Kusal Perera’s incredible unbeaten century against South Africa, which saw Sri Lanka prevail by one wicket in Durban last week, has inevitably led many to speculate whether it is the greatest Test innings of all time – an accolade, at least until the miracle of Kingsmead, believed to belong to Graham Gooch.
Perera’s 153 certainly had people dusting off the superlatives. Only the left-hander’s second Test hundred, it managed to secure a rare overseas win for a team that tend to travel worse than a punnet of strawberries; a rare victory over South Africa (in the context of the last 25 years); a last gasp triumph by one wicket with the No.11 surviving for over an hour; and the highest score by some distance in a match where only four others exceeded 50.
Gooch’s knock, an unbeaten 154, came against the West Indies in 1991, when they were still the best Test team in the world. In the current table, South Africa are second. Gooch was also captain, a role he admitted spurred him on but an added pressure nonetheless given the time and effort it demanded to matters other than his own batting.
Some will point to Gooch being on home turf as an advantage over Perera, who was playing away. Yet, Gooch’s average for England at Headingley was a less than eye-catching 20 to that point, which would not have been of great succour to him.
Statisticians will have all kind of factors, functions and quotients by which to base their models of comparison.
This piece, unashamedly, will be about making assumptions in all their glorious subjectivity – assumptions about how easy or difficult the bowling was; the nature of the pitch; as well as other stuff about the conditions. There will be all kinds of mental leaps made, too, about the pressure the match situation placed upon the batsmen – all based on individual judgment and all highly speculative.
For instance, one analyst claimed that South Africa’s bowling attack which Perera faced in Durban, comprising Dale Steyn, Kagiso Rabada, Vernon Philander, Duanne Olivier and Keshav Maharaj, was stronger than the West Indies quartet of Malcolm Marshall, Curtly Ambrose, Courtney Walsh and Patrick Patterson. Notwithstanding the fact that Philander was injured for most of Perera’s innings with a strained hamstring, only those who’d never seen the West Indies operate in that era would make such an astonishing claim.
Gooch also opened the innings, a particularly precarious undertaking back then against Marshall and Co, whatever the conditions. In that match at Headingley the pitch, while sluggish, was responsive to seam movement throughout the match due to the near constant cloud cover which shrouded the ground. The skills demanded of batsmen on either side but especially England’s against such a fiery quartet, were a sound defence, application and concentration.
Most were found wanting.
Gooch was an experienced Test batsman by that stage of his career as well as one who’d enjoyed individual success against the various West Indies’ pace attacks. If there had been rankings in 1991, he’d have been in the top 10 for Test batsmen. By contrast, Perera, 28 and 5ft 6in tall, was playing in just his 15th Test.
Before his wonder innings he was not even in the top 50 of the rankings, his batting average a paltry 26.3.
To dominate a Test match with a CV like that then is mightily impressive though Perera did bat at No.5. As a rule of thumb, batting in the middle order is easier than opening unless facing the reverse-swing of such great exponents of the skill like Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis.
Perera also faced bowlers armed with a Kookaburra ball, the type used in South Africa and far more batsman-friendly than the Duke or Reader Gooch would have faced back in 1991. The pitch in Durban, although no featherbed judging from the scores, did appear to suit batsmen more as the match wore on. Mind you, one report said Perera had to cope with swing, reverse-swing and turn and extra bounce, which makes his innings sound one from the realm of miracles rather than man.
The match situation and how to judge its effect in the mental processes of batsmen like Gooch and Perera, is always going to be something of a guess, but it has to be done. For Gooch, England had not beaten West Indies in a home Test for 22 years when Headingley ended the sequence. There was, then, an added pressure to stop the rot though you could also see it from the point of view that another defeat on England’s part would merely have preserved the status quo.
For Sri Lanka, South Africa had long proved difficult opponents to beat though the Test at Kingsmead was their third successive victory over them, the first two of the sequence coming at home last year. In a rare away win they’d even beaten them at Kingsmead before, in 2011, though that side had the star players Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara to call upon.
To win in Durban this time Sri Lanka had to chase 304 batting last, a task completed only after Perera, who scored 153, had fashioned a 78-run partnership with No.11 Vishwa Fernando, who made six. Succeeding from that position deserves to go down in folklore but the expectation of doing so would have been low. The pressure on both men, therefore, would have been minimal until 20 runs were needed. Then, the realisation, especially on Fernando, that something incredible was in the offing, would have pressed down with enormous force.
Gooch, buoyed by England’s 25-run lead on first innings, would have set off in determined fashion though any optimism would have been quickly crushed when England slipped to
124-6. Then, the realisation that he would need to score most of any target England set the West Indies, and the crushing pressure that would have come with it, would have struck him.
That he went on to score an unbeaten 154 of England’s total of 252, a whopping 61.1 percent of the runs, remains a monument of wonder.
Perera’s innings surprised everyone, himself included, something not the case with Gooch, who was a fine player of fast bowling. But I stood 22 yards away at the non-striker’s end for a good deal of Gooch’s knock and against those West Indies bowlers on that pitch you were never “in”. To make 154, unbowed, in such circumstances is beyond even the marvel of Perera’s achievement. As such it retains its status as the greatest Test innings ever played.