Kusal salvo hides seniors' foibles
When a team has three players of the calibre of Kumar Sangakkara, Mahela Jayawardene and Tillakaratne Dilshan approaching the twilight of their careers, there are bound to be fears about the future. That august trio have nearly 4000 T20I runs between them; against South Africa they made 14, 9 and 0 respectively. That those failures did not extinguish Sri Lanka's chances of victory was largely down to a 23-year-old named Kusal Perera.
If you have heard Kusal's name mentioned without that of Sanath Jayasuriya in close proximity you probably weren't listening hard enough. With his low, southpaw stance and flashing blade, particularly in a wristy ability to clip the ball off his pads, Kusal has an uncanny likeness for the man who is now Sri Lanka's chairman of selectors. Jayasuriya built his reputation with a series of dashing assaults as opener during the 1996 World Cup and Sri Lanka will believe that Kusal can have a similar catalytic effect at this tournament.
T20 continues to push back the limits of the possible in cricket, as anyone who has seen the scorecard from Friday's afternoon match in Sylhet - let alone the shots played by Netherlands' batsmen - would know. This was a more sedate affair, despite the tension at the end, but still it showed how the world has changed, from Kusal's early assault to Albie Morkel's brief dalliance with seeing South Africa home.
Coming into this match, after 11 innings, Perera's T20 strike rate was a touch under 130 - coincidentally, almost the same as Jayasuriya's when he retired (eventually) in 2011. Jayasuriya may have been ahead of his time as a batsman, but that does not mean time won't eventually catch up. Of players to face 500 balls in T20 internationals (Jayasuriya faced 487 despite being indelibly linked to the expansion of one-day cricket a decade or so before) 14 currently score at above 130 per 100 balls, led by Yuvraj Singh at 152.72. Kusal seems likely to join them.
The beefy silhouettes of Chris Gayle, Shane Watson and Aaron Finch tower over the World T20 but power comes in different guises. Kusal and, during South Africa's innings, Quinton de Kock showed that you've got to look out for the little guys as well.
The opening over of the match contained most of the ingredients used to spruik the tournament as a non-stop feast for the senses. Dale Steyn, a man who has razed small towns with a 145kph swinging ball, was slapped for two fours and a six - flicked over deep midwicket from outside off - by Kusal, three impudent blows that mocked the senior man.
Steyn bowled wides on both sides, perhaps a little peeved at being buttonholed like this so early on, having only passed a fitness test on the morning of the game. Then Kusal took a single. Dilshan, also coming back from recent injury, is perhaps at the age where he hopes for a little time to limber up before he gets going. Instead he got ripper that clattered through him and into the top of off. Zing went the bails - they really do look good from the stands - and Steyn's figures read 1-0-17-1 (2w)
While South Africa worked out what to do with Kusal, they attempted to mitigate the damage he was causing by keeping him off strike. Having faced 16 of the first 24 balls, hitting three fours and two sixes, he was given only 24 of the next 57. Steyn came back - Steyn always comes back - and tested him against the short ball, a top edge landing safely between the bowler and mid-on. Irman Tahir worked further on his patience by pushing his top-spin through wider and Kusal succumbed.
"I think he's got a bright future ahead. I'm not sure how old he is, but for many years to come he'll be a dangerous player to bowl to," South Africa's stand-in captain, AB de Villiers, said afterwards. "I thought he played really well, put us under pressure from the word go, probably caught Dale by surprise with the first couple of balls, going after him. I don't think Dale expected that but he recovered really well after."
The short ball had hinted at a vulnerability and Sri Lanka reported afterwards that Kusal had suffered a blow to the head which required hospital treatment for concussion. But, just as he did last month during a T20 against Bangladesh on the same ground, Kusal had laid the platform for victory. Sri Lanka have played plenty of cricket in this country over the last few weeks and navigated their way around the terrain a little better than South Africa.
Spin proved a little more influential than had been expected, with Sachithra Senanayake and Tahir the most successful bowlers, as pace on the ball merely seemed to help it off the bat. Sri Lanka's seamers, having been able to size up the pitch from the dressing room, shortened their lengths accordingly - with the exception of Lasith Malinga who dealt with another punkish assault from de Kock with a low-slung yorker and proved himself just too difficult to put away until the final ball, with the match already won.
Ahead of the game, Sri Lanka's captain, Dinesh Chandimal, was under orders not to talk about the impending retirements of Sangakkara and Jayawardene. Afterwards, thanks to Kusal, nobody was.
Alan Gardner is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here