Unfancied Sri Lanka have pulled of one of their greatest Test wins in the history. The thrilling one-wicket win in Kingsmead, Durban on Saturday came against many odds against a team that has an enviable record at home. The Sri Lankans have one man to thank for it, Kusal Janith Perera, better known as simply KJP.
KJP’s batting style – strong square of the wicket with the cut and pull being his bread and butter earned him the nickname ‘Podi Sana’ which in Sinhalese means little Sanath, the man who redefined batting – Sanath Jayasuriya.
In his stop start career, KJP has faced many setbacks. Three season ago, when he was trying to establish himself in the side, came the shocking news that he had failed a drug test. The team was in New Zealand at that point and he was expelled home in disgrace. The ICC provisionally suspended him and his career looked over.
Having spent several months with all and sundry questioning his integrity came some relief. The ICC admitted that there had been flaws in their testing and claimed that the laboratory had made some mistakes.
The ban was lifted in 2016 but he had lost considerable amount of cricket. More importantly the mental agony that he was forced to go through was inexplicable.
His confidants wanted him to sue the ICC. But saner counsel prevailed as Sri Lanka Cricket advised him against the extreme measures. Instead, his legal team is in negotiations with Dubai for a compensation package.
Having been cleared by the ICC as the left-handed batsman was trying to rediscover his form, he was affected by a series of hamstring injuries and he was in and out of the side.
He was overlooked for the first Test against Australia in Brisbane. There was an opening in Canberra. Naturally an opening batsman he was played in the middle order in the second Test and his career was in tatters again after Mitchell Starc and Pat Cummins exposed his deficiencies of playing the short ball.
He was hit on the grill in the first innings and had to retire hurt and wasn’t able to resume his innings. The mental scars were agonizing as he was dismissed for a duck in the second essay. He looked all at sea – a sitting duck facing short pitched bowling. Credit to Ashantha de Mel and his selection panel as they picked him for South Africa despite doing drastic changes from the squad that played in Australia.
KJP didn’t let them down in South Africa. There was a barrage of short pitched bowling. Compared to Australia, the South African seam attack is far more threatening. In Kagiso Rabada, the hosts have world’s number one ranked bowler and in Dale Steyn the world’s best bowler in the new millennium. Duanne Olivier, who constantly bowls at 145 kmph, is perhaps the best young fast bowler in the world at the moment. He fought them all.
He batted like Aravinda de Silva in his prime. Unafraid to take on the best of fast bowlers, he was bold enough to pull Rabada, Steyn and Olivier without ducking. His technique of playing short pitched bowling has been put to rest now.
KJP started playing the game of cricket at the age of 11 and was initially a right-handed batsman. Those days every Sri Lankan wanted to bat like Jayasuriya. So did Podi Sana. He converted himself into a left-handed batsman at the unglamorous Dharmapala Vidyalaya in the outskirts of Colombo.
His talent was first noticed when the posh Royal College offered him a scholarship when he was 16. From thereon, he went from strength to strength with a fair share of troubles. The wait has been worth.
The unbeaten 153 is KJP’s career best. People had little clue that this was coming when the ninth wicket fell with the total on 226, chasing a target of 304. Then last man Vishwa Fernando kept his nerve during a 78-run stand that came off 96 agonizing deliveries.
You don’t see many batsmen hitting Rabada for six these days. KJP did. In fact, he hit Steyn over the ropes as well. Overall, there were 12 fours and 5 sixes during his knock with the last boundary, a slash to third man off Rabada bringing the winning runs. It was sensational stuff. Francois Du Plessis, the South African skipper called it a ‘Superman’ effort.
These are troubled times for Sri Lankan cricket. There is very little trust among players after ongoing investigations into corruption in the sport and several high profile names are under probe. Sri Lanka’s form across all forms of cricket has been horrendous in recent times and the team has failed to automatically qualify for next year’s T20 World Cup in Australia.
Perera's effort came as a massive relief. The whole nation is celebrating. Since the win came on Saturday night Sri Lankans partied till late. They still have hangovers. There is self belief in the team now and more importantly he might have saved Chandika Hathurusingha’s job.
Onto Port Elizabeth now in the Eastern Cape where history awaits the Sri Lankans. No Asian team has won a series in South Africa in the history. That could change at St. George’s Park where the second Test of the two match series will be played.