Thisara Perera spices up selection race
When usually talking about a match-winning Sri Lankan bowling performance, it's all about the unconventional. Unorthodox actions, mystery bowling, doosras. On Sunday, though, it was old-fashioned line-and-length bowling with hardly any frills that undid India. The sturdily-built allrounder Thisara Perera, playing his first game of the tournament, made sure his name remains in the selection mix with a disciplined bowling effort that earned him a maiden five-wicket haul.
Previously, the only impact on the international circuit made by Perera, a 21-year-old who had seven wickets at 44.85 coming into the game, was through a couple of hard-hitting cameos which gave him an eye-popping strike-rate of 136.26.
He was under plenty of pressure coming into the match, given the strong competition for places in the Sri Lankan team. Angelo Mathews has already sealed one fast-bowling allrounder's spot, and with Lasith Malinga and Nuwan Kulasekera also being automatic picks, Perera is restricted to being the fourth quick bowler in the team. For that he has to beat the likes of Dilhara Fernando, Thilan Thushara and Farveez Maharoof, Sri Lanka's allrounder of choice till a couple of years ago. Then there are upcoming allrounders like Jeevan Mendis to deal with, and vying for the No. 7 slot are yet another bunch of contenders.
If that was weighing on Perera's shoulders, he would have been buoyed by the slightly fortuitous wicket of Suresh Raina as early as his second delivery. There wasn't any prodigious movement for him but he worked up a decent pace, up to the mid-130s, for the bulk of his spell.
There was more encouragement in his second over, tricking Indian captain MS Dhoni into nicking a couple of deliveries past the keeper to third man. After the top-order flopped, Dhoni was the batsman Indian fans put their faith in to right the nosediving innings. It wasn't to be as Perera had him caught behind for 10 in his third over, when Dhoni waltzed down the track and tried to work the ball from well outside off to the leg side.
Sri Lanka and Perera were cock-a-hoop with India at 71 for 5, but things were to get even better for both very soon. Ravindra Jadeja and Praveen Kumar went for ducks off consecutive deliveries, and Perera found himself on a hat-trick, which Ashish Nehra managed to avert, much to the boisterous Sunday crowd's disappointment.
They were cheering again when Perera rounded off his dream day with a lovely delivery to clean up Ishant Sharma and complete a five-for. Kumar Sangakkara was thrilled the experiment to pick Perera paid off. "It was not just the conditions, we knew there was a bit of rain about, we also wanted to lengthen our batting a bit," Sangakkara said after the match. "He is also a quality seamer, very successful against India in all his outings, so we thought it would be the right move, and it really worked for us."
Perera is yet another product of Sri Lanka's famed school system, winning a string of prestigious awards for St Joseph's College in their annual Big Matches against traditional rivals St Peter's College and, as a result, earning places on Sri Lanka's squad to the Under-19 World Cups in 2006 and 2008. Next stop was the Colts Cricket Club, where an unbeaten 113 with eight sixes followed by a five-wicket haul in a Premier Championship match against Moors Sports Club last December expedited his entry to the national team.
Today's performance marks the highlight of a success-filled career so far, but as Sangakkara stressed at the post-match conference, consistency is what needs to be achieved. Pitches like the ones in Dambulla may allow for a seam-heavy attack but on more traditional subcontinental tracks, unless he continues to make a compelling case, Perera will be overlooked.
Maharoof's recent form should be a cautionary tale; he took a hat-trick on course to a five-wicket haul against India in the Asia Cup, but after just one more failure - an anonymous performance in the final of the tournament - he has been shunted out of the squad.
Siddarth Ravindran is a sub-editor at Cricinfo