From touching greatness in 2019 to not playing a game in 2022, whatever happened to Kusal Perera?
Four years ago, Kusal Perera played one of the greatest innings in the history of the game. Now, aged 32, Perera hasn’t played for Sri Lanka in any format since the 2021 T20 World Cup and, until last week, hadn’t featured in a professional game since the 2021 Lanka Premier League – so, what’s happened to attacking left-hander?
Perera’s 153 not out at Durban instantly went down as an all-time classic. He shared a 78-run stand with Vishwa Fernando for the last wicket to secure a famous one-wicket victory against a South Africa attack featuring the likes of Dale Steyn, Vernon Philander, Kagiso Rabada, Duanne Olivier and Keshav Maharaj. The innings came second in Wisden’s countdown of the best Test innings of the 2010s.
Four years on from that landmark knock, Perera has played just seven more Tests of the 23 Sri Lanka have played and hasn’t since scored another century. He has now gone over 15 months since playing for Sri Lanka in any format of the game.
Perera’s form, however, cannot take the entirety of the blame for why he has fallen so far off the map of Sri Lankan cricket. Injury, internal politics and the Covid-19 pandemic have all played their part. Less than a month after his magnum opus in Durban, he picked up a hamstring tear in the following ODI series, which ruled him out until the start of the World Cup. It was his third such injury in as many years.
Fit and playing again, Perera emerged from Sri Lanka’s promising 2019 World Cup campaign as their leading run-scorer. He scored three fifties in the tournament and struck at a higher rate than any of his teammates, a leading contributor to Sri Lanka’s unexpected mid-table finish.
Riding on the crest of a wave which labelled him one of the most exciting all-format batters in the world, 2020 brought Perera’s trajectory crashing back down to earth. He was dropped from the Sri Lanka Test squad for their tour of Zimbabwe after a barren series in New Zealand where he scored 1, 23, 0 and 0 in each of his innings.
Speaking to ESPNcricinfo, chief selector Asantha de Mel justified his deselection for the tour, the first of the Mickey Arthur era.: “Yes, Kusal can make 150s, but we needed someone who can occupy the crease, which is why we chose (Lahiru) Thirimanne. Kusal has an issue with his hamstrings where he can’t run around the field as much and because Dickwella is the main keeper, we thought there was no point taking another keeper.”
Nevertheless, he was recalled for the two-match series against England in March 2020, only for the Covid-19 pandemic to force the visiting players to rapidly retreat from their preparations in Sri Lanka. Perera’s career was once again forced to the sidelines.
There was light when he scored a half-century against South Africa at the end of 2020. Back in the side for a short run, he hit two more in as many weeks as England began their return tour after the sting of the pandemic had somewhat subsided. But injury kept him out of their next series and he has not featured in another Test squad since.
While the lack the sort of innings he showed himself capable of at Durban in 2019, along with injury troubles put paid to his selection in the Test arena, Perera’s fall from white-ball favour was far more dramatic.
He was appointed captain of a young squad in 2021 which had been rapidly shaken up by Arthur looking towards the 2023 World Cup. A young core of players were assembled to take them through the remainder of the four-year cycle and see them through the interwoven T20 World Cups. But, continued instability in Sri Lanka’s cricketing landscape erupted over the course of Perera’s two-month-long captaincy.
A dispute between the players and the Sri Lanka Cricket Board over a new evaluation system to award central contracts, and to decide the band of pay which players should fall into, drove a schism between the players and their employers. Internally, it also rapidly fractured the side into factions. Additional hostility over fitness tests during their 2-1 series victory over Bangladesh escalated the tensions; throughout the following series in England, the situation imploded.
With the players having agreed to tour on an uncontracted basis, not only were Sri Lanka thrashed in every match (aside from a rain-affected no-result in the last) but the player-board conflict was further antagonised when Kusal Mendis, Danushka Gunathilaka and Niroshan Dickwella were infamously filmed breaking bio-security protocols.
In the weeks that followed before the Sri Lanka squad headed to India, Perera was replaced as white-ball captain by Dasun Shanaka. Having been central in the contract negotiations in which the players had been set to boycott the series against India, Perera’s stand was forcibly broken when a group of players signed contracts with the SLC.
In the event, a shoulder injury which has continued to plague him to this day kept him out of playing any part in the tour, captain or otherwise. When he did return for Sri Lanka in the 2021 T20 World Cup and its qualifier tournament, he returned mixed results. In the eight T20Is he played in October and November 2021, half of his innings ended before he reached double figures.
After playing seven matches in the 2021 LPL, Perera has been absent from professional cricket. That shoulder injury has ruled him out of all of Sri Lanka’s international series and the latest T20 World Cup. Another ugly incident between Perera and the SLC flared up in June last year over payment for surgery to his shoulder in England.
In a fairly bleak story of a player who contributed, in some eyes, the greatest Test innings of all time to the game, there could be light at the end of the tunnel. He made his first-class return in February and is seemingly available for selection for Sri Lanka’s upcoming Test tour of New Zealand. Maybe, he’ll get a chance to add a renaissance to his remarkably polarised career.