Kusal Perera – Is Sanath’s Heir Ready For Test Cricket?

In a period where Sri Lankan cricket is trying to find the next generation of stars to take, many of the players brought in have struggled to make a name for themselves. However, it doesn’t half help when the playing style of one of those new players just happens to resemble the playing style of a legend from the not too distant past. It also helps said player when the aforementioned legend also happens to be the chairman of selectors. Such was the excitement surrounding Kusal Janith Perera following a promising limited overs tour to Australia at the start of 2013, that the Rajasthan Royals picked him up in the last IPL auction. When Sanath Jayasuriya rose to prominence opening the batting at the 1996 World Cup with ROmesh Kaluwitharana, his brutal, bottom-handing attacking style injected a fresh idea to the thinking at the time of how to go about playing one-day cricket. The tactic of going hard in the first few overs has been copied and replicated ever since and been enhanced since the advent of Twenty20 cricket.

From time to time, a commentator will remark upon a shot by a batsman and say that it reminds one of a past exponent of the stroke. I remember watching Tatender Taibu playing his firstTest match in England and one of the Channel 4 (R.I.P free-to-air cricket) describing him as a ‘Little Sachin,’ due to his exquisitely timed and executed cover drives. I have on occasion, heard Stuart Broad’s shot selection being somewhat akin to that of Sir Gary Sobers. However, I have yet to see a batsman so alike in batting style and hitting range, to a senior player than Kusal Perera is to Sanath Jayasuriya. Physically, height is the only thing the two men have in common. Sanath didn’t really have an athletic physique but he kept himself fit and was built like a prize bull. You saw him swing that railway sleeper of a bat he carried and you knew exactly where the heft was coming from. With Kusal Perera, where he gets his hitting power is beyond me. It isn’t even like he has quick bat speed. His bat swings in that same, steady deadly arc that Sanath’s bat did, that Matthew Hayden’s bat did, the way Yuvraj Singh and all the other big power hitters seem to swing their blade.

Kusal Perera’s rise to stardom in 2013 has been as sharp as it has been exhilarating. © AFP

Perhaps it is testimony to Sanath’s incredible fitness levels that he played Test cricket for so long and was so successful at it. Perhaps it was him being part of a generation (perhaps the last?) to put Test cricket above ODI and latterly T20. Either way, playing over 100 Tests, scoring just under 7000 runs and averaging 40 are stats belonging to a Test great. Furthermore it is indicative of a player who was able to change his approach to a game to fit the format he was playing in whilst retaining his own style. This is the question that lingers over Kusal Perera, when he inevitably makes his Test debut be that on Wednesday against Pakistan or at some other time. He has been called up to replace the injured Lahiru Thirimanne but nobody Sri Lanka Cricket expects or wishes he take over the characteristics of his batting. Thirimanne in my eyes, is ideally suited to being a Test opener. He has the patience and technique against pace bowling be a solid choice at the top of the order. Kusal Perera can be devastating against pace bowling. It against those bowlers in which is most closely resembles Sanath. Against the spinners he uses his feet more than the chairman of selectors did but against length deliveries from a seamer, he can take his pick as to where he deposits it. Be is carved through point, slammed through the covers or Jayasuriya’s trademark flick off the pads over midwicket or square-leg.

Arguably Sanath had more bottom hand, but KJP's batting strikes a remarkable resemblance

Arguably Sanath had more bottom hand, but KJP’s batting still strikes a remarkable resemblance

Perera has shown an ability to transfer his ability to the first-class circuit with some ferocious innings in 2013 for Colts. True these came on slow pitches against medium-fast bowling but between July 2012 and October 2013 he 1176 runs in 16 innings at an average of 73.50 including 4 centuries; the zenith of which was 275-ball 336 against Saracents Sports Club in March – batting at 4. His scoring ability is not in question; his temperament and application will be. How will be react when if he gets bogged down; when he starts crunching cover drives to fielders? Will he be content to wait for the bad ball, or try to break the shackles by trying to hit over the top. More over when Sri Lanka are fighting to secure a draw, will he get a rush of blood to the head, calling into debate the whole notion of ‘playing one’s natural game in any situation.’ His form in English conditions raise doubts about his ability against the moving ball. These are all questions that have kept Perera from the Test side until now, as the selectors were unsure whether to take a punt on him over more ‘traditional’ players such as Dimuth Karunaratne, even when KJP’s stock was rising.

Should Kusal Perera be chosen to open in Tests, he will be carrying on legacies left by Sanath Jayasuriya and Tillakaratne Dilshan.

Should Kusal Perera be chosen to open in Tests, he will be carrying on legacies left by Sanath and Tillakaratne Dilshan.

If Perera does make his debut in the next match, the question arises as to who he will replace in the side. Kaushal Silva is Thirimanne’s replacement in the starting XI but his 81 in the second innings should secure his place for the remainder of this series. The only other candidate for replacement is Dimuth Karunaratne whom the selectors to their credit have been giving him a prolonged run in the side (ignoring the lack of Test cricket) despite him showing his talent only infrequently and an inability to push on after making starts. This would mean that Perera would open the batting from the start of his Test career; something which Sanath Jayasuriya took a few years to do and a role which Tillakaratne Dilshan only came into in the latter half of his career.

Jayasuriya and Dilshan are prime examples of attacking batsmen making good Test openers. Kusal Perera can draw from their experiences should he be selected to open the batting. Personally I would love to see an opening partnership of Perera and Thirimanne; in theory it is an excellent combination. However, I also feel that 2014 will be the defining year of Dimuth Karunaratne’s Sri Lanka career. If he doesn’t take his chances this year then that will be his opportunity gone, and it may be a case of Perera coming in down the order or even staying out of the side altogether, waiting to take his chance. His rise in the national team has been a joy to behold. Even when he hit a lean patch in the middle of 2013, he was the player who came in with an air of expectation and anticipation. These would have been tough for someone who is only 23 years old, but sooner or later he will get the chance to prove himself as Jayasuriya’s heir in the ultimate format of the game.

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