ICC CRICKET WORLD CUP, 2019
With his maiden ton, Fernando also became the third youngest ODI centurion for Sri Lanka ©Getty
One of the great things about sport is seeing young players announce themselves at the highest level. Those who were at the 1997 Masters will not forget how Tiger Woods played that weekend. An 18-year old Cristiano Ronaldo’s dismantling of Manchester United’s defence in a pre-season friendly in 2003 was enough to make Sir Alex Ferguson sign him then and there. Roger Federer’s first major victory at Wimbledon hinted at the extraordinary talent he possessed.
Nobody knew whether Woods, Ronaldo or Federer would dominate or flunk their chosen sports, of course. More numerous are the players who burn brightly but fleetingly, who make an initial impact but then fail to back it up. That’s the intrigue. What will the youthful promise amount to? After their sparkling hundreds against West Indies, those leaving the Riverside in Chester-le-Street tonight will be wondering that about Avishka Fernando and Nicholas Pooran. Just how far will these kids go, they will ask?
This match may have had nothing riding on it but first Fernando, just 21, and then Pooran, two years older, made sure a potentially forgettable match turned into anything but. These were maiden ODI hundreds in just their ninth games but you can’t imagine these will be the last they score.
There’s a lot of pressure to be the next big cheese of Sri Lankan batting. After the halcyon days of Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene, the country is craving someone – anyone – to take over their mantle. In hindsight, perhaps Sri Lanka were spoiled with those two. It’s like having the use of your parents house in the country while they are on holiday and then having to go back to your dingy one bed flat when they return. That time was glorious but once it’s over, reality bites.
It has certainly been hard for those currently in the side to meet the standards those two greats set. Kusal Perera and Kusal Mendis have had their moments in Test and one-day cricket. So too Dimuth Karunaratne who has been Sri Lanka’s most consistent player of this tournament. But generally throughout the last four years, their batting has been inconsistent and shaky.
Fernando had made eye-catching starts in his previous two matches. Against England, his immediate aggression surprised Eoin Morgan’s men and put them on the back foot. It was a position from which they never truly recovered. Lasith Malinga may have sealed that victory but Fernando had set it up. In the match against South Africa on Friday, he struck four sweet boundaries including an on-drive off Kasigo Rabada which was the stuff of dreams. Fernando held the pose, milking it for all it was worth.
In both innings, he oozed style but failed to go on. The potential was there for a defining innings but both times, it was squandered. It perfectly summed up Sri Lanka’s batting issues in this tournament. They had made getting starts seem the easiest thing in the world. They had often had opposition bowling attacks just where they wanted them. But they kept wilfully self-destructing with dubious decision making. Sort of like texting an ex after a day on the booze. No good can come of that recklessness. No good whatsoever.
Today was therefore a test for young Fernando. It’s all very well blazing away brightly for thirty or forty balls but the mark of a real contender is in doing something outlandish, something precocious. Like winning the Masters, say, or scoring a World Cup hundred at the age of just 21. That sort of precociousness. The sort that makes everyone sit up and take note.
He did it with an innings of calculated ebb and flow. He started off slowly, playing himself in to ward off the danger of one wicket leading to a typical and all too familiar Sri Lankan collapse, before speeding up later. He may have been watchful early but that sedateness was punctuated by shots that made you feel warm and fuzzy inside. These were not reckless shots but shots of silk and velvet, decadence and swagger.
A huge pull for six off Sheldon Cottrell was dismissive. Two inside out cover drives off Fabian Allen – one aerial, one on the ground – were the shots of which Jayawardene would have been proud. Anything slightly short was climbed into. He threw his hands at anything wide. He also scampered ones and twos in the mould of someone determined to make the most of a good pitch and a solid start. But those shots. Boy, those shots are what really stood out.
When Fernando reached fifty, he punched the air, almost self-consciously as if he didn’t want anyone to see how excited he was. He didn’t fool anyone. The enthusiasm of youth is not to be sniffed at. When he reached three figures, he ran around with his arms out-stretched with a grin as wide as he could muster. It was the smile of a youngster realising a dream. Fernando was the third youngest ODI centurion for Sri Lanka.
His potential has been evident for a while and not just because his name means “God-gifted” in his native tongue. He scored hundreds for his school’s first team as a 13 year-old and played for Sri Lanka Under-19s when he was just 16, scoring a hundred against Australia in his second game in 2014. On an Under-19 tour to England two years later, he scored consecutive hundreds. A call-up to the senior squad followed despite Fernando having played no first-class or List A cricket at that point.
It was a short-lived promotion. He made a duck on his debut, against Australia in Dambulla, and was then promptly dropped from the squad. A mayfly would have had a longer run in the team and they only live for 24 hours. It was hardly the most understanding way to treat an 18 year-old and he was only seen again on the tour of South Africa earlier this year. He made some starts there but a World Cup spot only followed because Sri Lanka’s selectors maddeningly culled some of their more established players.
That episode is a reminder that with Sri Lankan cricket, there is always a danger that things will not pan out as they should. Sangakkara cautioned as much on commentary after Fernando had completed his hundred: “They come in, they impress, they score a brilliant hundred like he does. But come six months later, a couple of failures and all that trust and admiration is gone from the selectors and they just take you out from the side.”
The challenge for Fernando is to maintain the standards he has set for himself in this tournament. The challenge for Sri Lankan cricket is to invest in him and manage him well. A young batsman will fail. He will not always score hundreds or dazzle as much as he has in his three World Cup innings. That is all part of the growing up process. Woods, Ronaldo and Federer all went through it. Like them, Avishka Fernando certainly looks the real deal. Time will tell whether he becomes it.