Sri Lanka didn’t have to wait very long or look very hard to find their silver lining. Avishka Fernando bludgeoned a brilliant century against the West Indies in Durham becoming, at the age of only 21, the third-youngest man ever to make a century on the biggest stage of all.
When he brought up his three figures at Chester-le-Street, the cricketing world rose to welcome him. Chris Gayle could only stand and applaud at slip, a visibly-excited Kumar Sangakkara in the gantry proclaimed his successor: ‘This man is the real deal,’ and Sri Lanka had some much-needed cause for celebration, after England’s win over India the previous day had ended their hopes of making the semi-finals.
After a couple of cameos already at this tournament, Fernando’s star went supernova here in the north east. First called-up by his country all the way back in 2016 – before he had even played a first-class or List-A game – Fernando has long been considered the next big thing.
And at this World Cup, where Sri Lanka have the oldest squad in the tournament, an injection of optimism and youthful vigour has been craved. The thickset Fernando has brought it by the bucketload.
Anyone who saw him hook Jofra Archer over the electronic scoreboard in Leeds 10 days ago might have had an inkling this was coming. Having smashed 49 off only 39 balls in that England game, he added another quick-fire 30 in the defeat to South Africa last week.
There were 🔟 maximums smashed in #SLvWI – including one absolutely monster hit from Avishka Fernando 💥 Here are the best of the bunch, @Bira91’s Super Sixes! #CWC19 https://t.co/nPvXznpAa0
But against the West Indies he turned those sneak peaks into the full feature – his 104 off only 103 balls was Sri Lanka’s first century in this World Cup. But, unlike his previous fast starts, Fernando began more circumspectly here.
He doesn’t have the textbook technique of a Sangakkara or a Mahela Jayawardene, and with his feet stuck on the crease, he found himself wafting at a few wide ones early on. The impressive platform provided by Sri Lanka’s openers once again appeared in danger of being wasted.
But it is not just the youngster’s uncomplicated and upright stance that marks him out – the thinking as well as the technique are simple and clear: See ball, hit ball. And once he had found his rhythm on this decent Durham deck, the fearless young man got to work.
A couple of flashes through point and meaty straight drive got him started, but his real calling card is his brilliance on the short ball.
He pulled Sheldon Cottrell for an enormous six and his 50 came up in similar style, fetching a ball from well outside off and clubbing it aerially into the leg side for a one-bounce four. He marked that first milestone with a single fist pump and a cursory glance to the balcony. He was hungry for more.
The West Indies carried on with their short-ball barrage and Fernando just gobbled it up. A second six off Cottrell brought his century within range, while in between he rotated the strike and allowed Sri Lanka to finally end their middle-over misery at this tournament.
Kusal Mendis has been the new kid on the block in this Sri Lankan batting line-up for what feels like forever. But here he was the old man on the street corner, reduced to spectator for much of this third-wicket partnership as Fernando cut and pulled with impunity.
This was only Fernando’s second ODI half-century, his last coming as an opener against Scotland. An ankle injury then cost the young man his place to Lahiru Thirimanne for this World Cup and he has had to bide his time before earning a recall.
But he has certainly taken his chance when it came round again. Indeed, it was fitting that it was Thirimanne – now recast as a No.6 to accommodate the young blood – at the other end when Fernando scrambled through for his maiden century.
The third youngest man ever to reach three figures at a World Cup and the third youngest Sri Lankan to ever achieve the feat, full stop.
He perished soon after – hitting out for his team as Sri Lanka posted their best 50-over total of this tournament by a country mile – and walked off to a hero’s reception.
Chandika Hathurusingha was one of the first to greet him. Earlier this week Sri Lanka’s head coach had said about Fernando: “I think he is ready for the next World Cup for sure. He is very talented and a lot of big things will come from him.”
Those big things have arrived sooner than expected…