‘Great Motivator And Always Shares Her Experience’ – How Chamari Athapaththu Is Changing Sri Lankan Cricket

Krithika V writes in WISDEN about captain Chamari Athapaththu, who recently became the first Sri Lankan woman to scale the top place in ICC ODI rankings.

LONDON: The chasm between Sri Lanka Women and other teams has been significant ever since they debuted in international cricket. Whenever they took the field against the top four teams, it has invariably been as the underdogs.

It took Sri Lanka a couple of decades – and a couple of players – to keep believing that they can defeat any top team. Shashikala Siriwardena had shown them the way in the 2000s; and Chamari Athapaththu has taken them to the next level.

Coming from Kurunegala in Gokarella, Athapaththu was around seven when she started the game. She was inspired when she saw Sanath Jayasuriya for the first time during the 1996 Men’s World Cup. Her uncle Chandra, a coach, helped her to learn the technique.

Athapaththu began her career at Kurunegala Cricket Club, where she used to practise alongside boys. She also played for her high-school team, Ibbagamuwa Central College, and was the captain of their age-group team.

At 17, she moved to Colombo after being contracted by Colts Cricket Club. Her father Bandara Jayawardena, her biggest support, used to accompany her during her coaching.

By 2008, she was good enough to be picked up as a standby in the Asia Cup squad. Unfortunately, she had to withdraw because of her father’s demise.

Led by Siriwardena, Sri Lanka finished as the runners-up to India team in the 2008 Asia Cup. Athapaththu made her international debut in 2009 against India, and her ODI debut in 2010.

She did not take long to prove herself in the international circuit. In her 11th ODI, she became the first ever Sri Lankan woman to score an ODI century, against Ireland in Colombo.

Twelve years later, she remains the only Sri Lankan to score a ton in women’s cricket, and holds the top ten scores – including eight hundreds – for Sri Lanka in the format.

Of her eight hundreds, two came in matches that ended without result; two in defeats against Australia; and the other four in wins – two against New Zealand, and one against each of India and Pakistan.

The first big win for Sri Lanka in ODIs came in the 2013 World Cup, where they defeated England and India in the World Cup. Sri Lanka chased 244 against England to win by one wicket. Chamari Athapaththu scored a half-century and Shashikala Siriwardene scored 34 runs and also bagged two wickets.

In the India match, Siriwardena led from the front with two wickets and 59 runs, playing a major role in knocking out India at home. These two wins changed the dynamics of women’s cricket in Sri Lanka.

Four years later, an unbeaten 178 against Australia did what Harmanpreet Kaur’s 171 not out did for India: several youngsters took up the game after watching Athapaththu take on Australia.

Athapaththu also became the first Sri Lankan to play in the overseas league – first in the now-defunct Kia Super League, then in the Women’s Big Bash League.

“Chamari has improved in many ways. Especially, after playing lots of leagues all over the world, she could share the dressing room with great leaders of other teams. I believe this has helped her to improve as a leader and perform better. Sharing the dressing room with them also has given her extra confidence to become a good leader”, says Siriwardena.

Siriwardena and Athapaththu might have revolutionised Sri Lankan cricket, but they approach the game in contrasting styles. Siriwardena is conventional, while Athapaththu belongs to the “see the ball, hit the ball” philosophy. She wants to take the road less travelled. Even her WhatsApp status reads “If someone says it cannot be done, be the first to do it”.

Siriwardena also points out how the Athapaththu’s hunger impacted the team culture for the better: “She always wants to do and achieve things no one has done. The hunger inside her, this has spread among other players of the team. The confidence she carries every time makes an impact on team culture. Fearless cricket is one more thing she has added to the current team.”

Siriwardena is currently the coach at the High-Performance Centre at Sri Lanka Cricket and was the head coach for the U19 World Cup team.

Having worked briefly with the upcoming players, she acknowledges how her teammate has inspired many girls to take up the game. At the same time, she believes that there will be no one of her kind: “I think there will be only one Chamari Athapaththu. She is unique and incomparable … but there are few players who can be a great asset to the country in the future.

“Because of Chamari’s playing style, young players have started to believe that they can beat any team, and achieve any task through belief and hard work. Chamari has proven that by becoming the No. 1 in the ODI rankings. Her unbelievable achievements have inspired many young girls to take up the game, and this will continue.”

During the final ODI, the stadium began to fill when Athapaththu got going. The ODI that Sri Lanka won to lift their first ever bilateral series against New Zealand, brought in more people than the first two matches.

In the T20I series, the crowd, mostly young girls, filled up the ground and cheered for Chamari and co. In the final T20I, where she led from the front, the crowd even imitated her celebrations. After the end of the tour, the girls in the crowd had an opportunity to interact with her. Some even posed with the ODI trophy.

Siriwardena, who was present at the stadium during the final match of the tour, said: “For young girls, Chamari is setting a great example. Also, she is a great motivator and always shares her experience. She makes our young girls challenge their approach and thinking patterns towards the game, especially in T20 format.”

She also believes that the fielding and improved fitness has helped Sri Lanka beat New Zealand at home: “A great effort from young and experienced players in the squad. I think Chamari did a great role here. Young batters also supported her. The bowling was mostly dependent on experienced bowlers.

“Most importantly, the accuracy in fielding and improved fitness levels helped the Sri Lankan team to achieve this success. I noticed they are building a culture with a positive attitude in the team. Wishing them all the success and courage to make Motherland proud.”


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