The ground is shifting below Chamari Athapaththu’s feet. Now she’s at Headingley, facing up to Katherine Brunt in the nets, laughing off the angry stares she gets when the ball meets the middle of the bat. Now she is in Melbourne, sweating it out in the indoor Docklands stadium, egging on her teammate, Lea Tahuhu, one of the fastest bowlers in the world. Now she is in Sri Lanka, right next to the biggest airport in the country, airborne herself. She has jumped from her leg stump guard, and in a split second will land well outside the off, anticipating a wide yorker from Jhulan Goswami. She finds it, swings, and gets a boundary through the unprotected square leg area.
She plays many shots more attractive than that in her knock of 115 off 133 balls, helping Sri Lanka post 257 in reply to India’s 253. It is the highest score by any team in a successful chase against India, and Sri Lanka’s first win over them in five years.
The ground is shifting, and Athapaththu is shifting it.
“I practised that shot in the net,” she says of the hop-flick. “In T20 format, KSL (Kia Super League) especially, a lot of fast bowlers go with wide yorkers, especially Katherine Brunt and Lea Tahuhu. I have played with them, so it’s easier for me to play it.”
Lazlo Scuzak, the coach of the Indian rifle shooting team in the early 2000s, had a theory which Abhinav Bindra describes in his autobiography: “To polish diamonds, you need diamond dust. The more we shot abroad, the clearer we saw that the elite shooters were within our reach.” No surprise that Athapaththu credits her first hundred in a chase to the growth she has seen in herself after playing in the two overseas T20 competitions. “I played with a lot of good cricketers, and learnt a lot of things in WBBL and KSL: how to handle the pressure situations, how to chase, how to pace out innings,” she said.
She applied all of those in her knock: she retreated behind her defences while Jhulan Goswami and Mansi Joshi bowled probing first spells, repeatedly beating her outside off. In the first 10 overs, she had scored just 5 off 30 balls. But once the spinners came on, she used her feet to compensate for lost time and scored 45 in her next 31 balls to get to fifty. “At first I deliberately took time, and I played my natural game only at the end,” she explained.
The half-century celebration was different from the last ODI, where she took off her helmet and raised both arms when she reached the same milestone. “That game was the first time I scored a fifty against India, that’s why I took off my helmet. It was like a hundred for me, it’s not easy to score against India.” Here she went with an ‘all-hail’ style bow towards the dressing room. We would see it again, her next 50 runs coming off 56 balls, her fourth ODI hundred.
The shot selection was both canny and audacious: After playing out five dots in an over from Harmanpreet Kaur, she hit her for two glorious boundaries over mid-off and cover in the next. In the batting powerplay, she alone plundered 28 runs while only three were scored from the other end, including two consecutive sixes against off-spin. More often than not, she picked areas where there were already fielders and backed herself to go over them. “Sometimes I try to hit over the fielders in my favourite areas, I know I’m really strong there.”
When three-figure mark arrived, out came the bows and more, this time with the helmet off. “That celebration was for the national coach (Harsha de Silva). The first time I played international cricket, he was the coach. Now after five years, he’s back with the Sri Lanka team.” De Silva was also in charge the last time Sri Lanka beat India, in the 2013 World Cup.
There was no bat raised as she walked off though, out in the 42nd over with her side still 61 runs adrift. Livid with herself, she loudly smashed her bat into her pad as she crossed the line. But the rest of the batters held their nerves, an overall team performance doing what her legendary knock of 178* could not. Individual brilliance cannot win you ODIs. But it can turn T20Is. And this knock is a warning for India ahead of the T20I leg of the tour.