Sri Lanka cricket March 24, 2013

Kusal Perera's historic feat

Nirgunan Tiruchelvam
Kusal Janith Perera triple-century in the Premier League Tournament is the highest score in the Sri Lankan domestic competition

A hurricane hit Sri Lankan cricket last week, but it was barely mentioned. Kusal Janith Perera, a 22-year old left-hand batsman and wicket-keeper blasted 336 off 275 balls for Colts CC against Saracens at Havelock Park, Colombo. The innings featured savage hitting with 14 sixes and 29 fours.

The innings is the highest score in the Sri Lankan domestic competition. It is also the only triple-century in the 75-year history of the Sri Lankan domestic competition. Domestic cricket in Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon) was not recorded as first-class until the 1988-89 season, but there were no triple centuries in club cricket before that. The only other triple centuries in Sri Lankan first-class cricket were at Test level - Sanath Jayasuriya's 340 against India in 1997 and Mahela Jayawardena's 375 against South Africa in 2006.

Perera joins an elite band who have scored a country's highest domestic score. The list includes Don Bradman, Brian Lara, Hanif Mohammed and Bert Sutcliffe.

Perera made his international debut against Australia in the ODI series this year. His excellent timing and quick footwork impressed instantly. Comparisons were drawn with another left-hander with a similar build and approach - Jayasuriya. Like Jayasuriya, Perera is particularly strong square of the wicket. However, Perera plays straighter and with a more upright elbow. This suggests that he may not have Jayasuriya's volatility.

He does share Jayasuriya's hunger for tall scores. At 19, Jayasuriya announced his talent on the Sri Lanka B tour of Pakistan in 1989 by scoring two successive double-centuries. Perera's last three first-class innings are 93, 207, and 336. Clearly, Perera has the water-tight defence to add to his awesome hitting ability.

Domestic cricket in Sri Lanka has traditionally been low-scoring. The conditions favour bowlers and the matches are typically three-day affairs. Team scores in excess of 300 are rare, let alone individual scores. Most Sri Lankan Test players have better Test averages than first-class averages. Kumar Sangakkara averages 57 in Test cricket but only 49 in first-class cricket.

Perera's achievement can be put in perspective by the fact that the likes of Aravinda de Silva, Sanath Jayasuriya, and Duleep Mendis never came close to a triple-century in club cricket. The legends in the pre-Test era such as Anura Tennekoon, Ievers Gunasekera, David Heyn, and Michael Tissera fell far short of a triple-century. Mahadevan Sathasivam, the island's finest pre-Test batsman, scored two double-centuries, but not in club cricket.

Some would dismiss Saracen CC as a side unworthy of first-class status. They are languishing at the bottom of the table. They have no one with a hope of a place in the national side. Sri Lanka's bloated first-class structure now features as many as 20 first-class sides.

But, the same could be said of the first-class records in other countries. Bhausaheb Nimbalkar's 443 not out against Kathiawar was ignored by the selectors as a triviality. Nimbalkar remains the only first-class quadruple-centurion never to have played Test cricket. Kathiawar, the native region of Mahatma Gandhi and MA Jinnah, was a collection of princely states that were integrated with the Republic of India soon after that innings. The hapless Kathiawar team did not appear in the Ranji trophy after 1950.

Bill Ponsford held the Australian first-class record before Bradman broke it in 1930. He scored 429 in eight hours for Victoria against Tasmania in 1923, surpassing Archie MacLaren's record of 424.

McLaren, an Englishman who played in 1880s, refused to accept Ponsford as the record-holder, arguing that Tasmania was short of first-class standard. Eventually, Wisden recognised Ponsford as the record holder.

Ponsford, however, bettered his record nearly five years later, scoring 437 for Victoria against Queensland.

Hanif broke Bradman's record in 1959 with a marathon 499 that spanned three days. Bahawalpur was a ragged team that would struggle against minor counties. But, Bradman was gracious unlike MacLaren. He promptly cabled Hanif with hearty congratulations, expressing disappointment that Mohammed did not cross 500. Even the matchless Bradman would be challenged by Perera's achievements last week: Bradman hit about 45 sixes in his 22-year first class career, and Perera has hit almost a third of that number in last week's record innings. He has hit the highest number of sixes in a first-class triple-century.

Tales of Perera's exceptional batting talent have been circulating for a while. He excelled as a school cricketer for Royal College and as an Under-19 international. After prolific batting for Colts CC, the selectors could no longer exclude him. A string of injuries created vacancies in the Australian tour.

He is an agile wicketkeeper as well, who can field spectacularly in the circle when denied the gloves. He is also the first wicketkeeper in the select table.

Records at domestic level do not ensure Test success. He may fade into obscurity. South Africa's record-holder Stephen Cook is yet to play at the highest level. Nimbalkar's feat has been reduced to a footnote.

However, Perera's batting and alacrity behind the stumps make him a compelling prospect. We live in a crass era where Twenty20 cricket is eclipsing the older form. Perera's feat reminds us of the timeless value of the longer version. Bradman, Sutcliffe, and Headley mastered accumulation, as well as aggression. These virtues can only be witnessed in first-class cricket, a form that is rapidly facing extinction.

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