Over the last couple of decades Sri Lanka have been struggling to find a way to compete against the more established nations in women’s cricket. While the rest of the world have continually raised the bar over the years, Sri Lanka’s cricket has somewhat stagnated. While Sri Lanka Cricket (SLC) attempts to address the core issue of bridging the gap that has loomed large for many years, two players, Shashikala Siriwardene and Chamari Atapattu have provided them some hope. The pair’s contributions have allowed Sri Lanka to begin to believe they have what it takes to topple some of the best teams in the business.
Interestingly, both players come from contrasting backgrounds, Shashikala representing the old guard, while Atapattu is firmly part of the new, more attacking or aggressive generation of players.
Over a large part of a decade the pair have carried the weight and expectations of an entire nation, also teaching them to fight against more competitive opposition.
In a two-part interview series, Women’s CricZone caught up with the duo ahead of their departure for the ICC Women’s T20 World Cup in Australia and spoke to them about their careers to date, the development of women’s cricket in Sri Lanka and more.
You can read Part I here.
Chamari Atapattu, Sri Lanka’s T20I captain, has for many years now been their lone warrior with the bat. She is by far the most powerful batter in a line-up that struggles to score consistently. Despite the lack of support, Atapattu has often single-handedly decimated opposition attacks, underlining her value as one of Sri Lanka’s best ever players.
Her big-hitting style has meant that Atapattu has become a bit of a regular in domestic T20 leagues like the Women’s Big Bash League in Australia, the (now defunct) Women’s Cricket Super League in England, and the Women’s T20 Challenge in India.
A find from the grassroots level from the provincial city of Kurunegela in Gokarella, 29-year old Atapattu has taught her team to believe even in the direst circumstances. The first centurion from her country, the left-hander has over 4000 international runs to her credit, including six hundreds. She has also led Sri Lanka in 27 ODIs and 35 T20Is.
Tell us how you started playing.
I took to the game when I was only seven years old. Playing hardball cricket at such a young age enabled me to fine-tune my technique quite early. I became very good at striking the ball. My uncle Chandra Dissanayake was a coach in my hometown Kurunegela and was a big asset to me.
My career then took off when I was in school, studying in Ibbagamuwa Central College. I represented the Under-19 team there and was also captain for a while. However, since I had to travel into the city of Colombo every day from my hometown it was a bit difficult. I needed to do that so that I could then make the grade team.
Travelling to Colombo was a chore that started in the wee hours of the morning. It wouldn’t have been possible (to make the journey) if not for my father Jayawardena Bandara, who used to accompany me by van. Those are some very fond memories – I am ever grateful to him.
Your father was a huge source of support to you, but passed away before you could don national colours…
I was in Colombo training when I heard the sad news that my father had suddenly passed away of a heart attack. It is a sorrow that has stayed with me because my dad could not live to see the day I played for my country. He inspired me so much that to have lost him before he could derive that satisfaction of watching me swishing the bat for Sri Lanka is hurting.
What is the secret to your success?
My greatest asset is to bat freely without any pressure. I never let it (the situation) get the better of me and simply go my own way. That approach has largely helped me to put up big scores. For me, more than a captain, the player value is important, so I try to contribute as much as I can all the time.
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You are the only centurion from Sri Lanka. Tell us about those efforts.
Those century efforts are worth gold to me considering the extreme odds I braved in achieving them with little support from other batters. My biggest ton was the unbeaten 178 against Australia in the 2017 World Cup in England at Headingley. The others were against Ireland in 2011, South Africa in 2013, India in 2019, Australia in 2019, and T20 ton also against Australia the same year
Which of those innings is your favourite?
My 178 against Australia in the World Cup was special. The first wicket fell to the very first ball and wickets kept tumbling. In that situation, I tried to take my time, collecting singles and only smashing the loose balls to the boundary. I then reeled off the big shots in the second power play of the 35th over against a top attack of 3 pacers and a spinner. What stands out is that it was a virtual lone effort. In foreign conditions – and a World Cup at that – it is a knock I am very proud of.
Your feats have meant you are often considered ‘hot property’ in these foreign T20 leagues.
Yes, I’m happy that my batting performances have enabled me to go places. There has been a big demand for me in T20 league cricket. The latest opportunity came my way in the WBBL when I played a couple of games for Melbourne Renegades towards the end of 2019.
Would you say your two centuries against Australia this year influenced that?
I guess you could say that. I had proved a point that I can bat and score big under any circumstances. Playing league cricket in every country has certainly helped me along. In the England last year I also performed well in all six matches for Loughborough Lightning who finished third in the tournament. So, I have experience of having had played in different conditions around the world and that has stood me in good stead wherever I play.
How would you weigh your contribution to the Sri Lanka team in both formats thus far?
I would say that within the limited resources I have done my very best in the interests of the T20I and ODI teams. My performances do reflect that fact, and mind you all these have been in extreme situations when the team was badly placed.
How does it feel when many of your big performances have come in losses?
The bottom line in cricket is to be a winner and that it has not gone that way when I performed is unfortunate. However, to perform and stand out in lost causes has nevertheless given me the satisfaction that I was a winner in an individual sense. To score six centuries against top teams in world cricket is a matter of pride.
As the T20 captain of the Sri Lanka team what are your plans for the 2020 T20 World Cup knowing that you do not have the best of player resources at your disposal?
It is of course a handicap, but at the same time it is a challenge to play against the odds and strive to come on top. I believe that despite the below par performances in the past there have been the plus points of discovering emerging players in team building. One big find has been 21-year old Harshitha Madavi who has added some impetus to the batting department. She will occupy the pivotal No.4 slot which I believe will be quite an asset to me opening the batting upfront. We are planning a new strategy and hope to create a few upsets. We are in Group A of the World Cup alongside reigning champions Australia, New Zealand, India and Bangladesh and we do expect to upset India and Bangladesh to reach the semi-finals.
I must say I have by now acquired sufficient overseas exposure to strive to make an impact in the World Cup. In the WCSL recently, I was the third-highest run-getter for my team. Also, in the first season in England I played for Yorkshire Diamonds and was the main performer with the bat.
In the domestic scene as well I was at the top of the run charts for the Air Force. The ground situation has been that if I got enough runs the team does well. As much as 95% of run contribution has been by me. So, in this World Cup too, I need to make sure I am scoring heavily.
As skipper, how do you see this team developing?
As the T20 captain I have led Sri Lanka to eight wins. I believe that with new players emerging, the pattern is falling in to place for the right team building and that in due course we will have quite a strong team by building the right combinations on which we are working on now.