Never say die: the day Sri Lanka went superhuman
SA should have won, but Perera and Fernando simply refused to acknowledge their apparently impending defeat
This is a fraud.
It comes to you from a room with a view that’s a long way from the setting for the subject of this piece.
The room is in Bethnal Green in London’s East End.
The view is of a park, Weavers Fields. As we speak, on a sunny, pseudo spring Sunday morning, weekend warriors are out there doing their football thing.
One game is shot through with the shrill urgency of 12-year-olds fuelled by might yet be. The other is a huff and a puff of men on the precipice of middle age wondering what might have been.
There. I’ve put some credibility in it. The rest is a sham, a construct of what happened in the other hemisphere on Saturday.
The prospect of the need for this fakery arising seemed minuscule when Oshada Fernando and Kusal Perera, and the trailing South Africans, exited the gloom that gathered at Kingsmead on Friday afternoon. Three overs had been bowled after the day’s last drinks break when bad light sooted the scene. Rain followed.
No matter. Sri Lanka were 83/3 looking for 304 to win. Too many. There would be no repeat of the miracle of 2011, when Rangana Herath took 9/128 and bowled them to a famous victory.
That remained the narrative for much of Saturday. SA were without the hamstrung Vernon Philander, but an attack of Dale Steyn, Kagiso Rabada, Duanne Olivier and Keshav Maharaj had more than enough between them of what it would take to get the job done. Much more than enough. Of course they did.
Nothing about that had changed when the visitors reached lunch five down and requiring 138. Sure, Perera seemed determined. But let’s not be silly. An hour after the resumption the last pair, Perera and Vishwa Fernando, were at the crease and they needed 78. Perera? Still there. But you knew it was game over. SA would go to St George’s Park 1-0 up. Nothing more to see here. Moving on …
“Sri Lanka won!”
“Sri Lanka won? What?”
“Yes! Sri Lanka won!”
Of all the shocking things you might be told as you emerge from the shower, that’s up there with: “They voted for Brexit!” Or “Trump won!” Happily, “Sri Lanka won!” is significantly less consequential, in bad ways, than either of the above. The worst of it is that the fraud you are reading, if you’ve put up with it so far, that has been perpetrated by someone who is a 12,710,3km walk away from what he’s writing about.
That’s how big this story is; big enough to bale out of another piece planned – indeed half-written – for this space, a small consideration, all things considered. The records set in the process of Sri Lanka’s triumph – most prominently a world-record last-wicket stand to win a Test – have been chronicled far and wide. But there’s more to all this than just that.
Fernando hadn’t survived for more than 25 minutes in any of his other seven Test innings, four of which ended in ducks. On Saturday he batted for 73 minutes – two fewer than he managed to spend at the crease in his other efforts combined – and scored six.
That’s right: six out of a match-winning, world-record partnership of 78. Six of the most precious runs in the history of the game they unarguably are. Only 13 times in the 2,347 Tests yet played has a match been won by a solitary wicket. That puts Fernando in the top 0.55 percentile of all the 2,964 men who have batted at this level. His average, 1.25 when he took guard, has exploded to 1.75, a champagne super nova in its own way.
“I didn’t even look at the scoreboard when Vishwa came in and we had a lot of runs to get,” Perera said in faraway Durban. “Without any fear I took the single and gave the strike to him.
“He did a huge job. I don’t know how many balls he faced. Those are valuable, valuable balls. What he faced was worth more than my runs.”
Fernando faced 27 balls, a number almost six times fewer than Perera’s 153 runs, not bloody out, and the last 75 of them scored in the company of a comrade who he knew was up for the fight even if he was a No 11’s No 11.
“I’ll hit the ball with my body, if nothing else,” Perera said Fernando had told him. “You do what you can.”
What Perera could do was keep doing what he had been doing since Friday: taking the fight to SA in the face of an increasingly fearsome onslaught.
He took it with his podgy pugnaciousness unbeaten and unbeatable, his shirt flying flags of sweat and dust, his body beneath pinned with medals marking his courage.
“I think I’ve copped six or seven blows to the head,” he said. “On these tracks if you’re not willing to wear balls on the body you might as well not be batting. I don’t know how many times I got hit; honestly I’ve lost count. But you can’t think about those things while you are batting.
“In Sri Lanka the fastest [bowling] you get is 130, 140km/h. Here you get balls that are 150km/h. When you come to a country like this, if someone tells you you can bat without getting hit, that’s a lie. That happened to me. That’s what cricket is about.”
Faf du Plessis couldn’t disagree: “This is what Test cricket should be. You’re bowling to one player the whole time and some days you just have to say ‘well played’.
“It wasn’t through our mistakes. It’s not like we dropped catches when the game was on the line. It was purely a superhuman effort with the bat and when that happens that’s got nothing to do with us and pressure. It’s got to do with how someone else plays.”
That was an attempt to keep a profane skeleton from rattling right out of its cupboard: that SA had, not for the first time, choked. And with a World Cup looming.
Even from 12,710,3km away, and without having seen a single ball bowled or shot played, it’s as clear as the sky on a sunny, pseudo spring Sunday morning that SA coulda, shoulda, woulda won this match, and they will bear a good chunk of the blame for that not happening, particularly as levelled by South Africans. Had their team found a way to lose a game that was theirs for the winning? Hell yes.
But that cannot take away from the wonder that was Perera and Fernando refusing to acknowledge their apparently impending defeat.
Not 100m from where this is being written, a gaggle of shrill, urgent 12-year-olds know what a bunch of huffing, puffing not quite middle-aged men also know: that what is or what has been couldn’t matter less while the game’s alive and kicking.
All that matters, as Perera and Fernando know as well as anyone, is what might yet be.