One of the sharpest cricketing brains around, Jason Gillespie wondered whether Kusal Janith Perera’s epic unbeaten 153 was the greatest Test innings of all time taking into account situation and opposition. That is a point for debate. People also ask the question whether this is Sri Lanka’s greatest Test win overseas and most followers of the game agree.
There have been other fascinating Test wins overseas for Sri Lanka, like Faisalabad 1995, Oval 1998, Rawalpindi 2000 and Wellington 2006. But those wins were scripted by some famous names of Sri Lankan cricket with the likes of Aravinda De Silva, Arjuna Ranatunga Kumar Sangakkara and Muttiah Muralitharan making big contributions, in fact, some of those encounters were won single-handedly.
The Durban win was scripted by someone still trying to establish himself in the side. Perera won a close call to play the first Test against South Africa over Angelo Perera, who had been flown to South Africa after his terrific form having become only the second man in the history of the game to post twin double hundreds in a first-class match.
There’s never been a doubt about Perera's talent. At 22, he slammed 336 off 275 balls in a first-class match representing Colts CC against Saracens at Havelock Park. This was savage hitting as he smashed 14 sixes and 29 fours. But Test cricket until Durban was yet to see Perera's brilliance. It goes onto show that when you persevere with talents, they will come good and go onto achieve incredible feats. Let Perera's story be a reminder to those who want Kusal Mendis be axed for the second Test and instead go home and play domestic cricket.
The debate could be put to rest with a stat. Mendis is only 24 and already has six Test hundreds. Let his critics be told that both Aravinda de Silva and Kumar Sangakkara combined didn’t have that many Test hundreds at the age of 24.
All the talk has been around Perera but what about Vishwa Fernando. The bloke faced 27 nervous deliveries in a 78 run stand for the last wicket but it was his bowling that set up Sri Lanka’s win.
Fernando is only here because three of Sri Lanka’s premier bowlers are out injured. While Lahiru Kumara and Nuwan Pradeep are nursing hamstring strains, Dushmantha Chameera is down with an ankle injury. He bowled admirably picking up eight for 133 in what was his only fourth Test match.
The left-armer provides variety to the attack dominated by right-armers and even when the front line seamers are back, now there’s a case for Fernando to be retained in the playing eleven.
What makes this win really special for the Islanders is the fact that they achieved it despite their bowling being thin on experience. How would this attack take 20 wickets? Many would have wondered. Barring Suranga Lakmal, the other three bowlers who featured in this game – Fernando, Kasun Rajitha and Lasith Embuldeniya have just played ten Tests put together. Funnily, Lakmal wasn’t effective and managed to pick up just one wicket in the game while the rookies did exceptionally well.
In Ambuldeniya, who took a five-wicket haul in the second innings, the tourists may have found their front line spinner going ahead. Dilruwan Perera finished 2018 as the second highest wicket-taker in the world behind Kagiso Rabada. But at 36, he has struggled with a few niggles and wasn’t his usual self in Australia. In 22-year-old Ambuldeniya, they have found the youthful exuberance of someone who is willing to give his all.
The other debutant Oshada Fernando was little known even in Sri Lanka and wasn’t part of the core group that was back up to play international sport. He was picked on the back of an excellent domestic season having passed the 1000 run mark in just eight games that included five hundreds and one double hundred. He looked solid and organised against one of cricket’s formidable bowling attacks in the Test and looks a player for the future.
These have been tough times for Sri Lankan cricket. The win was something that was badly needed to cheer up those who were losing interest in the game.
Following the International Cricket Council probe into corruption in the sport in the country, Sri Lanka Cricket is facing challenges as sponsors are moving away from the game willing to invest on rugby, basketball and athletics.
The annual Cricket Awards wasn’t held last year after the sponsors pulled out. The national team’s sponsor branding will expire after the World Cup and there seem to be no takers. SLC’s marketing arm has warned the Board that the money they will attract from television companies will decrease when the current cycle ends. This is after they failed to make it to the finals of the Nidahas Trophy tournament having lost twice to Bangladesh in the competition. A second string Indian side won the tri-nation tournament. Sri Lanka also made a first round exit in the Asia Cup after losing to Bangladesh and Afghanistan and to add insult to injury have failed to gain automatic qualification for the ICC T20 World Cup in 2020.
The fans will be hoping that the Durban win is no flash in the pan. Since the Big Three – Sangakkara, Jayawardene and Dilshan – retired, the present lot has given the fans false hopes every now and then. The excitement was huge when they beat Australia 3-0 at home in 2016 but it all faded away as India and England whitewashed them 3-0 respectively at home.
There was new hope again in December last year when Mendis and Angelo Mathews batted out four sessions to save the Wellington Test. Then their form nosedived losing the next three Tests in record margins – 423 runs, 366 runs, an innings and 40 runs.
Durban win came as a huge relief. Maybe Dimuth Karunaratne’s style of leadership, giving freedom to his players, has helped. All that they need is a draw in Port Elizabeth to create history.
South Africa is a tough place to win that. No Asian team has ever won a series here. In fact, no team other than Australia and England have recorded a series win in South Africa. Conditions in St. George’s Park will be to the visitors' liking as that is the slowest wicket in the country, slower than Kingsmead, Durban. Is there history in the making? Well, this is where consistency will matter. More importantly, Sri Lanka need to build upon the Durban win and fast track the process of transition which has been going on since a long time.
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