Why Kusal Perera should not be blamed for his failure at number three

Kusal Perera
Kusal Perera’s wicketkeeping has received accolades from Ian Healy.

Let us get this straight: Kusal Perera was never supposed to be an opening batsman or a number three in tests. He, since his debut, was expected to perform the role of an aggressive wicketkeeper-batsman at number seven along the lines of Australia’s legendary Adam Gilchrist.

He has already had Ian Healy heap praise on his adroit ability behind the stumps. He is nimble-footed and add to that his immaculate hand-eye coordination, Kusal Perera, deserves to be in any Test team for his wicketkeeping skills if nothing else.  The swift stumpings he effected against Australia bear testimony to his dexterity behind the stumps. At the risk of sounding harsh on Chandimal, it should be told that Kusal Perera is better equipped behind the stumps than Chandimal is, and the Sri Lankan vice-captain is too precious a batsman to be burdened with wicketkeeping duties.

Brought into the team for a different job

Kusal made his debut at number seven against India and immediately started paying dividends by scoring twin fifties. Even though he failed to convert his starts against West Indies into big scores, after returning to the Test team following the rescinding of the ill-founded moratorium that was enforced on him, he scored 42 in his return innings against England at number seven. He followed it with a 20 at number seven, which was the second highest score in the 1st innings against Australia in the 1st test in Kandy. His last innings at that position saw him scoring 62. In 8 innings at number seven, Kusal averages 36.62.

In contrast, the southpaw has struggled at number three. He averages a paltry 30.5 at that position. If his 110 against Zimbabwe, which is a statistical outlier, is ignored then his average drops down to 19.14.

It is rather an arcane scenario since a player who was brought into the side as a wicketkeeping batsman was then promoted to number three despite the batsman who was supposed to be the number three still playing in the side.

Compelled into a different role for his team

With Mahela Jayawardene occupying the number four spot, Dinesh Chandimal spent his early days in Test cricket at number six and it seems as if he has acculturated his batting to that position. Following Mahela’s retirement, Thirimanne moved to number four, but his bouts of poor performances at that position prompted the management to swap Chandimal with Thirimanne at number four.

In the face of Chandimal doing well against West Indies in Sri Lanka and against New Zealand in New Zealand at number four, three successive failures in England made Chandimal revert back to his favorite number six position. The move yielded success forthwith as Chandimal blistered away to his maiden century in the English soil.

Thirimanne was dropped for the home series against Australia that followed the series against England and the number four spot once again became vacant.  Chandimal moved up to fill that position but managed only 15 runs as his team collapsed to 117 on the very first day of the test.

In the second innings of the test match, Sri Lanka made the fateful decision of opening the batting with Kusal Perera, who was in the team as a wicketkeeper-batsman, presumably, to go after the Australian fast bowlers both to create a quick dent in the deficit and to put their bowlers under immense pressure.

However, Kusal could rake in only 4 runs, but the move allowed Chandimal to move down to six. The gamble allowed Kusal Mendis to score 176 runs at number four and Chandimal to score 42 at number six. The team management, then, started persisting with Mendis at number four and Chandimal at six. Kusal Perera became the scapegoat at number three so that two batsmen in the team could bat in their supposed best positions.

Kusal Mendis
Kusal Perera at number three allowed both Chandimal and Kusal Mendis to bat in their apparent best positions.

Chandimal, speaking to the media during the 1st Test against South Africa, claimed that, “Since Kusal is playing at No. 3, I am given the wicketkeeping duties. I can’t bat that high because otherwise I’d be tired from keeping.” But to be objective, it could be observed that Chandimal keeps wickets because he bats at number six and not vice versa. Chandimal is a more valuable batsman in Tests than Kusal Perera is and there is no way that a team would want to burden Chandimal with wicketkeeping duties to relieve a batsman like Kusal Perera.

Chandimal, in every way, is a better top order batsman than Kusal Perera and it is unfathomable why a team would play Kusal Perera as a specialist batsman at number three and Dinesh Chandimal as a wicketkeeper-batsman at number six. But the decision to play Kusal Perera at number three fitted Sri Lanka’s needs perfectly in a way that it allowed both Chandimal and Kusal Mendis to bat at number six and four respectively.

So, it is plainly obvious that the decision to promote Kusal Perera wasn’t a part of the team’s plan to be combative at the beginning of an innings so much as it was the only option the team had to ensure that both Chandimal and Mendis batted in their best positions.

However, the team was rather optimistic about their forced decision. Even though Kusal Perera is not an ideal number three in tests, the team pipe dreamt that Kusal Perera’s aggression could shift the momentum towards Sri Lanka early on in the innings, which could benefit the team’s stable middle order. In other words, the team, after being forced into hell, was fantasizing about a rosy life there.

Never his fault

Kusal Perera cannot be blamed for the team’s predicament. It would have been utopian to have expected Perera to rein in his aggression and bat like a proper number three. If the team had expected him to do so, that would have been farcical since there are plenty of better archetypical number threes in Sri Lanka who could have better fitted that role. But the team was happy about Kusal Perera continuing to bat the way he usually does at number three. “We didn’t want to change his game because everybody talks about how when Sanath Jayasuriya started off, the way he played, and he never changed his game. With a player like KJP, we didn’t want to change the way he played,” Angelo Mathews said during the first test.

To summarize Kusal Perera’s quandaries, the team forced him into the only empty slot available in the team, in spite of that being veritably unsuitable for him, as the team didn’t want the rest of the batsmen to budge out of their comfort zones, and then unsoundly expected his aggression to pay-off. The team was expecting a sprinter to sprint his way to victory in a marathon race. Kusal Perera was merely a scapegoat here.

Nonetheless, the team wasn’t irrational in wanting some of their batsmen to bat in the positions that they deemed fit. Chandimal averages 60.42 at number six in contrast to the average of 33.92 at number four. Kusal Mendis, on the other hand, averages 45.22 at number four and 24 at number three.

Thus, even though Kusal Perera was victimized, the move was for the greater good of the team. But the fact of the matter is that Kusal Perera’s failure was not in any way because of his imprudence but rather due to the decision the team was forced to take. Perera wasn’t reckless. Instead, he was a victim of his circumstances.