“I’m a little tired now. I don’t know what to say.”
For 309 minutes, Kusal Perera knew exactly what to do. But when it was all over, he just couldn’t find the words. Sri Lanka were rank underdogs in this fight. They were pummeled 2-0 in Australia, never even getting close to putting up a total of 250. Their captain was sacked. Their team stripped for parts. Rookies few had heard off were smuggled onto the plane to South Africa and now, after four days of outrageous cricket in Durban, they emerged the victors, chasing down 304, with one wicket to spare.
And it was all down to the man who didn’t know what to say.
“Specially great effort as a team,” Kusal finally managed at the presentation. “Specially lower-order batsmen, they gave me good support. And because of that I believed in myself.
“I did something. I did my part but we won as a team. We did our homework in recent past. So this is really special win for us.”
Kusal was breathtaking with bat in hand. He barely flapped an eyelid when Sri Lanka lost their ninth man with the target still 78 runs away. He defended with unreal calm. ran like there were ants in his pants, took body blows – 150 kph deliveries kept thudding into his flesh – and brushed them off like they were mosquito bites.
At the other end, the most No. 11 of all No. 11s, Vishwa Fernando kept hanging on. He made only six runs – five of those from overthrows. There were five extras in that time as well. But the rest of the 67 that Sri Lanka needed to record only their second win in South Africa came off Kusal’s magic bat. And it spared no one.
Dale Steyn was muscled for sixes over midwicket. Multiple times. One of the world’s greatest fast bowlers was reduced to shaking his head and scratching his chin. Faf du Plessis took the new ball hoping that would help them take the wicket but Kusal farmed the strike so beautifully that the tailender Fernando faced only seven deliveries in this period.
Eventually, in the 86th over, Kusal glided a short and wide delivery to the third man boundary and almost as soon as he made contact he let out a cathartic scream, holding his hands aloft and savouring that “special” feeling.
“That was really awesome,” newly appointed captain Dimuth Karunaratne. We knew coming into this game that we had a chance. Earlier in 2012, we won a match here in Durban. We had a tough series in Australia but we learnt lots of things so I thought the boys will give their best in South Africa
“We lost lots of matches last few years. I think it will be a good game for us, even the Sri Lankan fans, who all are looking to see when we were going to win. So I think it’s a proud moment for us as a team, as a captain and as a country as well. Winning in South Africa is a real proud moment.”
It showed in the Sri Lankan dressing room, which flew into chaos upon seeing the winning shot. Coach Chandika Hathurusingha was leaping about, punching the air. The other players around him were on top of their seats, roaring in delight. Each of them went over to get a piece of their match-winner, so much that Kusal didn’t even have time to collect a stump as a souvenir. Someone else had to do it for him.
In December 2015, Kusal went through the ordeal of a false positive drug test. He faced a four year ban from cricket but Sri Lanka Cricket helped him fight the charge and eventually win the case in court. In December 2016, he toured South Africa for the first time but with the team in flux he was made to bat out of position at No. 3 and discarded after one Test. Kusal finally came back to the Sri Lankan Test side in June 2018 and now stands the hero of all of Sri Lanka. There might perhaps be only one other man who knows how he feels right now. Brian Lara, who too made an epic 153 to win a see-sawing Test match against superior opposition in the company of a No. 11 batsman.
No wonder that even the opposition captain couldn’t hold back his praise. “Perera was obviously unbelievable,” du Plessis said. “To get 160-170 out of that score will take a Superman effort. So he deserves all the accolades that come to him after this game.
“I thought 300 was enough on this wicket. I’d be lying if there wasn’t emotions going through me on the inside. Difficult for a captain to tactically… you want to try and protect the lead and then you want to bowl at the tailender and he played that beautifully. Whatever we tried, we brought the field up, he still managed to get a one away or a boundary away. Just kept knocking away every over. Towards the end, we got a few balls at the tailender but unfortunately there were a few plays an misses. Would’ve been nice if there’d been a nick.”