As the strength in Sri Lanka's bowling seems to be shifting from spin to pace, Thisara Perera's all-round skills are proving of great value to his side
The challenge for any team visiting Sri Lanka, till some years ago, was taking on an array of spinners on turning pitches. Muttiah Muralitharan and Upul Chandana were a handful, and there was also Sanath Jayasuriya to deal with. Sri Lanka's present bowling attack, however, has a different make-up.
With Murali's retirement and Ajantha Mendis falling off the radar, a once spin-heavy attack is reliant on seam-bowling allrounders. The emergence of Angelo Mathews and Thisara Perara, two bowlers of similar pace, has expanded Sri Lanka's options. Perera is turning into one of Sri Lanka's bigger impact players in the limited-over formats.
As a batsman, Perera has been identified as a finisher, coming lower in the order for the slog overs. As a bowler, he slots in as the third or fourth seamer, depending on the composition. His athletic prowess and reflexes make him an asset in the field. In four matches during the ongoing home series against Pakistan, Perera excelled in all three disciplines.
Thisara Perera has impressed in all three departments in the series against Pakistan so far © AFP
He's created a healthy competition with Mathews. Both started their careers at roughly the same time, though Mathews' injuries have restricted his bowling. An injury to Mathews before the 2011 World Cup final gave Perera an opportunity, and his unbeaten nine-ball 22 took Sri Lanka to 274.
He struggled for consistency in the next couple of tours, but reminded the selectors of his capabilities with a 44-ball 69 in a high-scoring chase in Kimberley, during the tour of South Africa. In the CB Series in Australia, another 'impact' innings was an 11-ball 21 in a tense chase against Australia in Hobart. Perera swung Daniel Christian for a four and a six to narrow the equation in Sri Lanka's favour.
Perera missed the Asia Cup due to injury but on his comeback, against Pakistan in the first Twenty20 in Hambantota, he muscled an unbeaten 32 after the main batsmen failed. His knock, plus a diving catch at third man, seemed to perk up Sri Lanka's body language in their successful defense of a low score.
In the second ODI in Pallekele, Perera won the Man-of-the-Match award mainly because he managed what the frontline seamers did not: pick up top-order wickets. His cameo, a 14-ball 24, was an appetiser to what was to come. He came out to bat in a relatively pressure-free scenario, after Mahela Jayawardene gave the innings mileage as Dilshan steadily progressed to his century. Perera sent the ball scorching past Saeed Ajmal to the straight boundary, before slogging him over deep midwicket. He then dispatched Umar Gul over square leg to take Sri Lanka towards 280.
After ten wicketless overs in Pakistan's chase, Perera was called upon as the second-change bowler. He had immediate impact. Mohammad Hafeez chipped the ball back towards the bowler, and Perera managed to fling himself in the opposite direction of his follow through and pluck the catch one-handed. He was denied Younis Khan's wicket at the start of his fourth over, but the wicketkeeper Kumar Sangakkara made amends for his botched catch four balls later.
Perera had taken 2 for 24 in his first spell of five overs. His second, though, was more incisive. He struck with the first ball yet again, trapping Misbah-ul-Haq on the back pad with an offcutter. The pressure began to pile on Pakistan because the boundaries had dried up. Perera, however, was fortuitous in getting Umar Akmal's wicket, as replays showed the ball missing the edge on the way to the keeper.
A new spell brought another wicket off the first ball. Sohail Tanvir failed to clear square leg and Perera had picked up his third five-for in ODIs, to go with his spells against India in Dambulla, and Australia at the MCG.
Perera's rise has won him the praise of his captain Jayawardene, who can only see him getting better. "I have always said that Thisara is an exciting prospect. Even at a young age he showed lot of potential although he hadn't played that much," Jayawardene told the Sunday Island. "Obviously with the talent he has got he is like someone like Shahid Afridi, who can clear the boundary."
After Farveez Maharoof failed to nail down the same position despite several opportunities, Perera has been the impact player Sri Lanka have been looking for.