When Sri Lanka women take the field against Pakistan in the first ODI in Karachi on June 1 2022, it would have been 966 days since they played their previous One Day International. While it's true that the pandemic affected the sporting world and made things difficult for all teams, Sri Lankan women were hit the worst of all.
Since the 2020 Women's T20 World Cup in Australia, their male counterparts have played 14 Tests, 18 ODIs and 28 T20Is, while the Sri Lankan women got to play in one one-dayer in the ICC ODI World Cup Qualifiers and four T20Is in the Commonwealth Qualifiers. With the ODI Qualifiers in Zimbabwe getting called off midway due to the Covid-19 outbreak in the bi-bubble, they missed the 2022 ODI World Cup in New Zealand for the first time since 1993.
Having played more matches, Bangladesh, Pakistan and West Indies qualified based on ICC rankings. During this period Sri Lankan Chamari Athapaththu has been a torchbearer of sorts, lighting up in the Women’s Big Bash League, Women’s T20 Challenge and now in the FairBreak International tournament in Dubai with her swashbuckling performances.
With the Pakistan tour coming up, followed by a packed calendar in the next eight months (Commonwealth Games in England and 2023 T20 World Cup in South Africa) Athapaththu opens up with The New Indian Express about the tough couple of years Sri Lanka has had, her experience in franchise-based leagues, exciting young talents coming up in Sri Lanka, her batting, leadership skills, and more.
Firstly, how has been your experience with the FairBreak International tournament?
I am really excited to be a part of the FairBreak, playing for the Falcons. It was a good experience for me. I am really excited. I have learnt a lot of things, enjoyed my time with my teammates and had fun, it's been really good for me.
You have played in several franchise-based leagues across the globe. What makes FairBreak stand out among the other tournaments?
Actually, in the Women’s Big Bash, Women’s T20 Challenge or Women’s Super League (now defunct), only top-class overseas players get to play. Here, they and associate nation players play together, and that’s really good, because we can learn a lot of things from the youngsters in the associate nations and they can learn a lot of things from us. And different cultures and countries coming together with different ideas, it's cool you know, we share everything and gel with each other. I am really happy about this league, because for the youngsters, this is a good opportunity for them and the associate nation players. As a senior cricketer, I am happy and thankful to the organisers and hope they will continue in the coming years.
You started the ODI World Cup Qualifiers with a hundred and did the same in the FairBreak as well. Is this a new thing where you want to kick off a tournament with a hundred everytime?
Actually, I don't take pressure every time. I just relax, and play my natural game. I am not overthinking about it, focus on the day, take one ball at a time. No secret about that. When I train every day, I create match scenarios in the nets and in the centre wickets. That’s how I improve my cricket. When I am in the middle, it's the same. I know how to manage the bowler's field setting, so I take no pressure and play one ball at a time.
But there has to be a technical base upon which this confidence is built, right?
I started playing cricket when I was 4 years old because of my uncle. He’s a cricket coach and that’s how I started. Because I started at a very young age, I know how to handle the pressure, create pressure on the bowlers, and how to dominate them. I am happy about that, I have to thank my uncle, father and mother because they created that environment for me. That’s why I was able to become a top-class cricketer in the World. So, I am very thankful for that.
You travelled across the world, playing in different leagues. How much has that helped you evolve as a cricketer?
In 2017, I scored 178 against Australia. After that, I got the opportunity to play in franchise leagues. They recognised me and they know ‘Okay, Chamari Atapattu, she’s playing for Sri Lanka, and she is really good’. They picked me for their side and that was my cricket career’s turning point. After that, I played a lot of T20 cricket around the world, Women’s T20 Challenge, Big Bash, Super League (now defunct). I learnt a lot of things there. It's really good for me because I get the opportunity to play with the top-class cricketers, share my knowledge with them, and I can learn new things. I take those things to Sri Lanka and help my teammates. So, when I play international cricket, I know how to handle situations because of what I learned in the leagues. I think the franchise league is really good for cricketers, not just financially, but we can learn more things, share our knowledge, and be good friends with other cricketers.
This year there are two Sri Lankan players in the FairBreak tournament. How do you look at the number going forward?
I hope next year definitely three or four Sri Lankan players get an opportunity. We have some really good talents, Kavisha Dilhari, she is really good. Harshitha Madavi and 16-year-old Vishmi Gunarathne — she performed well in domestic cricket (scored 417 runs off 128 balls recently in the U-19 Inter Schools tournament) and I believe she will be the next superstar in Sri Lanka. These players, if they play in FairBreak next year, they might get an opportunity in next level franchise leagues. They want one opportunity to show their talents, then they can play Women’s Big bash, The Hundred and IPL, because we know IPL is the biggest franchise league. I hope next year an IPL will be started for women. That's really cool and I am waiting for that. A lot of youngsters are also waiting for that. I think FairBreak will be a good opportunity to show their colours to the world.
Coming to international cricket, The last couple of years haven’t been really great for Sri Lankan women…
You know, the 3rd (9th) of October 2019 was the last ODI game I played against Australia. I scored 103 runs. After that, I played in World Cup Qualifiers against the Netherlands (which is not an official ODI as the Netherlands doesn’t have ODI status) and scored 111 runs. So, for two years, I have not played any ODI international cricket. When the pandemic started I was 29, the next game I played, I was 31 years old. That is not good for a cricketer, but what to do, I can control only my cricket. I can’t control the logistics part of Sri Lanka or international cricket or the pandemic. So, I just control what I can do. I think in the last two years, we lost a few things. Especially the 50-over world cup as we couldn’t play in the World Cup qualifiers because of the pandemic. We lost that opportunity.
That Qualifiers tournament in Zimbabwe must have been a tough experience, not just for you but the entire contingent because of the Covid outbreak in the bio-bubble…
On the day of the game against the Netherlands, we had only eleven players. We didn’t have a No 12. As a captain, I was in big trouble. Because the night before, we had 13 players, but the next day before the match, we took the rapid antigen test and two players tested positive. Early in the morning, that was not good news as a captain, with two players out of the team. I stayed positive, scored a 100 and we won.
It was too hard, you know, all the teams flew to their home countries after the tournament was called off. But we had to stay for another 10-12 days because we can’t travel. Ten players and two officials had tested positive. For 14 days we were in Zimbabwe, and then in Sri Lanka, we had to isolate ourselves for ten days due to quarantine rules. Another 10 days in the hotel. Go back home for two days and then, back to bio-bubble camp as we had to start our preparation for the Commonwealth Games Qualifiers. It was a hard season for me as a captain and the team.
What kind of conversations did you have with the team and the players during those times?
The players and officials were all disappointed. I was also disappointed but I don't want to say anything or express it in front of other girls in my room. So, I made sure they know that I am fine, and tried not to cry. I always smile because they are sad and I want to lift their morale up. I hide my pain and keep everything in my heart, in my room. I open the door, relax and smile with the players and encourage them. We missed the World Cup spot, ten players tested positive, we can’t go back home to our families. Few young players in the team were crying because they couldn't see their mom or go home. I sat with them and consoled them. I always try to stay positive and that is what I wanted to do as a captain and a senior player.
How hard was missing the World Cup for the first time in 29 years and watching it from home?
In 2017, I was among the top runscorers (12th) in the World Cup, but this year, my team was not even in the World Cup. It's too hard, but we can’t control it. Whatever happened has happened. I just focus on my game, and be positive. That is how I think. And I train hard because I know this year, we have the Commonwealth Games and next year we have the T20 World Cup. We have to show our talent and how good we are. That’s why I am in this tournament, to show we are a good team and I am a really good player. We have to show how good we are to the world.
And you did come out all guns blazing in the CWG T20 Qualifiers in Malaysia this year, scoring 221 runs at an average of 55.25 while striking at 185.71…
When Bangladesh qualified for the World Cup and they were celebrating in the hotel, I felt like this was our chance. We missed it because we didn’t play any games. I told my team, ‘Forget about this, we have to beat them in the Commonwealth Qualifiers. That is the attitude we had and that is why we played hard in the CWG qualifiers in Malaysia and we are in the Commonwealth Games.
In the last 12 months, you have dominated WBBL, CWG Qualifiers and domestic cricket and now the FairBreak. How do you prepare yourself before a series or a tournament like this?
I just play my natural game. I tell myself to be fearless. I don't think about who the bowler is, I just focus on one ball at a time. If it's a good ball and I get out no problem. I trust myself, I can control my bat, hands and eyes. I know they are really good bowlers, they analyse me and plan things for me, but I know how good I am.
If I have a match tomorrow, I will just relax and not think about the game. But much before that, I train hard in the nets, I do self-analysis about what kind of bowlers they have, what they are going to do for me, and what about my talent and how I can manage their bowling attack. Because if I am playing Australia, I know what Ellyse Perry, Megan Schutt, and Jess Jonassen are going to do for me and will ask our analyst what they are doing to left-handers generally. Then, I go to practise working on the nets. Before the game, I don't think about anything and just relax. On match day, I just shower, pack my bags, go to the ground, see the ball and hit the ball. If I think too much after padding up, it's too hard.
Sri Lanka will return to ODIs for the first time since 2019 against Pakistan later this month. What are your expectations and what the team needs to get better?
We need more games. If we want to improve, we have to play more games. I think after two and a half years, we have played one one-dayer. It's hard, but I trust my girls. We are not expecting too much in ODIs, we know we haven’t played any games. In the T20s, we want to do more. We have played a few games and it’ll be good for us. We need to stick to our plans, focus on skills and back our game.
I always tell my teammates, especially youngsters to be positive and play their natural game. If you overthink inT20 format, we can't do anything. A T20 innings is like a one and a half-hour game. Time will fly. You can't predict anything, you have to trust yourself and play your game.
With two global events coming up, what are your goals as the captain of Sri Lanka?
I think the next one year is really good for us. We are playing a lot of T20s. I know a lot of youngsters are really good in T20s. Especially Kavisha, Harshitha and Gunarathne, they will be superstars in the next couple of years. I think we are in a tough group in the Commonwealth Games (with New Zealand, South Africa and England), but we want to go to the semifinals. We are a really good side. The players and management believe we are good in the T20 format.
In the last T20 World Cup, we did well against Australia and New Zealand. They were close games; we beat England in warm-up games. So, I think we can do more. We have the talent in the group with respect to potential. But we are not consistent in showing it. Some days it's 100 percent and some days it's 20. We have to play consistently. That is what we want to do every time. I think the girls will do well in the Commonwealth Games and T20 World Cup.