KJP... initials etched in gold in Sri Lankan cricket history!

A Sri Lankan star is born in South Africa!

Kusal Perera began as a right-hander, but then, inspired by Sanath Jayasuriya, became a southpaw.   -  AFP

Sri Lanka arrived in South Africa recently weeks ago in total shambles. Back to back tours of New Zealand, Australia and South Africa meant that they were going to stay away from home for four months. There was no momentum behind them. They had failed to win a game in New Zealand across all three formats and in Australia the defeats in two Tests were by big margins. At the end of the Australian leg captain Dinesh Chandimal was axed and the Test captaincy was handed to Dimuth Karunaratne.

There aren’t many stars in Sri Lankan cricket these days. Angelo Mathews is the only one and even he was out of the tours of Australia and South Africa with injury. Their three leading fast bowlers were injured too. Going into the opening Test in Durban against world’s No. 1 ranked fast bowler in Kagiso Rabada and the best fast bowler of this generation in Dale Steyn, none gave them a chance to win a game leave alone the series. But this was an incredible two weeks for Sri Lankan cricket. The game of uncertainties has seen one of the greatest upsets in the history of the sport.

The man known as KJP played perhaps the greatest innings ever played by a Sri Lankan. Kusal Janith Perera set up a teasing one-wicket win in the first Test in Durban and if people thought that this was a flash in the pan, the tourists sealed South Africa’s fate with a comprehensive eight-wicket win in Port Elizabeth. The recent happenings are barely believable as Sri Lanka became only the third country after Australia and England to win a series in South Africa.

They owed it to KJP for setting up the first Test. He scored a half-century in the first innings and his unbeaten 153 in the second essay saw him adding 78 runs for the last wicket with Vishwa Fernando to pull off a stunning win. Following the match-fixing investigations back home and the team’s horrendous run, the fans and the sponsors had abandoned the team. KJP brought them right back.

KJP attended the unfashionable Dharmapala Vidyalaya in Pannipitiya in the outskirts of Colombo before earning a scholarship to the posh Royal College when he was playing under-17. Until under-15, he batted right-handed and then converted himself to a left-handed batsman.

Former great Sanath Jayasuriya is under a cloud these days, being assailed by scandal after scandal. But in his heyday, he inspired his countrymen. KJP was one such young kid.

“I was just fascinated by the way he put the best bowlers to the sword. I started following him and wanted to bat left-handed. I am very strong square of the wicket with the cut and pull being my strengths — same like Sanath aiyya.

When I play the reverse sweep, I feel good as I have lot of power behind the shot,” KJP told Sportstar.

No. 11 Vishwa Fernando and Kusal Perera are ecstatic after an incredible victory in Durban. The pair put on 78 runs for the last wicket!   -  AFP

 

In the Canberra Test, KJP was hit on the grill of his helmet forcing him to retire. He was under observation and didn’t bat again in the first innings. In the second innings, with the mental scars he was a sitting duck as Mitchell Starc dismissed him for a golden duck. He then practised to face the short ball.

“You have to be ready to get hit on the body when you come to Australia and South Africa. There was very little time for me to sort things out after I got hit in Canberra. We were given the option either to duck or play a shot when the bowlers bounce at you. We knew after the Australian series, the South Africans would give us the same treatment. I decided not to duck. I was going to play my shots,” KJP explained.

“In Sri Lanka you hardly get anything above 140 kmph. But here on an average every ball clocks at 140 and nothing below that. I needed to get my timing right so I worked on my hand speed. I have a schedule which I follow during training. My strength is my hands while my footwork is not that great. So I trained on my hand speed and it was helpful.” Set 304 runs to win the Durban game, at one point Sri Lanka needed less than 100 runs with five wickets in hand. Then they lost four wickets for 20 runs slumping to 226 for nine after being 206 for five. With nine down and 78 needed, people thought there was going to be only one winner. But the great game never stops to amaze you as the unthinkable happened.

“Dhananjaya de Silva and I added 94 runs for the sixth wicket. When Dhananjaya was out, we needed less than 100 runs and I still fancied our chances. Then we lost wickets suddenly.

“I had scored 51 in the first innings and was running out of partners. I was dismissed trying to score some boundaries. So I asked the head coach how to go about things. It was he who told me that there’s no point in protecting the tail-ender. We were not getting the singles and they were protecting the boundary as well. Take the singles when you can, was the advice. During the last wicket stand in the second innings, we wanted to play one over at a time. Then they took the new ball and played into our hands. I could use the short boundaries on one side to our advantage,” KJP went on to explain the dramatic last wicket stand.

“It’s the best innings I have played and I don’t know whether I will do something like that again. People don’t appreciate Vishwa’s role. The 27 balls he faced were worth in gold. He said I am not going to get out and you don’t get out either. Once they took the new ball we changed the strategy. We stole a single to the slips. I didn’t want Vishwa to face four balls of Dale Steyn.

“But till the last ball you never know. You are down to the last pair and all that it takes is one ball to get you out. Once I scored the winning runs only was I relieved of the pressure. I will never forget that day.”