To say Dilhara Fernando was destiny’s child, would be a gross understatement. Tall and adequately-built, Fernando took to basketball — a sport that probably suited him better. And then came his first tryst with cricket in 1995. He was 16 when he was roped in to play for his school, De Mahenod. The team was short of a player and needed someone to fill in and they picked Fernando due to lack of options. “One day, on the morning of a match, my school team had only 10 players. They wanted an extra guy. So I was in,” he recalled in an interview with the Hindu in 2001.
But, as fate would have it, he proved to be more than just filler. When his school’s main bowlers were getting plastered all over the park, his captain threw the ball to him in a bid to try something different. Fernando, whose only experience at cricket was with tennis ball on the beaches of Kandana, dismissed half the opposition team.
This rare chance helped a young Fernando shift base from the basketball court to the cricket field and in no time he was spearheading his school’s bowling attack. In a tournament that came along a little later, Fernando had another slice of luck when the erstwhile Sri Lankan skipper Arjuna Ranatunga was invited as the chief guest. Having a sharp eye for talent, Ranatunga spotted a young boy who was bowling with great pace for his age and making most of the batsmen dance to his tunes. The wily skipper was impressed. After impressing the skipper, Fernando saw himself being fast-tracked into the higher level of cricket. Ranatunga signed Fernando up to play for the Sinhalese Sports Club (SSC). From here on, there was no looking back.
Fernando’s sheer pace helped him do well in the domestic circuit and stake a claim to go one step further and get the opportunity to play for his country after three years of consistent performances for SSC. In 2000, Fernando made his Test debut in the first Test of a three-match Test series against Pakistan at Colombo. He joined the likes of Chaminda Vaas and Nuwan Zoysa to form the pace attack. In a game where Wasim Akram’s all-round performance blew away the hosts, Fernando picked up two wickets. “I had Mohammed Wasim caught at slips. Russell [Arnold] took the catch. I can never forget that,” he said, years after making his first Test appearance.
Fernando’s first appearance on away soil came against South Africa in December 2000. It was a match where South African batsmen dictated terms for most parts but that didn’t deter the young Fernando who ran in with great zeal and vigour to pick up his first fifer. He and Muttiah Muralitharan picked up five wickets each in the first innings. The match ended in a draw but Fernando had the first taste of playing in hostile and unfavourable conditions. During the same tour, Fernando made his One-Day International (ODI) debut where he went for a lot of runs in three matches and could manage just one wicket from it.
Fernando claimed his career best figures of five for 42 in the first innings of the Galle Test against India in the following year. From 124 for three, India were 187 for nine, with Fernando picking up five of the remaining six wickets to fall. Sri Lanka went on to register a comprehensive 10-wicket victory.
Fernando often bowled like his life depended on it. He would squeeze out the last ounce of energy into every delivery he bowled. The flipside to this unparalleled determination and approach reflected in his line and length in the limited-overs format of the game. Sometimes he tried too hard to generate a lot of pace and went astray in the process. The biggest setback for Fernando was his recurring back injuries that put unexpected brakes in his flourishing career.
In the 2002 NatWest series involving England, India and Sri Lanka, Fernando picked up 10 wickets in the five matches, including this peach-of-a-delivery to England skipper Nasser Hussain. Between 2003 and 2004, he suffered two stress fractures to his back which kept him out of the side for a home series against Australia. In September 2005, Fernando achieved his best match figures of seven for 95 against Bangladesh at Colombo. It was a game where Bangladesh were completely annihilated. In the first innings, Fernando finished with figures of five for 60, as Bangladesh were bowled out for 191. Following-on, they struggled yet again and couldn’t improve much from their first innings performance. They were shot out for 197, giving the home side a victory by an innings and 68 runs. In the second innings, Fernando managed figures of two for 35.
His best figures in ODIs — six for 27 from 8 overs — helped Sri Lanka salvage pride in five-match series against England at home in 2007. Having won the first match of the series, Sri Lanka lost the next three games to concede the series to the visitors. However, Fernando helped his side end on a high as his spectacular bowling effort saw Sri Lanka bowl out England for just 104.
After winning the toss and electing to bat, Mahela Jayawardene-led Sri Lanka fell like nine pins. An all-round bowling performance from England saw the home side bowled out for 211. However, Fernando made the target of 212 look like a monumental task. He started by unleashing his slower delivery — one with a split finger grip — to dismiss Ian Bell. Five overs later, Alastair Cook became his second victim. Fernando then went on to dismantle the English middle-order and Lasith Malinga cleaned up the tail to give their side a mammoth victory by 107 runs.
Fernando showed great nerves in the dying moments of Sri Lanka’s match against England in World Cup 2007 in the West Indies to seal an important victory in the Super Eights. Defending a modest score of 235, Sri Lanka had their task cut out. A solid 90-run partnership for the third wicket between Ian Bell and Kevin Pietersen threatened to take the game away from Sri Lankan. A couple of wickets fell but Paul Nixon and Ravi Bopara added 87 runs for the seventh wicket to keep England in the game.
The equation in the end came down to England needing three runs to get from one delivery, with Bopara on strike. The tension was mounting as both sides were looking for a win to boost their chances to advance to the next stage. The pressure had gone to such unexpected levels that Fernando ran in but pulled out in the last moment by not delivering the ball. Bopara had come across in a bid to play one over the leg side, but to his horror, the ball never came. Fernando walked back and took his run up again, and this time he bowled a lovely wicket-to-wicket delivery that clipped the top of off-stump to give Sri Lanka a victory by two runs.
Betting allegations in 2009: Fernando endured a tough time in 2009 when the media all over the world seemed to speculate his possible involvement in match-fixing and betting. This came up when he had reported to the ICC about being approached by suspicious characters who were later on identified as bookies. Fernando showed great courage by reporting the incident to his skipper Kumar Sangakkara and then to the ICC. However, lot of local and international media began to float stories of his alleged involvement in match-fixing based on reports that ICC questioned Fernando about the incident. A report on BBC confirmed the same, saying, “ During their [ICC’s ACSU] visit to Sri Lanka in 2009, Dilhara Fernando voluntarily reported a suspicious approach to the team management and it was immediately referred to the ICC Anti Corruption Unit who in turn carried out a regulation interview with Dilhara [Fernando].”
Sri Lanka’s first Test win in South Africa: In 2011, he was part of Sri Lanka’s maiden Test win in South Africa at the Kingsmead, Durban. At the end of the third day, South Africa needed 450 runs to get, while the visitors were 10 wickets away from creating history. On the fourth day morning, Fernando provided the early breakthrough with a nasty short-delivery to Graeme Smith that took the South African captain by surprise. He did not have enough time to get out of the way of the ball and the ball flew off an edge to Mahela Jayawardene at the second slip. With a similar-looking delivery, Fernando sent back Ashwell Prince and finished with figures of two for 29 in the second innings as Sri Lanka won by 208 runs.
Fernando – The man of two extremes: Fernando was indeed, a man of extremes. It was his raw pace that earned him a spot in the side but he will be remembered for his highly deceptive slower delivery using a split-finger grip. Fernando was also the kind of bowler who on his day, could hold onto his nerves and win you a match from an unlikely situation. On other days, he wouldn’t even be the last option that a captain would turn to in dire situations.
Fernando has featured in 40 Tests, picking up 100 wickets at an average of 37.84. In ODIs, he has 187 wickets from 147 matches at an average of 30.20.
With bustling pace and copious amounts of energy, Fernando had the potential to be Sri Lanka’s best fast bowler after the retirement of Chaminda Vaas. Good speed coupled with a tall frame was a lethal combination for a bowler aspiring to be the heir apparent of his country’s best new ball bowler. Yet, injuries and inconsistency proved to be a major stumbling block in his career that restricted him from turning into Sri Lanka’s finest. He showed great commitment and resilience by making a comeback each time injury pushed him back, but erratic line and length and a perennial trouble with bowling too many no-balls in the shorter versions of the games stymied his growth.
With the emergence of Nuwan Kulasekara and the likes of Angelo Mathews and Thisara Perera chipping in as part-timers, Fernando is finding it difficult to make a comeback into the side.
First Published: July 19, 2013, 5:10 pm