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What happened to Sri Lanka's Suresh Perera?

5th March, 2014
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5th March, 2014
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Sri Lanka’s recent tour of Bangladesh barely caused any reverberations in the cricket world. Most neutral cricket fans were probably oblivious to it.

It was a ho-hum affair. Inevitably, Sri Lanka won a turgid two-test series. Most pundits have forgotten the series even occurred.

No big deal.

But it’s likely to resonate in cricket’s hallowed history because Sri Lanka’s two iconic and indefatigable players continued their love affair with cricket annals.

Venerable veterans Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara both obliterated the hapless Bangladeshi pop-gun attack.

Jayawardene scored an unbeaten 203 during Sri Lanka’s crushing first Test victory, while Sangakkara resuscitated a dreary run fest in the second Test with scores of 319 and 105.

Only Graham Gooch has performed a similar deed in Test history.

The pair have been the mainstays of Sri Lankan cricket in the 21st century. They keep plundering attacks unmercifully, well in the sub-continent anyway.

Both have scored more than 11,000 Test runs. Age and injury haven’t conquered the soon-to-be 37 year olds.

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From afar, Suresh Perera was marvelling at the deeds of the ageless Sri Lankan masters.

“They both continue to score heavily and are playing very well after all these years,” he says, with a hint of awe.

“They are incredible players.”

The captain of Bassendean Cricket Club, a humble suburban team in Perth, was once considered the most exciting prospect in Sri Lankan cricket.

After Sri Lanka was thrust into cricket prominence following their breathtaking 1996 ODI World Cup victory, a new wave of talent was hoped to replicate the hallowed footsteps of Arjuna Ranatunga and Aravinda de Silva.

Enter Perera. In the late 1990s, he was deemed the prototype player for the forthcoming millennium – a destructive all-rounder possessing a skill-set to potentially dominate the 50-over and Test formats.

Packaged as a flamboyant batsman capable of decimating an attack, coupled with an ability to open the bowling, many salivated at Perera’s prospects.

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He was the type of player perfectly encapsulating Sri Lanka’s exciting brand of cricket, which had propelled them into beloved status within the global cricket community.

One of Perera’s biggest admirers was Dav Whatmore, the then Sri Lankan coach who believed the precocious teenager was destined to be a mainstay in Sri Lanka’s international destiny.

In 1998, the all-rounder showcased his blossoming skills during a Test initiation in England. Another member of that memorable team was Jayawardene, who was playing in just his sixth Test.

Sangakkara was two years away from making his debut.

A dazzling debut appeared to confirm the hype. The 20-year-old grabbed the prized scalp of England captain Alec Stewart, who was in the midst of his pomp.

Batting at nine, Perera’s innate attacking instincts were evident, eviscerating an England attack containing Darren Gough, Angus Fraser and Dominic Cork.

Fine, he wasn’t quite battling against the ilk of Marshall, Holding and Garner but his belligerent 43 (six boundaries and a six) was nonetheless impressive.

Sri Lanka won the one-off Test by 10 wickets – their first and only triumph on cricket’s sacred land.

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It remains arguably Sri Lanka’s most indelible Test memory. On the heels of their World Cup victory, and boasting a bevy of match-winning players, it seemed likely Sri Lanka was on the verge of moulding into a cricket powerhouse.

But Sri Lanka, much like the fate that would befall their young star, was never destined to dominate international cricket.

To emerge as an elite force, Sri Lanka knew they needed firepower with pace. They couldn’t just rely on Muttiah Muralitharan’s genius, particularly on wickets away from the sub-continent that negated his influence

Sri Lanka boasted one genuine pace star – cunning left-arm seamer Chaminda Vaas, whose guile has probably been slightly underappreciated since his retirement five years ago.

Finding a bowler to complement Vaas proved difficult.

Sri Lankan officials believed Perera was the answer to their dilemmas.

They believed he could be honed into an effective new ball bowler, and in combination with Vaas and Murali, Sri Lanka could meld an all-round attack capable of consistently delivering Test victories in all conditions.

Problem was, Perera never wanted to be a new ball bowler. He believed he was a batting all-rounder. He was more Shane Watson than Mitchell Johnson.

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Maybe it was a case of Sri Lankan officials being too infatuated with Perera’s talents. Maybe it shrouded their judgement.

“I always preferred batting,” Perera says.

“When I was younger, I was a top order batsman. I was always more of a batting all-rounder.”

Perera’s batting and bowling juxtaposed noticeably. With willow he was audacious, a whiff of bravado emanated from him. His batting methodology was simple – the ball deserves to be hit. He was a swashbuckler.

Armed with the ball, Perera was more timid. He was no express bowler. He wasn’t a precursor to Lasith Malinga.

Bowling at average speeds of about 130-135km/h, Perera was never going to hustle batsmen.

So, he relied on line and length bowling, which had become in vogue due to the success of McGrath, Pollock et al.

And his side-on-slightly-whippy action helped generate swing and was hoped to provide the fillip to eke out wickets.

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Age, injury and discontent conquered Perera.

After his emergence in England, stress fractures in his back consigned Perera to a lengthy stint on the sideline.

When he recovered from the injury scourge, Perera faced another setback – scrutiny over his action. He was reported by umpire Steve Bucknor during a Test against India in mid-2001 and spent time in India trying to reform his action.

Eventually, his action was cleared but the psychological scarring continued to linger and the apparitions haunted his comeback bid.

“I had to change my action and it was hard to come back from,” Perera admits.

“There was no rule at that point, now there is 15 degrees – I was below that but was seen as suspicious.

“I lost my bowling rhythm after that.”

As his promising career was spiralling, dissatisfaction plagued Perera.

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“I needed a break from cricket,” he says.

“My grandmother died and she brought me up, so life was tough for a while there. I had no desire to play cricket.”

Age, rather the lack of, sealed his fate. He enjoyed the revelry afforded to cricketers in his cricket-crazy homeland. As with many in their 20s, immaturity became a bane. He had skirmishes with the law and was arrested in early 2005 for being part of a drunken brawl.

“Sri Lanka’s a place where you can enjoy the lifestyle if you are a cricketer,” Perera says.

“For a couple of years I quit and just hung out with my friends.”

By his mid-20s, Perera’s international cricket dreams were over. Indeed, the images of his debut at The Oval felt like a dream.

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Perera admits he doesn’t watch much Sri Lankan cricket anymore and has little connection to his former team, despite still maintaining relationships with some of his ex-teammates.

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“I got tickets from Murali to go to the Big Bash when he was in Perth,” Perera says.

“I have some friends from those days. Murali and Mahela are two I still keep in touch with.”

Maybe it doesn’t keep him up at night, but occasionally Perera contemplates if his cricket destiny would have turned more sharper than a Murali offie if he had been raised in a different country.

“There is lots of favouritism in Sri Lankan cricket,” Perera believes.

“Political power is high and management often get pressurised by politicians.

“They didn’t use me properly. I was really talented as a batsman and I could have been used more effectively.

“Slowly, I could have developed my bowling. It is sad I didn’t get a chance in international cricket.

“Sri Lanka will always have political problems. It will always will be interfered by politicians.”

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When Perera moved to Perth five years ago, he thought it signalled closure of his cricket career. He moved to Australia’s west coast with his Sri Lankan wife, who grew up in Perth. He found employment as a forklift driver and as the head of a young family, a new life emerged in a sleepy city he dubs “the place to be”.

Inevitably, Perera was enticed back to cricket. No longer burdened with expectations and stifled by periphery forces, Perera has relished playing club cricket in Perth.

“I love training the youngsters and using my experience to help shape them as cricketers,” he says.

“Bowling is tough, I still get back pain. But I now try to take wickets. I was too conservative with Sri Lanka.”

Aged 36 – slightly younger than Jayawardene and Sangakkara – Perera believes he’s found belated solace with the game that once offered so much.

Cricket is not just runs, wickets and glory.

It’s also about learning life’s harshest lessons.

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