'It's the best Test I've played for Sri Lanka' - Kusal Perera after match-winning 153*
Both Sri Lanka captain Karunaratne and South Africa captain du Plessis shower the Durban hero with effusive praise
"I'm a little tired now, I don't know what to say."
But for 309 minutes, Kusal Perera knew exactly what to do. Sri Lanka were rank underdogs in this fight. They were pummeled 2-0 in Australia, never even getting close to putting up a total of 250. Their captain was sacked. Their team stripped for parts. Rookies few had heard off were put on the plane to South Africa and now, after four days of outrageous cricket in Durban, they have emerged the victors, chasing down 304 with one wicket to spare.
And it was all down to the man who didn't know what to say.
"Especially great effort as a team," Perera finally managed. "Especially lower-order batsmen, they gave me good support. And because of that I believed in myself.
"I did something ... I did my part. But we won as a team. The partnerships in the whole innings were great - that's why we were able to chase 304. You can't just mention one person or partnership. Even if you scored one run, that counted to the win. All XI of us had to bat. It's the best Test I've played for Sri Lanka.
In these tracks, if you're not willing to wear balls on the body, you might as well not be batting
Perera was breathtaking with bat in hand. He barely flapped an eyelid when Sri Lanka lost their ninth man with the target still 78 runs away. He defended with unreal calm. ran like there were ants in his pants, took body blows - 150kph deliveries kept thudding into him - and brushed them off like they were mosquito bites.
"In places like these [South Africa], it's never going to be easy, like [it is] in Sri Lanka. These bowlers are all top five in the world. You never know what kinds of balls they are going to send at you. They don't give you any room, and they have so much experience. There were very few loose balls.
"In these couple of matches, I think I've copped six or seven blows to the head. In these tracks, if you're not willing to wear balls on the body, you might as well not be batting. I don't know how many times I got hit - honestly I've lost count. But you can't think about those things while you are batting. In Sri Lanka the fastest you get is 130-140kph. Here you get balls that are 150kph. When you come to a country like this, if someone tells you you can bat without getting hit, that's a lie. We have to be smart about it. That happened to me. That's what cricket is about."
At the other end, the most No. 11 of No. 11s, Vishwa Fernando hung on. He made only six runs - four of those from overthrows. There were five extras in that time as well. But the rest of the 67 that Sri Lanka needed to record only their second Test win in South Africa came off Perera's magic bat. And it spared no one.
Dale Steyn was muscled for six over midwicket. Multiple times. One of the world's greatest fast bowlers was reduced to shaking his head and scratching his chin. Faf du Plessis took the new ball hoping that would help them take the wicket but Perera farmed the strike so beautifully that Fernando faced only seven deliveries in this period.
"I didn't even look at the scoreboard when Vishwa came in and we had a lot of runs to get. I just tried to play it over by over and get us close, little by little. Vishwa told me: "I'll hit the ball with my body, if nothing else. You do what you can, Kusal aiya." I took a lot of strength from that. Without any fear I took the single and gave the strike to him. He did a huge job. If he had got out, there wouldn't have been a point, because we would ahve been all out. I don't know how many balls he faced. Those are valuable, valuable balls. What he faced was worth more than my runs."
Vishwa told me: "I'll hit the ball with my body, if nothing else. You do what you can, Kusal aiya." I took a lot of strength from that
Eventually, in the 86th over, Perera glided a short and wide delivery to the third-man boundary and almost as soon as he made contact he let out a cathartic scream, holding his hands aloft and savouring that "special" feeling.
"That was really awesome," newly appointed captain Dimuth Karunaratne said. "We knew coming into this game that we had a chance. Earlier in 2012, we won a match here in Durban. We had a tough series in Australia but we learnt lots of things so I thought the boys will give their best in South Africa.
"We lost lots of matches last few years. Even the Sri Lankan fans, who all are looking to see when we were going to win. So I think it's a proud moment for us as a team, as a captain, and as a country as well. Winning in South Africa is a real proud moment."
It showed in the Sri Lankan dressing room, which flew into chaos upon seeing the winning shot. Coach Chandika Hathurusingha was leaping about, punching the air. The other players around him were on their seats, roaring in delight. Each of them went over to get a piece of their match-winner, so much so that Perera didn't even have time to collect a stump as a souvenir. Someone else had to do it for him.
In December 2015, Perera went through the ordeal of a false positive drug test. He faced a four-year ban from cricket, but Sri Lanka Cricket helped him fight the charge and eventually win the case in court. In December 2016, he toured South Africa for the first time but with the team in flux, he was made to bat out of position at No. 3 and discarded after one Test. Perera finally came back to the Test side in June 2018 and now stands as a hero. There might perhaps be only one other man who knows how he feels right now. Brian Lara, who too made an epic unbeaten 153 to win a see-sawing Test match against superior opposition in the company of a No. 11 batsman.
No wonder that even the opposition captain couldn't hold back his praise. "Perera was obviously unbelievable," du Plessis said. "To get 160-170 out of that score will take a Superman effort. So he deserves all the accolades that come to him after this game.
"I thought 300 was enough on this wicket. I'd be lying if there wasn't emotions going through me on the inside. Difficult for a captain to tactically… you want to try and protect the lead and then you want to bowl at the tail-ender and he played that beautifully. Whatever we tried, we brought the field up, he still managed to get a one away or a boundary away. Just kept knocking away every over. Towards the end, we got a few balls at the tail-ender but unfortunately there were a few plays an misses. Would've been nice if there'd been a nick."