Perera gives Pakistan a headache again
Pakistan must have seen enough of Thisara Perera already. It all began in Hambantota where his lower-order cameo shored up Sri Lanka's batting on a slow pitch. In Pallekele, he took six wickets in the second ODI to turn the game Sri Lanka's way. If that wasn't enough, he had a hat-trick in store two games later in Colombo to trigger off a monumental collapse to match the unpredictable Pakistan of the old. He was back at Pallekele for his first Test of the series and it shouldn't have surprised too many that he gave Pakistan headaches again.
Perera's selection for this Test was expected, given that Nuwan Pradeep failed to justify his role as the second seamer in the two opportunities he got. Pradeep didn't bowl as badly as his figures suggested, but as his captain Mahela Jayawardene said, there's no point in having pace if you can't combine that with accuracy. Pradeep's bowling fitness was the bigger worry, and his ability to last an entire series was also questioned. The conditions in Pallekele were expected to be friendlier for the seamers, but the hosts had more or less made up their minds to make a change.
The green tinge on the pitch compelled Sri Lanka to drop a spinner and bring in an extra seamer in Dilhara Fernando. It was a deviation from the norm, as Sri Lanka rarely field more than three seamers in a home Test. The last time they played four seamers at home was during Pakistan's previous tour, in 2009, at the SSC Test, the most batting-friendly venue at the country.
It proved an inspired selection. Jayawardene sprung a surprise by tossing him the new ball, ahead of the more experienced Fernando. Perera struggled a bit with his line and length early on, straying wide to Mohammad Hafeez. He created the first opportunity of the morning when Taufeeq Umar edged to slip, only to be dropped by Tharanga Paranavitana. Nevertheless, Perera kept posing questions whenever he made the batsmen play.
He had worked out that the best way to trap Hafeez was to bring the ball in to him, and it worked as one snuck through the bat-pad gap on the drive and clipped the off stump. In his following over, he gave Azhar Ali a testing time with his swing, getting one to hit him on the pads, prompting an lbw shout. He followed it with one that swung in sharply and confused Azhar and the following ball, he cleverly got one to move the other way, forcing an uppish drive to gully. In two overs, Perera had dismissed the centurions from the SSC Test.
It's still early days for Perera as a Test bowler. He struggled in England last year and was used as an opening bowler in South Africa, though with little success.
"I was playing Test cricket after some time and I got the rhythm and started hitting the right areas after one over or so," Perera said. "Mahela was feeding me with some information and one of the main things he said was that in Test cricket you have to be patient."
It's worth noting that Perera had it in him to bowl nine overs on the trot in his first spell. Nuwan Kulasekara had bowled ten himself. Perera says he is now getting more confident with his bowling fitness to bowl longer spells.
"I had bowled 17 overs by tea," Perera said. "Even when I was playing Under-19 cricket I was bowling with the new ball and I think I can do well with the new ball."
The batting conditions had eased out after lunch and the 85-run partnership between Misbah-ul-Haq and Asad Shafiq was starting to worry Sri Lanka a little. In the fifth over of Perera's second spell, he struck again. He bowled a straighter line to Misbah and kept him quiet for the first three balls. Misbah tried to create a scoring opportunity off the fourth by walking down the pitch but the bowler got it to move away and induced an outside edge. Misbah admonished himself for chasing a ball he should have left.
The fact that he bowled as many overs as the left-arm spinner Rangana Herath, and managed to consign Fernando to the third-change bowler speaks for the trust Jayawardene has in him, despite his limited experience at Test level. Gaining experience is his priority.
"I think I need patience to play Test cricket," Perera said. "If you take ODI cricket, bowling line and length is the key, but I hope I will develop and become a regular member in the Test squad as well."
Kanishkaa Balachandran is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo