Kusal Perera was the hero for Sri Lanka in their win in the first test against the Proteas. Photo: Gerhard Duraan/BackpagePix
Shirt filthy from a desperate dive, face beaming from a devastating display, Kusal Perera raised his arms aloft at Kingsmead, and soaked in the disbelief. He and his mates were in ecstasy, having just pulled off an almighty heist.

As the rest of the touring party charged onto the field, the ball beyond the fence to complete a famous, one-wicket victory, Perera removed his helmet and looked to the heavens. What planet that knock had come from, even he did not know.

“I knew we couldn’t win this match by just scoring singles. I was the last, proper batsman left and when the time felt right to me, I took my chances,” the exhausted slugger said after his heroics.

Dale Steyn had praised him for taking several blows on the body and head in the first innings, and there was more of the same from him in the second dig. This was not a slog-a-thon. It was no blind flaying and all his Lotto numbers coming in at once.

Perera faced 200 balls to score 153 not out, and he clubbed five sixes and 13 fours. But he also took plenty on the body, from an attack that was gunning for his top half.

“In these couple of matches (including the tour of Australia), I think I have copped six or seven blows to the head. On these tracks, if you are not willing to wear balls on the body, you might as well not be batting,” Perera said of the price he paid.

Amidst the glory, he displayed plenty of guts. Truly, he has taken Sri Lanka to within five days of becoming the first sub-continent team to win in South Africa. Not India, with their batting prowess and rising attack. Not Pakistan, with their left-armers and their brazen top-order.

No, no. Little Sri Lanka, an island that sits quietly aside India, and is rebuilding itself and its Test prowess. If they are under construction, then they have put up a sudden skyscraper in their development plans.

To outlast a South African attack comprising Dale Steyn, Kagiso Rabada, Duanne Olivier and a threatening Keshav Maharaj was special. It will always be special. Time will not dull the sensation that Perera felt as he carted Steyn into the East Stand, and punched the glove of his charged up number eleven.

“He did a huge job,” Perera said in praise of Vishwa Fernando.

The left-armer, with eight wickets in the match, might look back more fondly on his six runs - and his 27 balls survived. He stood between South African joy and despair, and his determination delivered the home dressing-room the latter platter.

“He told me ‘I will hit the ball with my body, if nothing else. You do what you can’. I took a lot of strength from that,” Perera revealed of the intimate chats in the middle, as the plan to plunder the Proteas was hatched.

“He did a huge job. If he had got out, there wouldn’t have been a point. I don’t know how many balls he faced. Those are valuable, valuable balls. What he faced was worth more than my runs,” he reckoned.

The world will disagree, because what Perera did was quite spectacular. His hitting was clean, uncluttered -even as South Africa closed in. You sensed the wind change, though, when a scrambled single became a five, and Steyn swiped a cursory glance at his skipper.

“It’s very disappointing sitting here, but I have to applaud him for his magnificent batting,” Proteas skipper Faf du Plessis puffed.

“In those last 45 minutes, I thought we tried everything, and he was just too good for us.”

The time will come to revisit South Africa’s strategy at the end of an enthralling first Test, and the time will also come when one ponders on the wisdom of a new ball, and boundary riders, and everything else that the Proteas might have been better at.

More runs, a tail wag in the second innings. Whatever it was, it took second place yesterday afternoon.

South Africa had started the day needing seven good balls to finish the job. They produced plenty, but only six got wickets. Keshav Maharaj almost got a hat-trick. And the end almost came from the swing of Steyn.

But almost doesn’t count.

Sri Lanka, having started the week with a coach being told he wasn’t a selector, a captain left at home, and a side full of greenhorns, were after a bit of a Cinderella story. In Perera, who saw the ball as big as a pumpkin, the Lions found that fairy-tale. They roared their victory song with rabid relish, as the sun set over the city of Durban, a place which holds an even more special place in their hearts now.

They go to Port Elizabeth now, knowing that it is impossible to lose the series, but that there is the delicious possibility that they might just do the unthinkable and win it all.


Sunday Tribune 

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