A breath of fresh air in Sri Lankan cricket
Sri Lankan cricket had perhaps been in its worst phase in the last couple of years. A side which was invincible at home and was endowed with legends like Kumar Sangakkara and Muttiah Muralitharan had been in complete disarray. Sri Lanka lost 10 consecutive one-day internationals in the last year.
They failed to find a captain and also a coach. Ever since Angelo Mathews stepped down, they tried Dinesh Chandimal, Thisara Perera, Upul Tharanga, and Lasith Malinga. Every new series saw a new captain. Their younger players were promising but had been failing to deliver. The likes of Kusal Mendis and Kusal Perera had been invested in tremendously but their performances had been hot and cold.
Sri Lanka had not been able to fill massive voids left by simultaneous retirement of Tillakaratne Dilshan, Mahela Jayawardena, and Sangakkara. Injuries had not helped their cause either. Mathews, arguably their best batsman had been plagued by injuries in almost every series. Their pace duo of Dushmantha Chameera and Lahiru Kumara who had the potential got injured in the first Test against Australia in January.
They did not have many options. They were not producing good enough players at the domestic level. Thus, they were compelled to revert back to their older players like Lahiru Thirrimanne.
Mathews was asked to captain once again even though he had earlier stepped down from the job himself. However, he was controversially sacked after a dismal Asia Cup. This showed the instability of the management and the inability of their team to show enough grit and resistance to stand the highest level.
Dimuth Karunaratne had been a shining light in a batting order very much in disarray. In fact, their old gun Malinga made an inspired come back in the last year's Asia Cup.
After a crushing defeat like the one Sri Lanka got at the hands of Australia, a side which itself is struggling a great deal, the morale of any side would have been devastated.
However, hopes were attached with Sri Lanka once again when they regathered themselves after a forgettable tour of New Zealand and Australia and made their way to South Africa, a team which is invincible at home.
Sri Lanka had fond memories of Durban where they crushed South Africa to level the series in the 2011-12 season. However, they were quite the team back then.
In this series, Sri Lanka decided to start from a new corner, with Karunaratne being handed over the reins of captaincy. Most people had written them off even before the start of the series.
They were made to look like sitting ducks against a fatal short ball ploy from the Australians. Then, they were supposed to face the likes of Dale Steyn and Kagiso Rabada in their own backyard which seemed even more dreadful.
However, Sri Lanka had different ideas. After an impressive bowling performance in both the innings with the ball, the real test would have been to chase down 304 in the final innings of a deteriorating pitch in Durban. It seemed improbable given, they had a fragile and inexperienced batting lineup.
Kusal Perera though shut the mouth of all the disbelievers. He reminded one and all of Brian Lara's classic at Bridgetown versus Australia in 1999, where he took West Indies over the line with just one wicket to spare.
Perera has been frequently compared to Sanath Jayasuriya. His batting style may match his but his performances had been far from what Jayasuriya used to deliver. However, in this Test, he gave the complete picture of this talent.
Sri Lanka never looked like they would chase the score down as they kept losing wickets at regular intervals. Their smiles had gone when the team was reduced to 7/206. However, at 9/240, when Keshav Maharaj was bowling, things took a different shape.
That's when Perera decided that enough was enough. It was a counter-attack of the highest quality.
His shot selection was really measured and his hitting was really calculated. At no point did he look as if he was uncomfortable or did not have a plan. South Africa did not have a good day out either. Vernon Philander was injured, close LBW shouts did not go their way and edges dropped short.
Perhaps, destiny had something good for Sri Lanka as they pulled off a magical one-wicket win which seemed unlikely. Hats off to Perera for having the belief and playing what will go down as one of the best Test innings of all time.
It might be too early to say but who knows, this historic win might bring a breath of fresh air in the Sri Lankan cricket.