Matthew Sherry was at the Riverside Durham to witness Avishka Fernando's latest star turn during the ICC Men's Cricket World Cup. Sri Lanka coach Chandika Hathurusingha and Kumar Sangakkara discuss what makes him such a special prospect.
He arrived at the Headingley crease a boy; just 21 years old, making his way in international cricket and tasked with rebuilding Sri Lanka following their disappointing start to the ICC Men’s Cricket World Cup. If that challenge wasn’t daunting enough, there was the scoreboard, beaming down on the surface and acting as a reminder of his side’s precarious position. Sri Lanka were 1/2 and England’s Jofra Archer, steaming in having already removed Dimuth Karunaratne, had his tail up.
Yet as he stood awaiting his first delivery, Avishka Fernando looked anything but a boy. “I was confident,” he told ICC. And imposing, stood high with a back-lift to match, poised to languidly stroke the ball. He did so to all corners, caressing a back-foot punch off Archer that showed promise, then rocking back a little further to pull the paceman into the stands to illustrate power. When Archer adjusted and pitched it up, Fernando leaned into a flowing cover drive. In the space of five deliveries, the youngster had added 14 runs to his total and displayed three of the archetypal shots in cricket’s oldest batting textbook.
“He has a really good, uncomplicated technique,” Sri Lanka coach Chandika Hathurusingha tells the ICC. “He stands upright and is a good timer of the ball. He is very good on the back foot and isn’t bad against spin as well.”
More was to come – the booming straight drive off Chris Woakes, another hook into the crowd from Archer – until, with his audience captivated, an upper cut flew straight to Adil Rashid at third man. The score read 62/3 and Fernando had contributed 49 in what, at least at the time, appeared a nice but far from decisive cameo in a contest pre-tournament favourites England would easily win.
History, however, told a different tale. In his 50 minutes at the crease, Fernando displayed a fluidity that would not only evade his own teammates, but each member of England’s exceptional batting line-up. The intervention was a crucial one, turning the significant tide and setting Sri Lanka on course for what proved a match-winning total of 232/9.
Not only that, but it illustrated his own arrival onto the international scene following a frustrating period in which he wasn’t able to play cricket due to illness having previously been earmarked by Sri Lanka’s hierarchy. “He was in the system with the Under-19s,” adds Hathurusingha, “but unfortunately he got a little sick and didn’t play much.”
With that episode behind him, Fernando was ready to seize his opening. The subsequent defeat to South Africa was a hammer blow to Sri Lanka’s qualification hopes, but the youngster still impressed, illustrating much the same class on show at Headingley on another tricky pitch with a 29-ball 30. Such was the level to which he captured the imagination back him that, when ICC pressed social media followers for questions to ask Kumar Sangakkara ahead of the contest with West Indies at the Riverside Durham on July 1, 2019, many were asking of the boy wonder.
“He’s lovely to watch,” says the Sri Lanka great. “His head position and ability to have a neutral strike length – and be able to go forward or rock back on the back foot as we saw against Jofra Archer – there is a lot to like.
“He bats with a very open mind, and freely, and will improve on his game-reading skills. He has to be mindful of that; understanding when to rein it in, which bowler to attack and the conditions. No matter how well you’re batting, you need to react to conditions.”
Fernando was clearly listening. His knock later that day was similar to those that preceded it in many ways, full of aesthetic pleasantries and oozing quality, but the batsman looked different. There was a determination, in the hard running, in the dabs and dinks that interspersed the boundaries. He’d illustrated his form; it was time to cash in.
Three figures came via a hard-run two, roared on by vociferous fans donning Lasith Malinga wigs. It was a telling image: supporters paying homage to the last member of Sri Lanka’s glorious old guard – of Muttiah, Kumar, Mahela and Lasith – valiantly roaring on the potential of a bright future; celebrating the next player to worship… Avishka, which means God-gifted. “He is a one for the future,” admits Hathurusingha. “He is very talented and a lot of bit things are to come from him.”
It is easy in the increasingly cut-throat world to focus only on the bigger picture, to celebrate the champions and dismiss everything else. Yet if you scratch beneath the surface of any World Cup, beyond the cold reality of winners and losers, there are hidden gems that forecast the game’s next chapter. Of boys becoming men in front of people’s eyes. Fernando's next chapter awaits.