“A moment which comes, but comes rarely in history………..”
These immortal words delivered by Shri Jawaharlal Nehru, in his capacity as the First Prime Minister of an Independent India, at the stroke of midnight of 15th August 1947; aptly describe what has just transpired, a few hours back, at the Kingsmead, Durban which has recently developed into a kind of Achilles heel for the mighty South Africans (they have now lost six of their last eight Tests at the ground). Sri Lanka, who have experienced everything but good in a year or so, hunted down the improbable looking target of 304-runs in the fourth innings of the Test to bring up a sensational win in the Proteas’ own backyard.
Like the Indian freedom struggle, there were many heroes whose concerted and coherent efforts led to the island nation’s historic achievement. Vishwa Fernando, first with the ball in both innings and then with the bat in the second one, and Kasun Rajitha set the tone by bowling South Africa out for just 235 runs. A wasted batting effort resurrected by Kusal Perera, Dhananjaya de Silva and Lasith Embuldeniya ensured that the South African lead remained below fifty. Fernando and Embuldeniya again led the show as the ‘chokers’ lived up to their reputation by collapsing from a comfortable position of 251 for the loss of 5 wickets, with total lead in excess of 290, to 259 all out. But like ‘The Prestige’ of a magical act, the best was reserved for the last and the magician, this time, was Kusal Janith Perera.
Perera, from his young club days, had always drawn a comparison to the legendary Sanath Jayasuriya, who was the flagbearer of aggressive powerplay batting in the limited overs cricket. His batting is the perfect amalgamation of fearlessness, audacity and turbo-aggressive approach. His debut in the Test arena, against India, came on the back of a successful ODI season in 2014-15 and became the second ever batsman in the Sri Lankan Cricket history to compile twin fifties on debut in July 2015.
The sweet taste of success, however, couldn’t stay long as he found himself entangled in a serious dope scandal which kept him out of the cricketing action for nearly seven months. It took a Polygraphic test and acute backing of the board to prove his innocence successfully. His return has, since, been erratic and inconsistent but his talent and destructive abilities with the bat, have always ensured that he has remained in consideration for all the formats. And it was the same perseverance of the team management which paid off finally in Durban.
His was the only inning of substance in an otherwise meek display of batting in the first Sri Lankan essay. In the second innings too, Sri Lanka were heading towards a disaster again after a decent start of 42 runs as they lost three quick wickets for just 10 runs- enter Kusal Perera; with Sri Lanka still, 252 runs adrift of the target. The bid, at that time, was just not to lose the fighting spirit and make a match out of their fourth inning effort. No one could have anticipated, at that time, what was about to unfold.
Soon after, Oshada Fernando and Niroshan Dickwella departed in quick succession, leaving their team reeling at 110 for the loss of 5 wickets. At that stage, Dhananjaya de Silva joined hands with Perera and both of them kept the fiery South African bowlers at bay for almost 26 overs while, in the process, adding 96 priceless runs. Just when things were looking rosy for the Lankans, de Silva was trapped in front by Maharaj when he missed a full ball on his attempted sweep. Maharaj drew second blood on the very next ball when he had Suranga Lakmal caught in the slips by Faf du Plessis to leave Sri Lanka in the gutters of despair at 206 runs for the loss of 7 wickets – 98 ‘big’ runs away from the target. Even the most ardent of the Lankan fans would have lost hope of a miracle but one man didn’t.
They say that the adversities bring out the best of a man’s virtues and something similar was showcased by a determined Perera. He had to bat with the inexperienced tail whose shambolic surrender in the first inning was not a thing of the distant past. This was, probably, the sternest Test of Perera’s abilities in pressure situations and boy! he did deliver. The test got further difficult by the departure of Embuldeniya, who succumbed to the short-ball ploy deployed consistently by Duanne Olivier leaving Sri Lanka and Perera at the score of 215.
Rajitha showed some resolve to stay at the crease but Maharaj got better of him too, leaving Perera (at an individual score of 86) in the company of a fidgety and grossly inexperienced Vishwa Fernando. It was when, the Perera which is compared to the legendary Jayasuriya, came to the fore as he showcased a brilliant mix of aggression coupled with match-awareness. All of Perera’s five sixes came in the last man stand of 78* runs. Despite the heroics of Perera, there must be an honorable mention of Fernando’s brave vigil at the crease.
Fernando stood his ground, amidst all the efforts from the pace-battery to knock him down, for a total of 27 deliveries (and scoring 6 runs in the process) which were mammoth in the context of the game. If anyone deserved the man of the match award, other than Perera, it was him who was exceptional in both the innings. Nevertheless, credit is due for Perera’s superhuman effort and it should be given to him.
Perera stood between the defeat and Sri Lanka; like a gladiator trying to win the match on the strength of his blade. And successful he was, in bringing his team to a historic win and giving his nation a dreamy remembrance for an eternity. He finished unbeaten on 153 – which is the tenth highest individual score ever to win a Test match in the fourth innings – and stitched together an unbeaten partnership of 78 runs for the last wicket – highest ever for the tenth wicket to win a Test match.
It is still hard to believe what Perera did in the Kingsmead and will probably take some time for the nitty-gritty of his grand achievement to sink in but one thing is for sure that this inning will definitely inspire a new generation of Sri Lankan youngsters to take up the bat for the cause of Test cricket because it is the arena where true heroes are born and most recently Sri Lanka have found one and the manner in which he has been unearthed can be summed up again in the words of Shri Jawaharlal Nehru from the very same speech-
“………..when the soul of a nation long suppressed, finds utterance!”