South Africa v Sri Lanka, World T20, Group 1, Chittagong March 22, 2014

Kusal salvo hides seniors' foibles

Sri Lanka's august senior batsmen made 23 collectively, but a 23-year-old's belligerence ensured his team triumphed nonetheless

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)

"I think he's got a bright future ahead. For many years to come he'll be a dangerous player to bowl to"
AB de Villiers on Kusal Perera

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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • dummy4fb on March 24, 2014, 3:39 GMT

    Thissara Perera is a MUST-HAVE in T20 and 50 over cricket. He has the ability to hit the ball out of the ground! I was watching him during the Big Bash here in Australia, and he destroyed bowlers, clearing the fence regularly.

    He should be left at 7, but if only a few wickets have fallen and there are only a few overs to go, then he can be utilised as a pinch-hitter. He is undoubtedly the biggest hitter in the Sri Lankan team.

  • DreamCricketer on March 24, 2014, 1:30 GMT

    DreamCricketer: Congrats! SL and Thanks to Kusal and Angelo we won the match. What are the BIG 3 doing?? Not sure why they call them big 3 Have they just gone for a tour to watch others play?

  • SriLankanYoungBlood on March 23, 2014, 8:43 GMT

    It's crazy SLFans suggesting dropping kusal and thisara from the side and allow underperformed Senior like Dilshan to play whole series. Both r 2 Real T20 batsmen in the side. @Chandana Fonseka @Suddaththa It u don't know T20 cricket please let you mouth shut. With out Thisara and Kusal Our Side will get lost from side like UAE,HongKong. 150 runs will be impossible target to get. Sekuge is also T20 player but can't compare with Thisara.

  • LeoE on March 23, 2014, 7:34 GMT

    @Suddaththa -I can understand why you want Thissara Perera dropped. But he is a better bowler than Prasanna. He is in very good form right now. Against SA he was slightly off length, but he will recover. As a batter who can easily win a match on his own, as when he scored 70 odd recently in the Asia Cup, he should be made to face more balls. The top order players get thirty to forty balls each, but he gets only 9. With SL having such a strong batting line up, he comes at No. 7. Why not make him open the batting with Kusal and drop everyone down by one notch. Dilshan, Mahela and Sanga cannot score as fast as Thissara. Lets give him a chance. The opposition will feel threatened with such a deadly opening pair.

  • android_user on March 23, 2014, 7:12 GMT

    Everybody praises Kusal & indeed its true.and he deserves it more than anyone else. But Also for yesterday's win we must give the same credits to Angi for taking us to a reasonable score and to Kula for his death over

  • SriLankanYoungBlood on March 23, 2014, 6:03 GMT

    Last year or so Kusal save 3 seniors as well as SL T20 team. 80% SL T20 wins he is Man of Match. Because of win SL fans forget Big 3's Failures and Average SL fan like me insist their failure. Last year or so no T20 match wining inning from either Senior. Dilshan is hugh burden to SL T20 team while MJ and Sanga not best in their T20 form. Even though they played 30's-40's their SR is low. But Both have 2 Years Test Career and ODI Career until 2015 WC.

  • sudaththa on March 23, 2014, 5:51 GMT

    Sanath... This is for u... Think about Thisara.. Drop him from the side.. He is not doing well.. See Nuwan Kulasekara.. He is doing 100./. To team.. Drop thisara and bring in young guy to the side... Sikkuge Prasanna is there....

  • s.g.a. on March 23, 2014, 4:51 GMT

    @ vinod villa pudasun are u not seen, not known much about game of cricket, also u never know about good captains, u know about chandimal only. u blaming other players that is unfair, They did lot for SL cricket. don't think only this game. just think about recent performans of the players. chandimal stiil fail. u know kulay performing better than chandimal even his batting. so how u saying chandimal is the best batsman. i know when he entered the team he perfomed well. but now recent past he is fail, that' s why he dropped in asia cup. because of captaincy still he survived in the team. In t20 SL still in no.1, because others performing not captain, T20 captaincy also should get Angelo.He is one of best allrounder in world cricket.

  • NALINWIJ on March 23, 2014, 3:23 GMT

    Kusal is a great prospect in the future in all formats of the game. He may look like and have some of the shots of Sanath but he is technically a more correct batsman than Sanath at the same age possibly because he went to Royal and Sanath received limited coaching in Matara. I feel Dilshan is approaching the twilight of his career. Sanga and Mahela who are still good but will ease into retirement after 2015 world cup. Chandimal has not taken the baton as the next big thing and Thirimanne may prove to be a possible replacement for the greats. SL T20 batting is nothing special and it is the bowling and fielding that is winning the matches. Dew factor is blunting the spinners and this will hurt limit SL strength and destroy Bangaladesh and give Australia a better chance.

  • dummy4fb on March 23, 2014, 3:17 GMT

    @s.g.a don't you watch the match yesterday?? or just blind chandimal h@ter? he was our best batsman after kusal and mathews..what thisara did? poor bowler,poor fielding also can't bat when bowlers balling out side off stump! what about dilshan?? poor form but only talk chandiml because his score was 12 but it was 4th highest in SL inning! He give ball to mendis and get the Albie's wicket! it was the changing moment of the match! it was the best captaincy moment and even commentators appreciate that but you telling it was poor captaincy! don't be biased and hate 1 player!

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