The friendly pace predator from Lanka

This strongly built Sri Lankan with a ready smile is barely audible! Soft and gentle he is — off the field. Meet Dilhara Fernando, ` the friendly neighbourhood pace predator!' Not quite the spiderman yet!

S. DINAKAR

FAST bowlers come in different sizes, shapes ... and voices! He is big but listen to him speak and you would hardly realise here is a member of that rather volatile tribe!

Dilhara Fernando... fit and firing . — Pic. V. GANESAN-

This strongly built Sri Lankan with a ready smile is barely audible! Soft and gentle he is — off the field. Meet Dilhara Fernando, ` the friendly neighbourhood pace predator!' Not quite the spiderman yet!

If he is fit and firing, gets his radar right, and doesn't drag that right foot, he can be a handful. There are far too many `ifs' here for Fernando to sting with regularity.

In other words, the Lankan has to usher in an element of consistency into his bowling, without compromising on speed, which is still his chief ally.

With 33 scalps in 13 Tests, and 73 in 55 ODIs, Fernando certainly holds promise, yet has not quite moved on to the centre-stage, like many believed he would. That is the 23-year-old Colombo cricketer's goal and challenge.

His fastest delivery, registered at 151 kmph, suggests he can be seriously sharp. But then, he has also had his problems with his back, twice breaking down in Sharjah, a jinxed venue for him.

When he experienced shooting pain down his spine during the four-nation tournament in Sharjah, that followed the World Cup, Fernando realised he was in trouble again.

"Actually it was the spinal disc that had got damaged. It is so frustrating to be out," he says.

The Board of Control for Cricket in Sri Lanka (BCCSL), realising Fernando's potential and value, was quick to act.

Fernando, along with coach Champaka Ramanayake, was at the MRF Pace Foundation in Chennai, to recover from his injury, and have his action remodelled under pace bowling guru Dennis Lillee; the idea being to put less pressure on his back.

"Now the injury is almost okay. I am doing a lot of fitness drills as well. I am looking forward to learning again from Lillee. I believe I can be much faster," Fernando is unfazed.

Making his debut against Pakistan in Colombo, 1999-2000, Fernando quickly caught attention because of his extra speed and bounce, that had the most seasoned of batsmen hopping around.

A five-wicket innings haul against the Proteas at Durban, 2000-2001, revealed the pace and fire in this young cricketer. He needed to be more refined in his methods.

The Indians felt the `Fernando heat' when they toured the emerald island in 2001. The Lankan ripped through the line-up in the first innings at Galle (five for 42), blowing away five batsmen with the second new ball, and Sourav Ganguly's men slumped to an embarrassing defeat.

Remembers Fernando. "I have happy memories of that series. I settled into a good rhythm. I think I got Ganguly out thrice." And in the Test at Centurion last year, he so nearly bowled Sri Lanka to an improbable victory, with a four-wicket burst in the South African second innings. "Actually that is my favourite Test. It was exciting."

Essentially an inswing bowler, Fernando has a role model in the Sri Lankan side — Chaminda Vaas. "He is very intelligent. He puts it in the right place.

Even when he is not among wickets, he tries to bowl maiden overs, keeps the pressure on the batsmen."

Fernando, still learning the nuances of pace bowling and working on his variations, was delighted when he consumed maestro Sachin Tendulkar with a slower delivery during the NatWest triangular ODI series in England last year — "That was a huge moment for me."

There have been some other happy occasions for Fernando in limited overs cricket, his four for 48 in Perth against the powerful Aussies in the VB series down under this year, among them.

"You know, I always try to take wickets. Even in the ODIs. I am an attacking bowler. I will stay that way," says Fernando, but he will have to improve his career economy rate of 5.23.

Fernando had a rather disappointing World Cup, and saw other contenders like Prabhath Nissanka, steal a march over him. "Nissanka is strong and good. It will be a good competition," admits Fernando, who was first spotted by former Lankan captain Arjuna Ranatunga as a schoolboy cricketer, and then leapfrogged his way into international cricket.

He may be down now, but, Fernando, in several respects destiny's child, oozes confidence. "I will be back for my country," he notes even as he signs autographs for the young ones. Dilhara Fernando should be in the hunt soon.