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Match Analysis

Pathum Nissanka defies the odds in his biggest test

Showing great maturity, the debutant shelved his attacking instincts to construct a century that could set up victory

Pathum Nissanka performed in conditions and against a type of attack he will have rarely seen  •  RANDY BROOKS/AFP/Getty Images

Pathum Nissanka performed in conditions and against a type of attack he will have rarely seen  •  RANDY BROOKS/AFP/Getty Images

Okay stop. Inhale. Pinch yourself. There are stories of a megaship stuck sideways in the Suez Canal. Niroshan Dickwella has batted responsibly. And a Sri Lankan debutant has hit a Test hundred. It's been a weird day. Is any of this real? Are we in a fever dream?
Sri Lanka batsmen fresh out of the domestic system just don't do things like hit hundreds away from home in their second Test innings. They are not equipped to. The island's first-class structure is a monument to incompetence and self-serving administration - obese with 24 teams, beset by pitches on which finger spinners pile up wickets like gardeners raking leaves after an afternoon thunderstorm, strung up occasionally by fixing allegations, and weakened by an annual exodus of senior pros preferring to try their luck in clubs overseas.
For years, young Sri Lanka batsmen have been complaining that the gap between domestic cricket and internationals was an ever-widening chasm. That they felt, essentially, like they'd had swimming lessons in a paddling pool with a drunk instructor, before being thrown into a shark-infested eddy. It had been 20 years since Sri Lanka had a debutant centurion (Thilan Samaraweera having been the last, in 2001). The world's least surprising stat.
And yet, there Pathum Nissanka was, through the end of day three and much of day four, quelling the kind of pace-heavy attack he would almost never have faced at home, defusing the Dukes ball's seam movement on a quicker, bouncier track than he is accustomed to, trusting his defence, riding out spells, picking his scoring opportunities.
It had to have helped that of all the batsmen who have graduated from domestic cricket, Nissanka has had the best recent track record - his first-class average of 67.54 not just the best among Sri Lanka batsmen, but the best in the world among current Test cricketers. Still, this is not a Shield average, or a Ranji average or even a county average. Decent batsmen score heavily in Sri Lanka's Premier League Tournaments. This is not new. Then they arrive at the top level and well… it's usually not pretty.
Early in this Antigua innings, Nissanka was fixated on survival. He didn't score until he faced his 21st ball, and he proceeded with extreme, self-denying caution after that, making just 18 from his first 70 deliveries. Only when West Indies' bowlers erred seriously in line, did he venture boundaries - all square of the wicket - and only six in total, in a 252-ball stay.
Even this was a departure; a mature acknowledgement that he wasn't flaying spin at the Nondescripts Cricket Club grounds anymore, because although his defense is highly rated, he is far from dour in domestic cricket - his strike rate up at 69 in the last first-class season; 76 the season before that. In both those seasons he had averaged around 90.
Even when he became more comfortable at the crease, Nissanka was aiming for immovable, rather than dominant. There were occasional close calls: one under-edge against Shannon Gabrial bounced centimetres short of the wicketkeeper's gloves, plus at least two edges wide of slip. But although West Indies rifled through several plans of attack, Nissanka was never shaken out of his single-mindedness. Through the course of his 179-run sixth wicket stand with Dickwella, Nissanka frequently seemed like the senior partner.
It is tempting to crown him Sri Lanka's next great batting hope, the way Dinesh Chandimal, or Kusal Mendis once had been. But now that he is known in Test cricket, tougher examinations of his technique are about to begin. His weaknesses, of which there are bound to be some given the system from which he hails, will be exposed. It's too soon to get hype, even if there was a promise of more to come in his no-big-deal century celebration.
For now, it's enough that Nissanka has had a taste of success at the highest level, And that in Antigua he has set his team up to push for a win.

Andrew Fidel Fernando is ESPNcricinfo's Sri Lanka correspondent. @afidelf