If you watch women’s cricket closely, you’ll very quickly spot some players who are a cut above the others, purely in the athletic sense: They will be a split second faster while chasing a ball. They are quicker to develop the ability to hit sixes. And their throws make wicketkeepers reach for the ice-bags.
That’s how I first spotted Nilakshi de Silva. “Who’s that?” I asked the scorer when she executed a diving stop on the boundary in the first ODI in Galle. She got back on her feet and released the ball so fast, it grabbed grab my attention.
Then I forgot about her.
Sri Lanka’s series was dead and buried under six feet of dirt. Having lost the first ODI, they were 165 for 6 in the second, chasing India’s 219.
They had never won a chase against India. Against any team, they had successfully chased such a total just once, and that was five years ago. Captain Chamari Athapaththu was out for 57 in the 37th, and that should have been it. A stubborn partnership followed, but when De Silva walked in, both set batters had fallen on consecutive balls of the 42nd over. She had only the tail for company, and Sri Lanka still needed 55 runs from 51 balls. The series win for India had been pencilled in to match reports, and fingers were hovering over ‘send’.
Then de Silva reminded us that it’s never over till it’s over.
Poonam Yadav, among the best leggies in the world, came on for the 44th over, her last. Rather than see her off, de Silva -batting on 7 off 6- stepped out and launched Poonam over the on side for six. A lucky slog, we thought. Two balls later she repeated it, no, she improved it: two steps down the crease, the top hand bringing the bat down, she cleared the fielder at long off.
Slog, did someone say?
Suddenly Sri Lanka could do it in singles. They needed 23 off the last 30 balls, 14 off 24 and then just 13 off 18. Then de Silva got out, taking a calculated risk against medium pace that didn’t come off. Sri Lanka lost by eight runs. De Silva was in tears after the game.
Those soon turned into a smile. In the third ODI, Athapaththu fell after a superb century with Sri Lanka 61 runs adrift of India’s total of 253. De Silva was promoted to No. 5, and while she didn’t finish the game, she did enough to set it up. 15 off 9, with a four and a six, which took the scoreboard pressure off the tail. Sri Lanka got home with three wickets in hand and a ball to spare. Their biggest ever chase.
Before this series, de Silva had an ODI high score of 11. She didn’t make Sri Lanka’s 2017 World Cup squad. She was a bowling all-rounder.
And then suddenly, she was their big hitting finisher.
How? Maybe we should ask Alyssa Healy.
De Silva opts to not do this interview in English, so I have her teammate Shashikala Siriwardene translating her answers from Sinhala. This is far from extraordinary, but it is significant. English is not de Siva’s strongest language, and yet she voluntarily spent three months in a country where she couldn’t get by without it, for the sake of her cricket.
De Silva lost her place in the national side after the WT20 2016. At the suggestion, and with the financial support, of her agent Norman Kochannek, de Silva spent three months of the 2017-18 Australian summer in Sydney, along with compatriot Sripali Weerakkody. She played Premiere women’s cricket -which is where the state team is picked from – for the Sydney Cricket Club in their T20 side. She impressed the coaches enough to earn a place in the top order. In the eight matches she played, she had scores of 28, 38, 10, 17, 51*, 31, 28, and 0, all in good time, all either opening or batting at No. 3. The one half-century came in the company of Healy, who stroked 95. The two put on an opening stand of 144. By the end of the season, de Silva was given the Belinda Clark Award for the best T20 player of the season from her club.
She had rubbed shoulders with some of the best, overcome barriers of language, and found cricketing success in foreign conditions. It was a node in her cricketing career and beyond, kindling a desire to build a life in that country.
Little wonder she was fearless against the Indians at home.
The Colombo Cricket Club has been under covers for a whole day before they are pulled back for the 3rd T20I. India win an important toss and field. By the time de Silva arrives at the crease, Sri Lanka have been pegged back by a slow wicket and tight bowling: 82 for 3 after 13.3 overs.
De Silva walks in after an hour of sunshine, so batting is slightly easier for her than it was for the top order. By the time she is out, she has the best strike-rate in the Sri Lankan innings, 155. Her 31 off 20 shows off her power (a six over long on) and awareness (changing stance and dragging a four from outside off to the unprotected square-leg boundary). Sri Lanka add 49 in the last six overs. It’s not enough, but it’s a respectable effort given the conditions. And it’s yet another demonstration of what she can do.
But de Silva was not always a power player. Only after making the national team in 2013 did she see how far behind she was as compared to the fitness of the other players. She could barely clear the infield, and not hit over the top like her teammate Eshani Lokusooriya. Experience over the next two years watching other international teams reaffirmed that point.
So when she lost her place, she worked on her upper body strength and threw herself into improving her skills. After the national team’s sessions, she would head to the ground of her employers, the Army Sports Association, and hit the bowling machine. She packed in as much as she could in the day because she knew the value of time.
She was introduced to hardball cricket late, only at 19. Once she decided to commit to it, her day started at 4:45 AM. She would take a 5:15 AM bus from her home in Kaluthera to get to Colombo by 7 for training. She would leave Colombo by 3 PM, and be back home by six. Off late, that journey is made on her Yamaha motorcycle, still an hour-and-a-half on the road. She dreams of buying a car and renovating her family home, where her two brothers and parents stay. She wants to travel. And cricket is her medium.
Towards the end of our chat, Siriwardene reveals that de Silva has a talent for imitating players. She has promised an imitation of some of the Indians once the series is over. I leave the room thinking imitations are fine, but this is the real thing.
I’m not going to forget about her anytime soon.