Rohan Wijeyaratna, in Island, 18 February 2019, where the title reads “Sri Lanka’s finest hour!”
By the end of the third day at Kingsmead in Durban, Sri Lanka were three down for 83 and still requiring 221 to win. All indications were that they were heading towards another customary ending. The game was keenly poised, and If ever there was an occasion for someone to play Horatius at the Bridge, this was it. Early indications were that there weren’t any such gallant men in sight. Batsmen simply came and went. Among those dismissed on day three were Karunaratne, Thirimanne and Kusal Mendis; more or less the main gut of the Sri Lankan batting. At the wicket were Kusal Perera and Oshada Fernando; both threatening to depart anytime. If Sri Lanka were to clamber out of this latest hole, character, restraint, measured aggression and some luck were all needed in equal measure. Despite their well-chronicled self-destructive tendencies, this Test still offered the visitors an opportunity. The pitch was relatively benign and the South African bowlers somehow lacked the sustained menace to cause alarm. All what Sri Lanka needed was greater stomach to make a fist of things. The Lankans however, seemed unconvinced. Instead they set about doing what they were quite expert at. That was to self-destruct. Be it at cricket or any other, Sri Lanka stands unparalleled when it comes to missing out on opportunities which land on their own doorstep. And so it seemed, one more time!
This situation came about more through the batting indiscretion of the visitors than through any bowling excellence of the home team. Having dismally conceded a lead on their first innings, the Sri Lankan batsmen quickly telegraphed they had little stomach for a fight. Needing 304 to win, both openers got out when in their 20’s; an inexcusable waste. Thirimanne drove away from his body, while Karunaratne pegged to his crease without footwork, was ruled out through that ridiculous method termed the ‘Umpire’s Call’. In fact it is so ridiculous, it allows after long review, the same incident to deliver two different results polar opposite to each other, depending on the umpire’s initial mood. Then came Kusal Mendis, who, for all his god-given gifts, forgot he was in the middle of a Test match. He played an instinctive waft reminiscent of the village green, and paid the price. Sri Lanka now in a right pickle, were well on their way to another customary defeat, thanks mostly to themselves.
Praise be to the bowlers
If praise be due, it must go to the Lankan bowlers. Shorn of the best fast bowling and spinning talent through injury and retirement, and coming from a country which pays little or no heed to the promotion of its leather flingers anyway, Sri Lanka depended heavily on its raw seam attack for the second time in two Tests. To their eternal credit these gallant men didn’t disappoint. They took eight wickets in the first innings and in the second, shared equal honours with their spinning debutant Lasith Ambuldeniya, who bagged his first five wicket haul in his very first Test match. Vishwa Fernando got four more to add to his four in the first innings, while Lakmal bowled outstandingly well, ending up with figures which failed to do him justice. Taken overall, by the close on day three, the Lankan bowlers had done their job; the batsmen hadn’t.
Far more deep rooted
Sri Lankan batsmen tend to fail not through design. Their shot selection can be instinctive. Born and bred on dead, grassless pitches given to slow, low, turn, the batsmen cannot immediately adjust to the required self- discipline and technical correctness which Test cricket demands, on surfaces which are very dissimilar to home. Often we castigate the batsmen for their indiscretion but truly the system of their upbringing has to be examined and corrected first, before questioning the ability of the national coach. The cause for continued batting failures at Test level can be far more deep rooted than what meets the eye, for, however much a coach may instill good practices in his charges, old habits can die hard thanks to their upbringing on slow, cosy wickets at home, where strict adherence to technique is not a priority. Bad habits die hard at whatever level the game is played, as Kusal Mendis amply showed.
A familiar collapse
Sri Lanka began day four on a more encouraging note than the night before. The pitch was tacky and slow and had no inconsistent bounce. In many ways it was very Sri Lankan. In fact, if the visitors were to make any headway in this series, Durban appeared their best bet. As the game progressed, the overnight pair of Kusal Perera and B.O.P. Fernando showed more signs of discretion than the day before. Despite peeling away some runs from the outer half of their bats on occasion, mostly they played straight rather than horizontal bat shots. But just when everyone began to harbour the faintest of hope, tragedy struck. Fernando nibbling at a fast wide delivery, caught the outside edge and the slips did the rest. He made 37. It was now 110 for four, and soon 110 for five, as Dickwella vanished faster than he came. A familiar pattern of madness now began to descend on the Sri Lankan camp. Thankfully, sanity was somewhat restored and Sri Lanka repaired to lunch without any further loss. But with the score at 166 for five, the writing was on the wall and the result – a foregone conclusion.
Dananjaya de Silva is not a bad fellow to watch when at the crease. In fact he is a jolly sight better than watching Dickwella as a Test batsman. There is a flowing grace about him that has traces of classical batsmanship of another era. And with him around, no scoreboard would stand still. He ticks and so does the scoreboard, along with him.
The De Silva– Perera partnership progressed and blossomed to 96 with some lovely driving down the ground and some searing slashes square on the two sides. These were interspersed with some hair-raising stroke play, greatly assisted by Madame Luck. Dananjaya was now beginning to find the middle of his bat with ominous ease and just as he was shifting to another gear, tragedy stuck again. With the team 98 runs adrift of its target, De Silva perished for a well made 48, playing and missing a sweep off his stumps. Lakmal followed soon thereafter, and it was seven for 206, eight for 215 and nine down for 226 in the 70th over. The match at this point seemed all over, bar the shouting. Perera seemed lonesomely stranded on 86, with little hope of reaching the hundred he so richly deserved.
Straight from Aesop’s
What followed had to be seen to be believed. In fact had Aesop lived, he would have gladly bunged this into the latest edition of his famous fables. With Vishwa Fernando’s batting prowess well exposed within minutes of his arrival, Kusal Janith Perera now began farming most of the strike in this last ditch stand. He did this with near clinical perfection, while putting away the loose and not so loose ones for runs, turning singles into risky twos, and artfully changing over at the tail end of almost every over. Not done with that, he then unleashed the first of his five sixes; down the ground and several rows into the crowd. He next reverse swept Maharaj for four to move to 99 and shortly thereafter, tucked one away to the legside to bring up his hundred. It was a fantastic feat, given the circumstances and a fitting follow up on his first innings top score of 51. Despite the euphoria Sri Lanka were still 64 runs adrift and only prolonging the inevitable, given Fernando’s dodgy defense, which could have been breached any moment. Fernando to his credit however, managed to put bat to ball whenever the spinner was on, and to his good fortune, the South African quicks lost their radar and hence their direction. The faster they bowled the surer it seemed they would miss Fernando’s outer edge or his stumps. Although he might not have known, Fernando managed to keep the world on the edge of their seats, with each delivery he faced!
Perera in the meanwhile began showing more intelligence than what he has been credited with. Probably figuring the longer the game meandered, greater would be the chance of defeat, he decided to hasten the result one way or the other, on a hurried note. A six off Olivier pulled backward of square on to the populated grass banks and another tremendous blow for six over deep square leg off Steyn now with the new ball, brought the score to 281. With 23 more to win, the first streaks of hope began to light in all Sri Lankan hearts. The carnival of sixes continued. The fourth six was a top edge off Rabada which cleared the sight-board behind the batsman and brought the score to 290. With his next six off Steyn pulled fiercely over deep square leg, Perera rattled the scoreboard along to 298, and crossed over off the last ball to face Rabada’s next over. Would Sri Lanka prevail or would it not – that was now, the question!
Test cricket could not have delivered better!
Perera by now was seeing the ball as clearly as a football. With two haring leg byes run at the speed of light, the total was advanced to 301. With the very next Rabada delivery, Perera deftly guided it wide of slip and down to the vacant spaces at third man for four. And with that, he had managed to sew up – almost single handedly – a fairy tale ending to an unbelievable Test match! The last wicket realized 76 priceless runs to which Fernando’s contribution was six off 27 deliveries. It was as singularly important as that of Kusal Perera’s. Sri Lanka won the match, but Test cricket won more. This was theatre at its best; classical, suspenseful, dramatic and unbelievable! It was pure anti-climax! In these lean times, Test cricket could not have delivered any better.
Pummelled, pulverized and criticised to the marrow bone, Sri Lanka played beyond themselves to clinch an improbable win. The country – wracked so often with defeat and disappointment, deserved this opportunity to rejoice. Let there be no mistake, South Africa will hit hard in the next Test but at best, the series can now only be squared by them, not won. As for Kusal Janith Perera, he will play many more fine innings in the months and years to come, but never another as brilliant or as significant as this. It was his country’s finest cricketing hour!