped after seven matches.
His disorientation turned to panic as he was hit on the pad first ball, and given out, only to be reprieved on a review. He then went onto to score 91. It was in a dead rubber, on a disastrous Australian tour. Yet in the grander scheme of things it was an important innings. It indicated towards a possible future without Mahela Jayawardene and Sangakkara, both on the final stretch of their careers, that was not full of doom and foreboding.
Two innings later, Thirimanne scored his first Test century against Bangladesh. It seemed like the fulfillment of the promise a lot of Sri Lankans had seen in this young player.
2013 was a good year for Thirimanne. 2014 hit him like a freight train.
In a total of ten innings for the year, he failed to pass 38. His average was barely in double figures. In England, he scored four runs in four innings. In the other six innings, he passed 25 once. These six innings were spread over against South Africa, Pakistan and New Zealand. Undoubtedly they were difficult oppositions but as top order failures go, this was of titanic proportions.
Thirimanne could be forgiven if he had thought the axe was about to fall on his career again. It didn't.
Instead, while Thirimanne could not decipher Tests, his ODI career started taking off. He scored two centuries in the 2014 Asia Cup, including one in the final, to guide Sri Lanka to the title. In the 2015 World Cup, he scored 139 not outto help Sri Lanka gun down England's 309. In both 2014 and 2015, his ODI average was over 40.
This resulted in him earning credit in the Test side. The selectors kept picking him but Test success remained elusive. His Test average in 2014 was 13.30 in five matches. His average in 2015 – 23.84 in eight Tests – was no better.
Thirimanne seems to find it easier when he is given the context of an ODI and when he needs to frame his innings around the variables of limited overs and bowler quotas. But when he is asked to build an innings, to exercise patience, find a way through a difficult period or bat ugly for runs, he fails to connect the dots.
In limited-overs cricket, you can check your technique at the door and still have a career. In Test cricket, against the red ball, Thirimanne's technique has been inadequate outside his off stump. James Anderson thoroughly exploited the weakness on the 2014 tour across both the ODI and Test formats to dismiss him six times. Dale Steyn did the same in Sri Lanka. The Kiwi quicks also capitalised on Steyn did the same in Sri Lanka. The Kiwi quicks also capitalised on Thirimanne's deficiencies in New Zealand. His high back lift and flirtatious nature outside the off stump has meant he is either too late when the ball moves into him or is ill-prepared to leave it when it moves away from him.
If those are the trials and tribulations for most top-order batsmen, then his latest addition to his mode of dismissal can hardly be excused. There are many instances now where Thirimanne gets out softly. Too many in fact. Last week at Headingley he chipped a ball to mid-on. At the Basin Reserve in 2015, he spooned one to mid-off. Back in 2014, he flicked one to mid-wicket at Lord's. It is a worrying trend. Thirimanne is now developing a reputation as a batsman who briefly looks pretty without much resolve.
It is also interesting to look at how his career has been received so far by the media and the fans and to contrast it against how he is viewed within the team environment. Both fans and the media have been heavily critical of Thirimanne's incosistency and the issues with his technique and his continued selection despite all these problems. The prevailing thought, one with a lot of validity it must be said, has been for him to spend some time away from international cricket and get back to scoring runs at the domestic level to regain his confidence.
However, his current and former team-mates, including Sangakkara, have been vocal in their support for him. As a team-mate, of course, this is to be expected, but Sangakkara has been airing his support long into his retirement. Aravinda de Silva has called for "patience" and stated that it is "unfair to criticise" Thirimanne. He views Thirimanne as someone with "huge potential". Sanath Jayasuriya, the chief selector, believes that Thirimanne is "the future". Angelo Mathews stated at an event prior to the side's departure for England that "Thirimanne has the best technique" and that "he is our best batsman".
If you are Thirimanne, there aren't too many things you can complain about. He has been plucked from obscurity and repeatedly extended an olive branch. His failures have been glossed over for the promise of what is to come. Thirimanne now owes a great debt. The debt of the experience he has been able to accumulate due to continuity in selection. The debt of the support he has received from his colleagues, captain and the upper echelon of Sri Lankan cricket. The debt of being shielded from the mob mentality of those outside the team hierarchy that has sought to have him dropped for nearly two years. There is no better time than the present to start paying some of it back.