Chamari Athapaththu proud of Sri Lanka progress ahead of T20 World Cup

Captain, who says men's great Sanath Jayasuriya is her role model and hero, will be leading from the front once again for tournament in Bangladesh

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It was a performance befitting the most decorated player in the history of Sri Lankan women's cricket.

Star batter and captain Chamari Athapaththu had enjoyed a fairly low key Women’s T20 World Cup Qualifier, managing to reach a half century only once, in the group phase against Scotland.

But taking on the Scots again in the final – with qualification for the World Cup in Bangladesh safely in the bag – Athapaththu decided the time was right to go through the gears and remind the world of her immense talent.

A sparkling 63-ball 102 followed, guiding her team to a 68-run victory at Zayed Cricket Stadium in Abu Dhabi on Tuesday, which meant Sri Lanka had finished the 10-team tournament undefeated after seven weeks on the road.

“We have been playing good cricket as a team in recent times as compared with the previous years, with wins over New Zealand, England, South Africa and now coming on top at the T20 World Cup qualifiers,” Athapaththu told The National before boarding the flight back home on Wednesday.

“Right now, the focus is only on the World Cup. I think we are peaking at the right time with some pretty good results behind us.”

She believes the success is due to the changes implemented by the new coach Rumesh Ratnayake, the former Sri Lanka international, who was also in interim charge of the men’s team in 2017.

“He created a different culture in the dressing room,” added Athapaththu. “New ideas and planning, and then the executions of those plans in both training and matches. He made the girls believe in their abilities and we got stronger as a group.

“Previously, I used to score and perform but we still ended up losing the game. Now we are winning because of the contributions from every player. We always talked about positive things in the dressing room. And the girls are playing really good cricket. As a captain, I'm really proud of my girls and my staff.

“Women’s cricket is progressing well. We now have four squads made up of the national team, an A team squad, as well as development and age group squads for a steady flow of players to emerge from the system.

“This system has been in place for a while and it’s a matter of time for the results to come.”

Athapaththu's impact on Sri Lankan cricket cannot be understated. The century against Scotland was her second in T20Is, while the 34 year old also has nine ODI tons to her name, including an epic 195 not out that helped Sri Lanka secure the highest ever one-day run-chase of 305 to defeat South Africa last month.

It was a career-best one-day knock and third-highest individual score by a batter in women's ODIs, behind only Amelia Kerr's unbeaten 232 for New Zealand against Ireland, and Belinda Clark's 229 not out for Australia versus Denmark.

In 2023, Athapaththu became the first Sri Lankan female cricketer to win the ICC Player of the Year award after a stellar 12 months that saw her score 415 runs in eight matches, at an average of 69.16 and a strike-rate of 125.37. Highlights also included leading the team to victory against New Zealand to win the ICC Women’s Championship series against New Zealand.

She’s also the first Sri Lankan player to have a dedicated seating zone in a stadium, when the Sydney Thunder announced the introduction of “Chamari Bay” at the iconic Sydney Cricket Ground.

Such has been Athapaththu's success that fans have labelled her the female Sanath Jayasuriya, after the big-hitting batter who starred in Sri Lanka's 1996 men's World Cup winning team and is regarded as one of the all-time great all-rounders of limited-overs cricket.

“Sanath aiya [older brother] is a legend,” said Athapaththu. “I’m not anywhere close to be compared with him, but if someone thinks I’m even close to him in any way, I will take that as a massive compliment.

“He’s my cricketing hero and role model. My cricket started with Sanath aiya. He’s always been an inspiration to me, even now.

“I loved to play like him. I even changed my batting stance to follow his style of play. However, I couldn’t match him and then over a period of time, I had to adopt my own style. I still love his aggression and attacking play, though.”

Athapaththu was six when she watched Sri Lanka play in the 1996 Cricket World Cup and it was observing Jayasuriya’s batting display that turned out to be a life-changing experience for her.

She already had a fair knowledge of the bat and ball game, taught to her by late uncle Chandra Dissanayake, a cricket coach with whom she played in their back garden from age four.

“Everyone around me watching the World Cup matches on TV was talking about Sanath aiya. I started to like him very much for the way he smashed the bowling,” she said.

“Sanath aiya was my role model for most of my cricketing career and I still have very high regards for him. I had the good fortune of meeting him personally for the first time on my 21st birthday.

“It was a coincidence. I was batting at the nets and Sanath aiya was batting in the next at the Khettarama Stadium where the national team trained. I had brought a cake to celebrate with my teammates. I requested my coach to introduce me to him. I took a piece of the cake and walked across when he was done with the training.

“He wished me [happy birthday] and presented me his bat and the pair of gloves which he was wearing. I still have them and it remains as one of the most sentimental gifts in my trophy cabinet.

“It’s very funny. I bat left handed like Sanath aiya, but everything else, I do it with my right hand. I bowl right arm and write with my right hand.”

Athapaththu is the only child in the family and her biggest fans have been her mother, father and uncle.

“My mother is the only one living now,” she says. “These three were my superheroes. My father used to accompany me for all the matches but sadly he couldn’t see me play for Sri Lanka. They were the pillars on where I stand now as a cricketer.

“It was they who nurtured, supported and encouraged me on my cricketing journey. I really miss my father and uncle. I played football and volleyball aside from cricket during schooldays, and they always came to watch me play.”

And her mother will be watching in pride later this year as Athapaththu heads for her ninth T20 World Cup appearance in a row, having played in every tournament since the inaugural competition in 2009.

Sri Lanka face Australia in their World Cup opener on October 4, in a group that also includes New Zealand, Pakistan and India. The other group consists of hosts Bangladesh, England, Scotland, South Africa and the West Indies.

“If we have to win the World Cup, we must be able to face any team and win against them. It’s the 10 best teams and I feel we are prepared for the challenge,” Athapaththu said, when asked about the strength of the group they are in.

“We’ll take one game at a time and try to keep it simple and play our best cricket according to our plans. We know our strength. So, I think, I hope we can play some good cricket in Bangladesh.”

Updated: May 10, 2024, 6:21 AM