As Sri Lanka stunned England to record the ‘upset of the tournament’ and split the ICC Cricket World Cup wide open, one of the positives from Sri Lanka’s excellent performance was young 21-year old Avishka Fernando’s batting. 

Playing only his seventh ODI and first in a World Cup, Fernando announced himself with a dashing 49 off 39 at number three, smashing England’s bowlers to all parts of the ground in a decisive, counter-attacking knock.

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With three middle-order collapses in as many games in the World Cup, which resulted in two heavy defeats, Sri Lanka…

After being 2 down for just 3 on the brownest surface Sri Lanka have played on this World Cup, Fernando, usually an opening batsman, pulled Sri Lanka out from the deep hole they found themselves in. His audacious stroke play n gutsy batting was just what the doctor ordered at the point.

The  joint-highest wicket-taker in the World Cup, Jofra Archer had his tail up early on with the new ball, consistently hitting the perfect line and length, at searing pace. After being watchful for 14 balls at the crease, Fernando struck the first boundary of the match – a sweet punch off Archer through the vacant cover region.

Two of Archer’s best deliveries troubled the right hander but Fernando pulled the next one to the top tier over fine-leg. However, the shot of his innings came in the very next delivery, as he drove Archer elegantly to the cover boundary to accumulate 14 runs off the 6th over of the game.

Fernando is a natural stroke-maker with bucket loads of power and class. He doesn’t move his feet much at the crease, but picks up length quickly. He relies heavily on his bat speed and hand-eye co-ordination.

Some of his counter-punches through the cover region and straight drives down the ground were amazingly off good-length balls. No other player in the Sri Lankan squad pulls as exquisitely as Fernando. One such eye-pleasing pull off Archer went as far as Kirkstall Lane –out of the stadium, prompting the umpires to get a new ball.

Photos: Sri Lanka vs England | ICC Cricket World Cup 2019 – Match 27

He could have given more impetus to the Sri Lankan score if not for an unnecessary ramp to third-man, which brought an end to his innings. According to Cricviz, out of the 39 balls he faced, Fernando attacked only 14 deliveries, playing a false shot with just one – which got him out. That’s a false shot percentage when attacking of 7%, the average for all ODI batsmen is 22%.

“He was always batting well in the nets. We were waiting to give him an opportunity and I am glad he came out and contributed to the win,” Sri Lanka skipper Dimuth Karunaratne said after the match. “He batted fearlessly and positively so we hope he would convert those starts into big knocks in the future. “

Six of Fernando’s seven career ODIs were matches from this year but he debuted in 2016, when he was just an 18-year old schoolboy.  Fresh out of a successful Sri Lanka U19 tour of England, where he struck 285 runs in 3 youth ODIs, including two centuries, Fernando was thrown into the deep end against Mitchell Starc during Australia’s tour of Sri Lanka by the selection committee led by former captain Sanath Jayasuriya.

After a forgettable debut – a two-ball duck, Fernando went into the wilderness. He played his final season at St. Sebastian’s College and he wasn’t even a regular at his club, Colts CC until last season. He then racked up 576 runs, a 72 and   a double-hundred in red-ball cricket, which earned him a place in the Sri Lanka ‘A’ team against Ireland ‘A’ in their home one-day series at the start of the year.

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Against the Irish Wolves, Fernando was in sublime touch. He smashed 523 in five innings with 3 centuries. Therefore, he was recalled to the national side against South Africa, where he scored 71 in 4 innings. However, the selectors persisted with him. He scored a career-best 74 against Scotland before the World Cup but was unceremoniously benched afterwards. How he was kept out of the side, for an under-performing Lahiru Thirimanne until now is unimaginable.

Most of his classmates were making their first XI school debuts when Fernando tasted the bitterness of competitive international cricket before he even left school. A player oozing with such talent must be nurtured with care and preserved most delicately and given an uninhibited long run at the highest level. Fernando should be the true investment for Sri Lanka Cricket in the future.