The whole of Sri Lanka including the cricket fraternity received a shock last Friday when Sri Lanka’s 30-member preliminary squad was named for the forthcoming World T20 to be hosted by Sri Lanka.
One name in particular created a stir as none had heard of him and no information was available even on the web. This led to a flood of speculation some of which bordered on absurdity with even suggestions of bribes and connections to powerful families flying around.
The innocent young man at the centre of the storm was going through his studies as usual at the little-known small school in the outskirts of Colombo, quite oblivious to the commotion he had created.
Who actually is this Akila Dhananjaya named as number 30 in the Sri Lanka squad?
He may well be the next spin wizard to come out of the country that produced world record holders Muttiah Muralitharan and Ajantha Mendis.
Mahamarakkala Kurukulasooriya Patabendige Akila Dananjaya Perera is a soft spoken, small-made 19-year old student from the Mahanama Vidyalaya, Panadura.
He played just 12 matches this season for his school which only plays in Division Three and bagged 60 wickets. He hasn’t played any first class cricket and played just four Under 23 games since joining Colts Cricket Club this season. He wasn’t selected for the Under 19 World Cup. So what magic, suddenly parachuted him into the Sri Lanka squad for the World Cup?
If the words of Sri Lanka’s chairman of National selectors are to be believed, it is only spin magic and nothing else.
You don’t have to be concerned that you haven’t seen or heard of the little known spinner. Even the chief selector Asantha de Mel hasn’t seen him yet ! “Actually in fairness, I haven’t seen the boy. We selected him on the basis of the request of the captain and the coach and not for anything else” de Mel told “Daily Mirror”.
“We had picked 29 and we were looking for another player to be the 30th. Mahela and the coach asked - Can you give us this boy? He seems to have a lot of potential” he added. “Thirty is a large squad. The captain and the coach feel he should be in it. We haven’t seen the boy. We cannot comment on it. They are (already) using him as a net bowler. He is one of the few bowlers who can bowl both off spin as well as leg spin” said de Mel who also said “he apparently has seven different types of deliveries”.
De Mel endorsed Jayawardene’s eye to see promise. “Mahela has a good eye to spot young talent. It is only fair that we back the captain in that kind of situation”. Perera had his first lucky break when Sri Lankans had wanted a net bowler who could mimic champion off spinner Saeed Ajmal during Pakistan’s Sri Lanka tour. Almost all of Sri Lanka’s star batsmen had difficulty in reading him and he became an instant hit with the team.
“He had been bowling at them. He had apparently got the same kind of doosra as Ajmal. They had been working with him” de Mel said.
Jayawarden had rated the young man so high that the Sri Lanka captain picked him as his second choice at the recent auction for the Wayamba United team. “Mahela purchased him in the second round of the SLPL auction even before the Sri Lanka and senior players. Mahela thinks he will really come good” said de Mel.
Perera however said he did not know that the Sri Lanka captain was so impressed with him.
“No one told me anything. I bowled at the Sri Lanka players at the nets and thoroughly enjoyed it. But apart from that I did not know much. I don’t know if they are impressed with me” said Perera who was stunned as everyone else to see his name among the stars in the world Cup squad. “I was amazed and I was equally jubilant” he said.
Perera has one elder brother and a younger sister and has pursued his love for cricket amidst endless financial difficulties. His father who is the sole breadwinner of the family is a carpenter.“We have difficulties. But the family lets me pursue cricket because they think I am good at it” described Perera whose fortunes might see a rapid turnaround if he hits the jackpot with his doosra for the World T20. He is firmly on the right path as Jayawardene’s SLPL team bought him for 5000 US dollars (Rs. 675,000) for the inaugural season.
He had been hurt by comments made by readers of websites when his selection had been published. “My parents were really upset. There were comments that said we were powerfully connected etc. My parents said if anyone of those who made comments see our house where we live, they will understand” he said.
It had all begun when his mother took him with her for his brother’s cricket practices one day. “It was my brother who was playing cricket for school. My mother took him lunch and took me with her. She had to attend to another matter so she asked me to stay with my brother till she came back to pick me up. But she got held up and got late. I was asked to help the other boys and after that, the coach wanted me to attend practices” he described.
Though he can officially be classified as an off spinner, his variety is so much it even baffles him what he actually is. A broad smile was his answer when he was first asked what type he bowled. Then he reluctantly agreed he was an “off spinner” but was quick to add that he had so many variations. “I actually began as a leg spinner” he revealed.
Perera had coaches, but all his variations are selftaught and perfected. “When I see bowling actions of international spinners in slow motion on TV, I always try them out. Then I trial them at the nets. Trying something new always interests me” he said.
He had been picked by national spin bowling coach Piyal Wijetunge and national fielding coach Ruwan Kalpage for the national spin bowling clinic at the R. Premadasa Stadium and since then, had been practicing every week for several years after he was picked at a provincial contest to select players.
De Mel said that Perera was not picked for the Under 19 World Cup as they had to pick players blindly without really having an idea of each player’s potential.
“We took over the Under 19 selections only after the Asia Cup. We were not familiar with them (players) because we had not worked with them. We had to go with the recommendations of the former selection committee, because we were not in a position to look at anything” explained de Mel.
“They had selected a squad of thirty and we had to work within that squad and (for) what they gave, we basically had to agree because we didn’t know anything. We hadn’t seen the boys”.
De Mel feels things would have been different if they were in a better position to pick the Under 19 squad.
“Had we known all this we would have selected him for the under 19 world cup squad. We didn’t know that. See, the thing is under 19 coaches have missed this boy. They have not seen this boy” revealed de Mel.
However de Mel had something was amiss when they named him directly in the Sri Lanka squad.
“We said if we put him in the 30, it is going to look funny because we didn’t put him in the under 19. Mahela wanted this boy in the 30. He is impressed; the coach is also very impressed. Just because we didn’t pick him for under 19, it is not fair for us to leave him out of the world cup” he reasoned.
De Mel also felt Perera had a fair chance of making it into the final 15 of the World T20 squad. “Even if we look at our main side, we don’t have spinners who can take wickets. West Indies have discovered Narine. This boy is also like that. You never know. If he does really well and the captain feels he can be a surprise package. Ajantha Mendis also is not fit. If the captain is really keen, we might consider him for the final 15” explained de Mel.
He pointed out that the forthcoming SLPL would give them a great opportunity to monitor Perera’s strengths.
“We can see how he fares when he plays in the SLPL. He will definitely play in Mahela’s side. We can have a look and see what qualities this boy has” he said.
Source: Daily Mirror - Sri Lanka