Kusal Perera's innings, the winner of the ESPNcricinfo award for the best Test batting performance of 2019, was one of the greatest of all time, not just of 2019. More on the awards here
Going into this match, Perera had an average of 28.58. It was not an unfair representation of his career. That he was a player with a very high ceiling was well understood, but as was the case with several Sri Lanka batsmen, that extraordinary talent had not materialised into consistent performance. And then, out of nowhere, he produced this - a blinding, outlandish, wonder of an innings that demands to be considered among the greatest ever.
Arriving with Sri Lanka already in trouble at 52 for 3 chasing 304, Perera faced down an attack featuring one all-time great in Dale Steyn, a potential all-time great in Kagiso Rabada, a quick in sublime form in Duanne Olivier (he had averaged less than 15 in his previous series, against Pakistan), and a capable spinner, Keshav Maharaj, bowling in the fourth innings, on his home ground. When Steyn ripped out two wickets with the score on 110, that was the game, surely. Still 194 runs to get, and only five wickets in hand, a weak tail to follow? Forget it.
Perera's 96-run stand with Dhananjaya de Silva provided mild hope, but then Maharaj took three wickets in quick succession and Olivier one, and Sri Lanka were nine down, requiring another 78. Vishwa Fernando, the new batsman, had a first-class average of less than eight. Even if Perera had the best No. 11 in the world to partner him, even if they were playing a weak attack on a friendly pitch, almost no one makes 78 for the last wicket.
On top of all this, the second new ball became available two-thirds of the way through the partnership, which, again, should have been curtains. Instead Perera rains outrageous sixes into the stands beyond deep midwicket, off no less a new-ball monster than Steyn. He farms the strike with insane precision, prising singles out of South Africa's closed fists, allowing Fernando to face the first ball in an over twice through the course of their 16-over partnership. In the home stretch of this innings, he breaks one of the best attacks in the world, and delivers maybe the most miraculous win of all in Sri Lanka's cricketing history.
It had been only 13 days since Perera suffered a mild concussion in Canberra. (The ear guard of his helmet disintegrated from the blow.) He left the field soon after sustaining that blow, and had not returned to the crease after that.
South Africa's bowlers probably knew this. Or at least they bowled like they did. Olivier thudded a bouncer into Perera's ribcage when the batsman was on 52. Rabada hit him painfully on the top hand when he was on 72. Not long after, Olivier would hit him again, this time on the helmet.
He would only be human if he had let any of these blows ruffle him, but batting as if possessed, Perera could not be shaken.
86.4 The percentage of deliveries Perera faced in the company of the lower order (Nos. 8 and below).
67 The number of runs Perera provided to the last-wicket stand of 78.
1 The number of Test centuries Perera had made before this one. This innings was only the sixth time overall that he had gone past 50. He has not made another half century in five innings since.
What they said
"An innings like that is one that will be spoken about for years to come… His consistency in taking risks and weighing up risks, when to do it, was incredible."
- Faf du Plessis
- Kumar Sangakkara
The closest contenders
Ben Stokes, 135 not out v Australia, third Test, Headingley
In any other year Stokes' innings would be the best in show by a distance. In some ways his and Perera's knocks were uncannily similar. Both batsmen came in at No. 5 in a chase of over 300. Both faced outstanding attacks. Both had to put on a mammoth last-wicket partnership to haul their teams to victory. Where Stokes' innings was different is that he more visibly changed gears, deadbatting his way through the first 66 balls of his innings (a period in which he made only two runs), before unleashing a torrent of boundaries in his last 48 balls, plundering 79.
There was not a lot to choose between the innings, but this stats breakdown may help explain why Perera's was preferred by our jury.
Steve Smith, 144 v England, first Test, Birmingham
Despite having been suspended for several months of the year, Smith was without a doubt the best Test batsman of 2019, and it is only fitting that one of his innings gets on the podium. He held Australia's innings beautifully together in his first Test innings since returning from the ban, making over half the team's runs as Australia posted just 284. And this after they crumbled to 112 for 8. England took a first-innings lead of 90, but Smith had laid the foundation for what eventually proved to be a 251-run win for Australia.