Athapaththu‘s brilliance sets new marker for Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka win their first match of the three-match ODI series against India. ©SLC

When it was over, it was hard to spot the players behind the phones. As Kavisha Dilhari hit the winning runs back past the bowler, the crowd that was brimming at the edge of the boundary line spilled over, like boiling milk that can no longer be contained in a bubble of cream. On paper, it was a serious security lapse, and one hopes none of the 500-odd spectators misbehaved with a player. But for the next half an hour, all they wanted was a selfie with their heroes. And for a brief moment, their heroes were Sri Lankan women.

The game was a statistical tall poppy: only the second time in women’s ODI history that two captains scored hundreds in the same game. Mithali Raj’s century showcased everything her fifty in the last ODI did not: urgency, fluency, power (when she lofted Inoka Ranweera for the first six of the match), even a dropped chance. 125* was her highest ODI score and her 6th unbeaten ton. Chamari Athapaththu’s innings too flaunted new skills: not the lofted sixes over extra cover (she always had those), but the discretion she showed early in her innings, and the confidence that she would make up time. Her teammates used her knock as the concrete from which they jumped high, high enough to snatch only their second ever ODI win against India.

Looking back, there is little India could have done differently, except perhaps in the fielding which oscillated between sincere and porous. After getting the opening combination right by playing the talented Jemimah Rodrigues, it went wrong when she was out for a second-ball duck. Smriti Mandhana and Mithali consolidated with a 102-run stand. Mandhana scored her 6th fifty in eight games but might be taking notes from Mithali on how to convert a start into a massive score. She perished to the same aggression that took her to 51 off 62 balls. Harmanpreet Kaur became 17-year old Dilhara’s first ODI wicket, a fitting reward for the youngster she endured Mithali being dropped. India’s total of 253 was just about par, but with the strip at the Katunayake BOI ground resembling the tarmac of the nearby airport, it was far from safe.

Sri Lanka gained altitude early. Hasini Perera scratched and swiped her way to 45 in a hundred-run stand, two sixes interrupting an uncomfortable stay against the fast bowlers. Not just Perera; Jhulan Goswami troubled even u, harrying her outside edge repeatedly. Athapaththu was ruffled, but not removed. She took shelter behind her luck and waited.

Her first run took six balls, her second came in the sixth over, and by the time she had her fifth, she had faced five whole overs by herself. When her first boundary nudged Goswami out of the attack, she repaid the time she had borrowed with four boundaries in three overs, offering brutality as interest. A half-century came off a healthy 61 balls. Her next 50 would be slightly better, at 56.

You could tell how important her runs were by the edge creeping into the voices of her teammates as they cheered; insistent with instruction, pregnant with hope. Hope to right a wrong. In the second game of the series, Sri Lanka lost after needing 17 runs in 24 balls with a batter well set. That batter was Nilakshi de Silva, who walked in when Athapaththu was finally dismissed for 115. After scoring 31 off 19 at Galle, de Silva got 15 off 9 to get the required run rate down to around a run-a-ball. India’s fielding, which had been nervy all game, could not stop the Islanders scrambling through whenever they were within a kilometre of a gap. Dilhari sealed the matter with an audacious dilscoop off Joshi, leaving just six required in the final over. And then the selfies began.

What just happened, is the question India might ask. Things weren’t expected to get this competitive till the T20Is started. Here were six ICC Women’s Championship points which India needed, with their games against Pakistan always walking a political tightrope. Those points will at best be shared, at worst, conceded. That leaves England (home), the Windies and New Zealand (both away). India have now been beaten by Bangladesh and Sri Lanka within the matter of few months. With tough opposition ahead, the World Cup finalists are staring at the possibility that they will have to play the qualifiers to book a place in 2021.

For Sri Lanka, the win meant more than just points: laughter in the dressing room after heaven knows how long. Vindication of SLC’s decision to pay the national broadcaster to air the series. A sign that the decision to bring back their best-performing coach is working. And a win against India, the Asian Australia, injects belief: we can beat teams with better contracts, vast domestic systems and more than one world class player. Just like the match at the Brabourne in 2013, this game will be remembered as a marker.

On paper, it was just a win. Thing is, this paper was a page of history.