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'I wasn't afraid' - Vishwa Fernando on standing up to South Africa's attack

Kusal Perera and Vishwa Fernando celebrate a sensational Sri Lanka win Getty Images

Having taken 8 for 133 and batted out 27 deliveries in an epic last-wicket stand, Vishwa Fernando's contribution to Sri Lanka's victory was second only to that of Kusal Perera. The Kingsmead Test having only been his fourth, Vishwa looks back on his sudden call-up to the Test side, his bowling, as well as that record-breaking stand.

You were in Sri Lanka playing domestic cricket, and there were five seamers with the Sri Lanka squad. They suddenly started getting injured and you got a call-up to Australia. Was it unexpected?

I didn't think I'd have a comeback into the national team this quickly, to be honest. I had had a lot of injuries, and I was playing the domestic season. I was training hard. I only came for the second Test in Australia, and I wasn't thinking of any further tours. I was able to get a few wickets there. So, I'm happy to even be here in South Africa.

You'd been bowling an average of less than six overs an innings in domestic first-class this season. Were you worried you'd pick up an injury with the Test workload in Australia?

I was a bit nervous before the game, just because I hadn't bowled much. But then when the match started, that fear disappeared. All I was thinking was: how do I get the ball off the captain and into my hands? There are reasons why fast bowlers don't get to bowl much in Sri Lankan first-class cricket, but on Australian pitches, I knew I'd have to bowl a lot.

What did you learn from that Test that helped you in South Africa?

Playing a Test for the first time in one-and-a-half years gave me a lot of confidence. I got a couple of wickets with the new ball as well. So, I was feeling good. But it was also important to realise how to bowl after 15-20 overs have gone. I didn't do well with the older ball there, so that was the biggest lesson. Once the shine goes, you've got to bowl really tight to keep Test batsmen quiet. Our line and length wasn't great in Australia.

You got four wickets in the first innings at Kingsmead. What did you do right?

I'd known that South Africa pitches helped quicks. I hadn't come here even on a Sri Lanka A tour, but we did watch videos of previous Durban Tests. I had belief that I could do something with the new ball. In the first over itself, I knew that it was helping me out. They had some of the best batsmen in the world in their top order, so it's a big thing that I was able to get them out. I got the wicket of Dean Elgar in the first over itself, and I think that confidence carried me right through the Test. Then Hashim Amla should have been out in the same over, but the umpires didn't allow our review.

Having been the most successful bowler in the first innings, you must have gone into the second innings with a lot of belief?

I did. But because we were almost 50 runs behind after the first innings, we had to both take wickets, and cut down the runs. Thankfully we were able to do that.

When South Africa were almost 300 runs ahead with five wickets in hand, it looked like they were well in control. But then you and Lasith Ambuldeniya managed to shake things up, and get Sri Lanka back in the game. What were you thinking when you came in for that spell?

I'd leaked a few runs in the first couple of overs I'd bowled that day. There was a ball that went through the slips as well. When I came back in the afternoon, I thought that would be my final effort. If they were going to get 350 or 400 runs ahead, we knew we were dead. I didn't know if it would be my last spell in the game. I was able to bowl really well there. I do come around the wicket to the right-hander with the old ball. I'd been practicing that in the nets, and it worked in the match.

So you'd taken eight wickets in the match, and once their innings was over. Did you think your job for the game was complete?

I was pretty happy with my eight wickets, but there was also a feeling that I shouldn't have given away so many runs (his match figures were 8 for 133), and should have done a little bit more. But in the end I'm happy with the performance because we did end up winning.

You're in the dressing room now, and you're watching the tailenders get out quickly, one after another. What's going through your mind

I didn't have my pads on when Dhananjaya [de Silva] and Kusal [Perera] were batting. When they were batting together, I had a lot of hope we could win. Their quicks had stopped bowling, and South Africa had gone to spin. But then Dhananjaya got out, and Suranga Lakmal went out and got out first ball, unfortunately, and I had to start putting my pads on. I was pretty sad, to be honest. I felt like we had too many runs to get, and too few wickets. They had a 75-80% chance to win. But then I got to the middle, I felt differently. I told Kusal aiya straight away that I wasn't going to give away my wicket.

Kusal said you'd told him you'd hit the ball with your body if nothing else. Did you say that?

(Laughs) Yes I did. My job was to protect my wicket, not to score runs. So I told Kusal aiya you score the runs. Let's get 10 runs closer, and another 10 runs closer, and take it from there.

South Africa weren't that interested in getting Kusal's wicket, and they were really targeting you. Were you afraid?

I wasn't afraid. Well, I wasn't afraid that I would get hit, at least. I was afraid that I would lose my wicket. Kusal aiya can't play the whole over. I had to bat one or two balls at least. There was a lot of pressure. The fast bowlers were having a go at me, and the close fielders were having a go at me. I did say a few things back.

Sometimes when a bowler bowls, he'll come and give you a stare. I've done that plenty of times to batsmen, and they've looked away. I didn't want to give the South Africa bowlers that satisfaction. I stared at them back. I didn't want to show that I was afraid. I wanted them to know I wouldn't throw away my wicket.

Do you usually have a good technique against fast bowling?

(Laughs) I'm not going to even talk about technique! I can hang on to my wicket. I don't have very good technique, but I can hit a ball with my bat.

You ducked a lot of balls. Is that something you do well?

I do it a lot at club level. But there were about two times in domestic cricket when I was in the same situation and had to play a lot of balls, but I wasn't able to do it on those occasions. This is the first time I was able to do it. This was the fastest bowling unit that I'd faced. And they swung it a lot as well.

Were they reversing the old ball?

Dale Steyn and Kagiso Rabada were reversing the old ball a bit. Duanne Olivier was trying to bounce me out. I played a couple of overs of Keshav Maharaj as well, and that was a different challenge. He was the guy who'd just taken a lot of wickets.

Early on in your innings, did you think there was a chance of victory?

My first goal was to hang on until Kusal aiya got his hundred, because he was on about 80 when I walked in. But even after he got there, we still had another 50-odd to get. So we just broke it down, and said let's take it 10 runs at a time. We've got all the time in the world. I told him I'd somehow play the two or three balls an over I had to face.

When did you feel you could actually win it?

Kusal aiya is someone who can hit 15-20 runs in one over if he has to, so we were trying to slowly get it down to roughly that amount. So when it got down that low, that's when I really started thinking that we can't get it to this stage and end up with a loss. But then it was around then that South Africa took the second new ball. Still, I thought: I'm not going to give away my wicket.

Was there more pressure when a win actually became possible?

There was crazy pressure. I can't put that into words. I'm a bowler, not a batsman, so I was massively worried. But I was intent that I wasn't going to throw it away. If I'd played a dumb shot, or backed away from the wicket and got out, then that would have been wrong. But if I got out defending, and they nicked me off or something, I could live with myself. Once they took the second new ball, Kusal aiya and I didn't even talk about it, because there's nothing to do. Though I think that although he was earlier happy to let me bat two balls in an over, he tried to give me only one ball.

There was one over when Rabada bowled two bouncers to Kusal to finish an over, and he ducked both balls. It seems like he did actually trust you a bit?

Kusal aiya did trust me from the start. Aftar that Rabada over, Steyn bowled a few balls at me and luckily I was able to get a run away in the middle of the over. I edged it and it fell short of the slips. I saw Kusal aiya running at me, and I ran to the other end as well.

You had to dive once to make your crease as well…

Yeah, we had to get two runs off that shot for Kusal aiya to keep the strike, but we decided late that we were going to run. So that's why there was a run-out chance. I dived from very far away from the crease. (Laughs.)

So they've got the second new ball now. Were they swinging it?

They were. And there was definitely enough swing to get a batsman out. But I knew as a bowler, that after they take the second new ball, they'd be trying to get me out with the fuller ones - either bowled, lbw, or caught behind - rather than with a bouncer. So that's what I was expecting.

Around about then, Kusal hit two incredible sixes off Steyn. How did you feel at the other end?

I've got no words to describe them. If you can hit those sixes off bowlers of that stature, then you're a great batsman. Sanath Jayasuriya is the only other batsman I've seen who can hit those shots off those balls. That's incredible talent. When I saw that, it helped me keep going. I thought as long as I stay here, he will win it.

Describe what you felt when Kusal hit the winning run.

It's hard to describe. It's one of the happiest days of my life. We had been wanting a win so badly, so it was big for us.

A couple of days later, how do you reflect on it?

I'm so happy to have been a part of a win like that. Hopefully, a lot of people in Sri Lanka enjoyed it as well. I hope that like they are with us after a win, that they will be with us if we lose as well. You do win and lose in cricket. There's luck involved as well as talent.

Any personal goals for the second match?

I had a chance to get five wickets in both innings in Durban, but couldn't get there. I don't have a Test five-wicket haul yet. So That's my big target, as long as the team wins.