Bassendean's Sri Lankan star who wasn't
There's an endearing image of former Sri Lanka allrounder Suresh Perera on the internet. A crop of jet-black hair and a broad smile showcasing a set of pearly white teeth - the Perera pictured was a baby-faced prodigy set to showcase his talents on the Test stage in the late 1990s. Now the 36-year-old is the captain of Bassendean Cricket Club, a humble suburban team in Perth. He has no hair, although it's unclear if the sparse scalp is due to preference or attrition. Salt-and-pepper stubble dots his face. A stud shines from his left ear. He's about 180cm, with a lean but muscular physique.
Perera was once considered the most exciting prospect in Sri Lankan cricket. After Sri Lanka were thrust into cricket prominence following their breathtaking 1996 World Cup victory, it was hoped a new wave of talent would follow in the footsteps of Arjuna Ranatunga and Aravinda de Silva.
Enter Perera. In the late 1990s he was deemed the prototype player for the coming millennium - a destructive allrounder possessing skills that would potentially enable him to dominate the 50-over and Test formats. Packaged as a flamboyant batsman capable of flattening an attack, with an ability to open the bowling as a bonus, he was a prospect to salivate over: the type of player who perfectly encapsulated Sri Lanka's exciting brand of cricket.
One of Perera's biggest admirers was Dav Whatmore, the Sri Lanka coach then, who believed the precocious teenager was destined to be a mainstay for the side.
In 1998, Perera showcased his blossoming skills during a Test initiation in England. Another member of that team was Mahela Jayawardene, playing in just his sixth Test.
Perera's dazzling debut appeared to confirm the hype. The 20-year-old took the prized wicket of England's captain Alec Stewart, who was in his pomp at the time.
Batting at 9, Perera's innate attacking instincts were evident as he eviscerated an England attack containing Darren Gough, Angus Fraser and Dominic Cork for a belligerent 43 (six boundaries and a six). Sri Lanka won the one-off Test by ten wickets, and it remains arguably their most indelible memory in the format. On the heels of their World Cup win, and boasting a bevy of match-winning players, Sri Lanka seemed on the verge of turning into a cricket powerhouse.
To emerge as an elite force, Sri Lanka knew they needed fast-bowling firepower. They couldn't just rely on Muttiah Muralitharan's genius, particularly on wickets away from the subcontinent. They had one cunning left-arm seamer, Chaminda Vaas. Finding a bowler to complement him had proved difficult, but Sri Lankan officials believed Perera was the answer. They believed he could be honed into an effective new-ball bowler, and that he, in combination with Vaas and Murali, could form an all-round attack capable of consistently delivering Test victories in all conditions.
The problem was, Perera never wanted to be a new-ball bowler. He believed he was a batting allrounder - more Shane Watson than Mitchell Johnson. Maybe it was a case of Sri Lankan officials being too infatuated with Perera's talents.
"When I was younger, I was a top-order batsman," Perera says. "They didn't use me properly. I was really talented as a batsman and I could have been used more effectively. Slowly, I could have developed my bowling."
Perera's batting methodology was simple - the ball deserves to be hit. He was a swashbuckler. With the ball in hand, he was more timid. Bowling at speeds of about 130-135kph, with a side-on, slightly whippy action that helped generate swing, he was never going to hustle batsmen. So he relied on line-and-length bowling, which also happened to be in vogue due to the success of Glenn McGrath, Shaun Pollock and the like.
After his emergence in England, stress fractures to his back consigned Perera to a lengthy stint on the sidelines. When he recovered, Perera faced another setback - scrutiny over his action. He was reported by umpire Steve Bucknor during a Test against India in mid-2001, and spent time in India trying to remodel his action. He was eventually cleared but the scars lingered. Perera would never represent Sri Lanka in international cricket again.
"I had to change my action and it was hard to come back from," he says. "There was no rule at that point. Now there is 15 degrees - I was below that but was seen as suspicious."
He demonstrates his action, while seated. His arm is straight but he flicks his wrist in a rapid motion. "I used a lot of wrist and my action was quick and slightly unusual," he explains.
With his once-promising career spiralling, dissatisfaction with the sport he loved set in. Apathy consumed him for the first time in his life. His grandmother, who had helped raised him, passed away. Perera's desire to continue with the drudgery of pursuing an international cricket career started to evaporate.
"Sri Lanka's a place where you can enjoy the lifestyle if you are a cricketer," he says. "I needed a break from cricket. For a couple of years I quit and just hung out with my friends." As with many young men, immaturity became a bane. He had skirmishes with the law and was arrested in early 2005 for being part of a drunken brawl.
By his mid-20s, Perera's international cricket dreams were over. Indeed, the images of his debut at The Oval felt like a dream.
Perera's life would take a dramatic turn in December 2006. At a party, his close friend Jeevanka Rehan de Silva supposedly jumped to his death from the ninth floor of a hotel in Colombo. Mystery surrounds the case and the police's investigation of it. It became fodder for the Sri Lankan media. Conspiracy theories abounded. Perera, along with other guests from the party, was taken into custody. Eventually they were released without charge.
I ask Perera about his recollections of the incident. "It's the past and I don't want to bring those things up," he says.
Perth, the sleepy city on Australia's west coast, has long held an attraction for Perera. He calls it the "place to be". His wife Amali, who was born in Sri Lanka, grew up in Perth and they believed it would be an ideal place to raise a family.
When Perera moved there five years ago, he thought it would signal the end of his association with playing cricket. His first job in his new home was as a waiter in an Italian restaurant, which he found surprisingly enjoyable because he could socialise on the job - in contrast to his employment in Sri Lanka, where he was mired working in a bank as a teller.
"It was boring just counting people's money," he grins.
"I had enough of Sri Lankan life. Nothing was going right there."
He had better luck in Perth, and after his stint at the restaurant, he found employment as a storeman and forklift driver at a manufacturing company.
Inevitably, though, he was enticed back to cricket. No longer burdened with expectations and stifled by peripheral forces, Perera has relished playing at club level in Perth. "I love training the youngsters and using my experience to help shape them as cricketers," he says. A chronic back injury limits his bowling these days, and he is virtually a specialist bat, positioned at No. 4 for Bassendean.
In addition to playing, he has also started a small cricket-apparel business, selling bats, gloves and pads trademarked "SP Centurion". "I get the equipment from Pakistan and do the rest," he says. "It is word of mouth mainly, and it is more of a hobby right now, but we'll see where it takes me."
Perera says he doesn't watch much Sri Lankan cricket anymore and has little connection to his former team, but he still maintains relationships with some former team-mates - among them Murali and Jayawardene.
"I got tickets from Murali to go to the Big Bash when he was in Perth," Perera says.
After years of feeling disillusioned with how his international career unfurled, Perera often finds himself in the grip of nostalgia these days. He recently found his Sri Lanka cap in a garbage bag filled with old junk from around the house. It had been missing for years. "I plan to frame my cap now," Perera laughs with a hint of embarrassment.
For years he tried not to remember images of his halcyon playing days. Now he wishes he could show his son pictures of his younger self.
Recently a friend in Sri Lanka telephoned Perera. He said a classic match featuring Perera was being shown on an Indian sports channel. "I told my friend to tape it but unfortunately he couldn't," Perera says. "I should have recorded the matches I played. I was an idiot when I was younger."
Later that afternoon, I decide to watch Perera in action online. He's right; precious little footage exists. A YouTube search only leads to a random clip of Perera hitting the ball into a wet field during a domestic game in Sri Lanka.
I want to see with my own eyes his ability with ball and bat. So I venture to Wellington Square in East Perth, a spacious park close to the WACA. It's a public space with an infamous reputation as a haunt for squatters and undesirables. Perth's modest skyline provides the backdrop.
Perera is playing in a private T20 tournament featuring eight teams, comprising players hailing from the subcontinent. It's not merely a hit-and-giggle affair. The tournament's best team will win A$6000.
Perera is excited to play cricket's shortest format and has taken a shine to it. He laments narrowly missing out on T20's boon, believing his eclectic skills would have suited the format. "I love slogging and creating new shots," he says.
In this tournament, Perera is playing with Sri Lankan compatriots to form a team unsurprisingly named "Sri Lankan Lions". It is the first time in 13 years that Perera has worn the Sri Lankan colours. It means plenty to him to pull on the kit, with his name etched on the back, even in a seemingly innocuous match.
The Lions are playing East Perth, a team brimming with Pakistani players, in the first round of this tournament, which will be played on Sundays during the next few months.
Pakistan bat first and Perera fields at first slip, from where he gesticulates to his team-mates often.
Mid-innings, he wants a trundle. He meanders to the crease. Age and injury have cruelled his former hustle. Six steps and he delivers. His bowling arm appears straight and without the notable flick of the wrist he suggested - though I'm critiquing from a fair distance away.
His pace is pedestrian, there is no hint of movement, and the ball is smashed to all parts. T20 cricket often is merciless on poor old bowlers and Perera is duly being obliterated. Clearly mercy is not shown to former internationals. Four sixes are smashed off his bowling, which produces the unflattering figures of 0 for 45 off four overs.
Chasing more than 200 for an unlikely win, Lions lose an early wicket, which brings Perera to the crease. A woman in the small throng of spectators enquires about Perera's abilities.
"He's a superstar," says a Sri Lankan Lions official.
Perera struts to the crease, and promptly straight-drives his first ball to the boundary. He demonstrates nice balance at the crease and his quick flourish and bulky forearms exert a fair bit of power.
Revenge is sweet. He whacks the ball with thunderous force. A towering straight six seems set for a collision with a vehicle travelling down a side street adjacent to the park. Fortunately the large trees on the park's outer halt the ball's momentum. People walk past the field, with a few peering at the action. They're oblivious that a former Test cricketer is batting in the middle.
In the last over, Perera's attempt to engineer a miraculous victory ends when he is caught trying to slap the ball once again into the trees. Arithmetic has never been my strong suit, but I calculate he has made 100 off 70 balls. The Lions fall short of the target, though.
Perera trudges off and slumps in his chair. He's grimacing and pointing at his finger, which he says was whacked by a short ball during his innings. I try to cheer him up by mentioning that he scored a century. One of his team-mates confirms my calculations. Perera smiles and then shakes his head.
"It doesn't really matter because we've lost," he says.
"Cricket's a cruel game."