There’s an unparalleled thrill in watching young talents announce themselves on the international scene. Like when Sachin Tendulkar made his debut in 1989, when Yuvraj Singh took on the Australians as an 18-year-old, or when Mahendra Singh Dhoni tore apart a formidable Pakistani attack.
Fans of Sri Lankan and West Indies cricket felt this excitement on the biggest stage on Monday. In a largely inconsequential World Cup match, these two teams saw the birth of two future stars – Avishka Fernando and Nicholas Pooran.
Hopes of Monday’s encounter having any sort of meaning were put to rest the night before as India went down to hosts England. That result knocked Sri Lanka out of the tournament, with West Indies having been eliminated a few days earlier.
However, at the end of the 100 overs in Durham, both Sri Lanka and West Indies, along with anyone who watched the match, took away a lot more than they’d expected.
Batting first, Sri Lanka, for once, got off to a good start. Skipper Dimuth Karunaratne had added 93 runs for the first wicket with his partner Kusal Perera and the team looked set for a big total. But both the openers found themselves in the hut in the next three overs and the 1996 champions were staring at yet another collapse.
In a campaign marred by a lack of application by their batsmen, the Lankans were desperate for someone to put their hand up and take responsibility. Fittingly, their savior turned out to be the youngest member of their squad.
Watching Fernando bat for the first time, it doesn’t take long to realise that there’s something different about him. He has a very upright stance, like Australians and Englishmen usually do, but unlike the Bairstows and Handscombs of the world, he doesn’t even bend his knees as he makes his trigger movement before facing a ball. He has an upright posture pretty much throughout.
The right-hander relies greatly on hand-eye coordination. And if such a batsmen is also someone who likes to attack and take the aerial route whenever possible, you know you’re in for some attractive stroke-play. Against the Windies, Fernando hit nine fours and two sixes in his 103-ball 104. There were square-cuts, humongous pulls, drives past covers, drives over covers, punches off the back-foot, off the front-foot, you name it.
This wasn’t the first time Fernando was making people sit up and take notice of his immense talent. In his very first World Cup match a couple of weeks ago against England, he played, perhaps, the most pretty-looking cameo of the tournament. With his team two-down in the third over against a pumped-up Jofra Archer and Co, the 21-year-old launched a scintillating counter-attack of 49 off 39 balls. He got a start in the following match versus South Africa as well, when he hit, perhaps, the most stunning on-drive of this World Cup off Kagiso Rabada.
But against West Indies is when it all came together for Fernando as he smashed his way to a first One-Day International century. “I am happy I did what was required of me, that the hundred was in a winning effort, and that I got this opportunity and made use of it,” he said after winning the player of the match award. “This is my first World Cup and I trained very hard for it. Very happy that I could do that [score a World Cup hundred] at a young age. I got a lot of support from my team members. Happy to contribute for the team.”
Fernando’s sparkling stay at the crease was only the first part of Monday’s entertainment at Chester-le-Street. Set a daunting total of 339 to chase, it seemed West Indies’ batting would crumble under pressure like it had for most of the tournament. And if it wasn’t for one man’s undeniable talent, the two-time champions would surely have suffered a far bigger defeat than they eventually did.
Pooran walked in to bat at the fall of Chris Gayle’s wicket in the 16th over, with his side needing an improbable 268 runs to win off 208 balls with seven wickets in hand. A huge victory for the Sri Lankans seemed imminent, but the left-hander had other plans.
Unperturbed by the happenings at the other end, Pooran went about business in his usual, aggressive self. He was severe on anything that was pitched short and hit 11 fours and four sixes in his 103-ball 118. When everyone thought that the result was done and dusted, the 23-year-old kept fighting till the end and, along with the help of a blazing fifty by Fabian Allen, almost took his team to a sensational victory.
Unlike Fernando, Pooran has a more classical technique along with glimpses of that Caribbean swagger. But just like the young Sri Lankan, he had shown sparks of brilliance earlier in the tournament as well. The Trinidadian scored an unbeaten 34 in West Indies’ first match against Pakistan, he got a 40 against Australia, and a wonderful half-century against England.
“Nicholas played an outstanding innings, he knocked it around as easily as he possibly could,” West Indies skipper Jason Holder said after the match. “We selected him for a reason and gave him full backing to go and play the game he wants to play. Yes, he will make mistakes as a young player but it is important for development to take place. We will look after Nicholas the best we possibly can, I expect big things. He has got the talent, ability to change gears, he can improvise, has every shot in the locker and it is just a matter of him putting it together more often.”
This was the ninth ODI for both Fernando and Pooran and their first ton in the 50-over format. While the former became the youngest ever from his country to score a World Cup century, the latter became the second youngest ever to do so for the Windies. It was the first time two players below the age of 25 scored centuries in a World Cup game.
For the sake of Sri Lanka, West Indies and the game in general, let’s hope these young cricketers are nurtured and allowed to live up to the promise they’ve shown.