Sri Lanka's Kusal Perera
Sri Lanka's Kusal Perera celebrates the victory after hittting the winning runs during the fourth day of the first Cricket Test between South Africa and Sri Lanka at the Kingsmead Stadium in Durban on February 16, 2019. Image Credit: AFP

Colombo: Kusal Perera became a national hero in Sri Lanka on Sunday after scoring an unbeaten 153 to guide his country to a sensational first Test victory in South Africa.

The country’s cricket legends and politicians lauded Perera, who has become a linchpin for the ailing national side since fighting off doping charges in 2016.

Former skipper Kumar Sangakkara, who had staunchly defended Perera when he was suspended in December 2015, called the performance at Kingsmead in Durban on Saturday “unreal”.

“What an amazing win,” Sangakkara said on Twitter. “One of the best if not THE best overseas win by (Sri Lanka). Kusal Janith Perera was unreal.”

Sangakkara stood by Perera when he was wrongfully accused of doping in 2015. The International Cricket Council lifted the suspension in 2016 and apologised for the botched testing.

Another former Sri Lanka skipper Mahela Jayawardena said on Twitter: “What a beauty! One of the best innings under pressure.”

Jayawardena said Perera, who put on a last wicket partnership of 78 had shown “intelligence and mental strength”.

Perera scored 67 in an unbroken last-wicket stand with Vishwa Fernando which gave his underdog team a sensational victory.

Sri Lanka’s President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe also took to Twitter to hail the win.

“Congratulations to our cricket team on snatching a victory from the jaws of defeat,” Sirisena said. “Kusal Janith Perera makes mother Sri Lanka very proud today! Keep fighting!

“Great spirit by @kusaljperera and all the youngsters #SAvSL,” added Wickremesinghe while thanking the national side which has been the butt of jokes due to poor recent results.

“U beauty”, said Sports minister Harin Fernando on Twitter.

Management scandals, graft

Sri Lanka won the World Cup in 1996 and since has been plagued by management scandals, allegations of corruption and player squabbling.

They were swept 3-0 in a home Test series against England last year and were then beaten in Australia and New Zealand.

Match-winner Perera Perera scored 67 of his runs in an unbeaten 78-run last-wicket stand with Vishwa Fernando which gave his underdog team a sensational victory.

“When I was batting with the tail, I knew we couldn’t win this match by just scoring singles,” said Perera after his career-best knock which was already being hailed as one of Test cricket’s greatest innings.

“I was the last proper batsman left. When the time felt right for me, I took my chances.”

The left-hander managed to keep most of the strike and played some audacious strokes, including two sixes off fast bowler Dale Steyn and one each off Kagiso Rabada, Duanne Olivier and Keshav Maharaj.

“I tried to hit to the closest boundary,” said Perera, who was described as “superman” by opposition skipper Faf du Plessis.

“It was a superman effort. He deserves all the accolades,” said du Plessis.

Perera added: “I had really wanted to hit two or three sixes off Steyn as we were getting close. Thankfully I was able to do that. I think my decision-making was really good.”

Perera paid tribute to Fernando who played his part in what was the highest last-wicket stand in a fourth-innings chase in the history of first-class cricket.

“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.’ 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.”

Plaudits poured in for Perera.

“Kusal Perera !!!! WOW .... One of the greatest Test innings of all time,” tweeted former England captain Michael Vaughan.

Dimuth Karunaratne, captaining Sri Lanka for the first time, said: “We had to believe in Kusal. It was a fantastic knock against a really good fast bowling attack.”