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Understudy’s understudy takes centre stage

October 10th, 2017 | by admin
Understudy’s understudy takes centre stage
Cricket Worldwide
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They didn’t let him take the last wicket. Although given that he was understudy to the original, and most endearing, understudy in Sri Lanka cricket and that it was said – and now former – understudy who did get that wicket it won’t sting at all. Rangana Herath – who else? – put the final dot on this series win, and nobody will begrudge him that. But at its heart was the man who isn’t even the man who wasn’t – Dilruwan Perera.

It’s perfectly reasonable if Perera has sort of passed you by as a cricketer. He’s not Sri Lanka’s main spinner. In fact, until recently it’s been difficult to say what he really is. His Test career began with a 95 and zero overs in the fourth innings of a big chase. That, by the way, was against Pakistan, in Sharjah. Later in the year he took 35 wickets across three Test series. When he took 15 in the whitewash of Australia in 2016, it was beginning to look like he was an offspinner. During the course of that series he became the quickest Sri Lankan bowler to 50 Test wickets – this, in the land of Herath and that ultimate conqueror of statistics, Muttiah Muralitharan.

Then he stopped taking wickets, to the degree that in three Tests against India, he took just two. But he started scoring some runs again. After his debut he had gone 16 innings where his highest score was 16. That 16 was a great effort because there were six ducks in that run as well. Since the start of this year he has averaged nearly 35 with four fifties.

So, if pushed, we might shrug and say he’s an offspinning allrounder. Which is the other reason why he may have passed you by. Offspinning allrounders are cricket’s least sexy classification, the mom jeans of the sport. Nobody chooses to be one, nobody grows up wishing to emulate one. You do it because you do one thing but you want to be adequate at another so that your chances of getting picked improve.

Who even is one anymore? There’s Roston Chase. Okay, so there’s Moeen Ali, but he’s Moeen Ali, a category of one. R Ashwin is a supreme offspinner and a batsman who averages nearly 33 but allrounder is not a natural description for him. So, there’s Roston Chase.

It feels like they’re modern cricket’s faulty product, recalled in this age of Twenty20 for not being fit for any purpose. But try recalling a great offspinning allrounder of the past. Mark Waugh? Carl Hooper? You’re more likely to end up with a list of great batsmen who could bowl. They’re not really a thing. And in this light, it makes perfect sense that Sri Lanka apparently considered not picking him at all until the last minute for Abu Dhabi. What would he do?

What would he do? This not-really-a-thing would end up securing Sri Lanka one of their most unexpected series wins in at least three years, perhaps even more than that England win if you caught how badly outplayed they were at home to India and how badly their board seemed to be outplaying the team itself. He would, really. Sri Lanka had a whole line of performers over the two Tests, from Dimuth Karunaratne, Dinesh Chandimal and Niroshan Dickwella to Suranga Lakmal, Nuwan Pradeep, Lahiru Gamage and, of course, Herath.

“Only at the very end of the series, when Perera took his five-fer, was Sarfraz Ahmed asked whether Pakistan had focused too much on Herath”

But Perera was everywhere Sri Lanka needed him to be without attracting undue attention, until perhaps the statistical landmark of a five-wicket haul in the final innings made people stand up and take notice. Except before then, with Chandimal he took Sri Lanka closer to 400 in Abu Dhabi, when they could have folded for 350. He was the one who broke Pakistan’s opening stand in response, not Herath or the far sexier left-arm wrist spin of Lakshan Sandakan, whose googly Pakistan could not read.

In Dubai, his fifty was part of Sri Lanka’s acceleration post Chandimal’s go-slow, and there were eight wickets. There is no shame in admitting that it’s difficult to recall more than a standout moment or two – the three middle-order wickets in 11 balls which turned Pakistan’s slow start into a disastrous one and then, of course, the critical wicket on the final afternoon of Sarfraz Ahmed. He got bounce on that one, but better was that he was catching some lovely drift.

What he gave Sri Lanka was what all teams ever have craved: balance and options. The reason Sri Lanka did eventually pick him for Abu Dhabi was because of the extreme heat – they were worried a four-man attack would not be able to handle the workload without incurring an injury or compromising effectiveness.

So Perera did not just take wickets and score important runs; he bowled enough overs – as many as Herath (107) – to keep Lakmal, Pradeep and eventually Gamage fresh enough. In that selection, Sri Lanka out-thought Pakistan. Pakistan had an offspinning allrounder of their own, albeit one completely untested at international level, but it does make you think. And it lets you wonder what might they have done with the presence of another guy who does one thing pretty well and another thing adequately enough, just not well enough for him to be called an allrounder and who did, for a few years in the UAE, give them precisely that balance.

All series, at every opportunity, Pakistan were asked about Herath. How would they plan against him? Why does he take so many wickets against them? It was so right that only at the very end, when Perera took the five-fer, that Sarfraz was asked whether Pakistan had focused too much on Herath. He was asked it twice in fact, and neither time did the questioner take Perera’s name, nor did Sarfraz specifically refer to him in answering that no, Pakistan had planned for all of Sri Lanka’s attack and that all of Sri Lanka’s attack had bowled well, not just Herath.

But it was as if it had dawned on everyone just then, when it was all said and done, that hey, this guy, whatshisname, he had actually done Pakistan in. That guy, you know, Dilruwan Perera, offspinning allrounder.

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