Freddie Wilde marvels at a gem of an innings from Avishka Fernando.
The match is only five overs old but as soon as Sri Lanka lost two early wickets it felt as good as over as a contest. England’s pre-match dominance according to WinViz had been increased from 86% to 94% in 14 balls. Distant dreams that Kusal Perera could channel the spirit of Sanath Jayasuriya and scorch England were scuppered before many fans at Headingley had even taken their seats.
Of course, it was on this very ground 13 years ago that Jayasuriya razed England’s 322 in 37 and a half overs; a match that felt a world away as this particular contest begun to assume its predictable shape. England on top; Sri Lanka tamely surrendering.
Crack. The noise startles you out of your slumber. You look up to see the ball skipping across the outfield like a pebble across a perfectly still lake. Balls normally slow down as they approach the boundary rope – this one though, this one speeds up.
The broadcaster shows a replay and you see the 21 year-old Avishka Fernando, statuesque in his stance and with the faintest hint of a trigger movement, clamber into a good length ball from Jofra Archer and lace it through cover point with utter disdain. The shot is played with almost no footwork. Instead he stays tall in stance which allows him to ride the bounce before he flashes down on the ball and makes contact with it at its highest point. It’s all hand-speed and eye.
Archer gives very little away with his emotions but the following two balls say it all. He does not take kindly to being treated with such contempt. The first one squares Fernando up, on a length and leaving him it beats the outside edge by a considerable distance. The second ball is a searing bouncer that gets big on the Sri Lankan who just manages to avoid being hit. Back in your box, you can imagine Archer thinking.
The next ball Archer goes short again, only this time he has strayed from his normally impeccable line and it’s slightly too straight, heading down the leg side rather than challenging the torso. Having already struck the four earlier in the over and then twice being beaten it would have been easy for Fernando to have rode this short ball out or tucked it down to fine leg for a single. But that wouldn’t be much fun, would it?
Fernando seems to have read the length astonishingly quickly which buys him time. He sees the ball short, and slightly too straight, and rocks back before picking it up with stunning ease and swivel-hooking it over square leg for six.
One of the finer subtleties of watching an elegant batsman is noticing things they do after the shot has been played, most of which seem unnecessary but you sense in a way enable the batsman to play the shot. Think KP’s flamingo, or Kohli’s wristy over-the-shoulder follow through. This time, like Ponting and Vaughan used to do, Fernando lifts his front leg up after making contact, and swivels on his back foot as the ball sails over the rope. You half expect him to look at Archer and wink.
One four, one miss, one weave and one six but Fernando isn’t done yet. For the last ball of the over Archer overcompensates after his error with the short ball and goes very full. Fernando leans into a cover drive and sends the ball through the ring and purring across the outfield for four more.
In the very next over, having already struck boundaries through cover, point and square leg, Fernando adds mid on to his collection – as if playing ‘Round the Clock’ on a darts board – when he checked-drives an over-pitched ball from Chris Woakes to the rope.
Fernando’s proficiency on the front foot in this spectacular start to his innings – twice driving Archer through the off side and once punching Woakes through mid on – hit England off their length. Up to and including the Woakes boundary England pitched 71% of their deliveries to Fernando on a full or good length. After that point though they seemed to be afraid of over-pitching to this 21 year-old upstart and they pulled their length back. For the remainder of Fernando’s innings England only pitched 56% on a full or good length. They didn’t give him a short ball barrage but they erred on the shorter side of a good length instead. Sri Lanka’s World Cup hopes were hanging by a thread but the bristling Fernando stared elimination in the eye and England blinked first.
England’s retreat played into Fernando’s hands. As England got shorter; Fernando scored faster – hooking another six off Archer—the second one flew over square leg, over the stand and bounced into the car park—and pulling two more boundaries.
It is easy and exceptionally fun to get carried away by cameos such as Fernando’s and he may well fade into obscurity, but when you look closer there were signs of something special in the way he played in Leeds, and not only because his boundaries were so beautiful you would take them all on a candlelit dinner and introduce them to your parents.
It is a hallmark of a quality batsman to force opposition bowlers to adjust their plans. It is a hallmark of an even higher quality batsman to force opposition bowlers to bowl to his strengths. It is early days in Fernando’s career but the initial signs suggest he enjoys pace bowling and he’s strongest when playing on the back foot. In List A cricket he averages 56.64 against the quicks and 34.50 against spin; while in his international career so far he averages 25 on the back foot and 14 on the front foot. He’s scored 48 runs from 16 pull and hook shots.
Fernando’s back foot strength appears to be rooted in a preternatural ability to pick up length. The two hooks for six were spectacular shots and against a bowler of Archer’s pace required superb skill and bravery to execute them but the two pull shots were arguably more impressive primarily because the balls weren’t that short. The pull shots not only demonstrated superb shot execution but exemplary shot selection as well.
In ODI cricket pull shots are played to balls that typically pitch 9.65 metres from the stumps. The pull shots that Fernando played, one against Archer and one against Woakes, pitched 8.62 and 8.83 metres from the stumps respectively. Fernando’s first boundary – the on the up cover drive against Archer – came from a ball that was only 41cm fuller than his pull shot against Archer. As soon as England even gave the faintest hint of a short ball to Fernando, he read the length brilliantly and pounced. Across his innings he scored at 11.57 runs per over against balls shorter than 8 metres from his stumps.
Ultimately the short ball would prove to be his downfall, when he upper cut a bouncer from Mark Wood straight to Adil Rashid at third man to end a sparkling cameo of 49 off just 39 balls. But Fernando’s was an innings that breathed life into the match and to the occasion. It was a sprinkling of stardust.
The true quality of Fernando’s innings was later put into perspective by England’s batting performance, as they slid to 212 all out and a 20 run defeat. This was not an easy pitch to bat on: according to PitchViz it had a Difficulty rating of 6.6 out of 10 – the second highest of the tournament so far and a Pace rating of 3.5 out of 10 – the second slowest pitch of the tournament so far behind New Zealand’s match against South Africa in Edgbaston. Across the match attacking shots had a run rate of 7.00 runs per over, the lowest of any match in the tournament. But Fernando’s innings looked like it was played on another planet, let alone another pitch. The quality of his timing – he made a ‘good’ connection with 23% of his shots and – transcended the conditions.
Sri Lanka’s bowlers, particularly the old warhorse Lasith Malinga, were phenomenal in the defence, but the touchpaper for this inferno of a victory was lit in the sixth over when Fernando tucked into Archer’s length ball, fighting fire with fire.
There is a broader lesson here for Sri Lankan cricket. Before this tournament Sri Lanka’s selectors sprung a major surprise by appointing Dimuth Karunaratne as captain and selecting a squad shorn of many of Sri Lanka’s most enterprising talents. The likes of Niroshan Dickwella, Dhanushka Gunathilleke and Akila Dhanajaya were left at home.
Karunaratne had not played a single ODI in the World Cup cycle and had a career strike rate of 68.86 but he was considered a steady hand and would provide a stabilising presence at the top of the order. Since his appointment Karunaratne has demonstrated considerable evolution to his ODI batting and in Headingley he marshalled the field expertly. But his selection and the squad more generally represented a conservatism which not only went against the zeitgeist of the modern 50-over game, but betrayed the essence of Sri Lankan cricket.
Sri Lanka have always been a team who have produced outlier talent. Freakish bowlers with unique actions and maniac batsmen who dare to dare. But this squad was not that. Sure, there’s nothing wrong with encouraging some stability and bringing an element of sanity to proceedings but that should not come at the cost of flair or the marginalisation of talent.
Perhaps nothing embodies the extent to which Sri Lanka had lost sight of this than the fact that in this World Cup only 12% of their overs have been bowled by spinners. The lowest proportion of any team in the World Cup except West Indies. This is Sri Lanka – home to Murali, Mendis and Herath – bowling less spin than almost every team in the World Cup.
Up until the second ball of the sixth over in Leeds Sri Lanka’s tournament – a thrashing against New Zealand, a limp win against Afghanistan in a sodden Cardiff, washouts against Pakistan and Bangladesh and a heavy defeat against Australia – had been damp and tame, and that wasn’t just because of the rain that had plagued the campaign. Sri Lanka were a team that had lost their panache and been robbed of their zest.
Before Headingley Sri Lanka had played just one match in sixteen days and headlines around the team were focused more on their off field complaints and the boycotting of a press conference than their actual cricket. Yet despite the poor start to their tournament Sri Lanka had persisted with a middle order that lacked dynamism and creativity. It was not until the last available moment, when defeat would all but guarantee elimination from the tournament that they finally played an ace card by bringing Fernando – young, raw and prodigiously talented, into the team at the expense of Lahiru Thirimanne – an old school anchor.
Trying to make sense of Sri Lanka’s win over England – the number one team in the world, World Cup hosts and favourites for the tournament – being downed by the number nine ranked team in the world – is difficult. But at the heart of the result is Sri Lanka – magical and mad, throwing a 21 year-old batsman into the midst of a World Cup and trusting his talent.
Freddie Wilde is a CricViz analyst. @fwildecricket