Athapaththu’s Women

It’s a World Cup. Your first match is against the third ranked team in the game. A country that was a previous winner and one that has been in a number of finals, in various formats. You are expected to lose. And you do, badly.

You pick yourself up and train harder for the next game.  On the eve of the match your captain tears a hamstring and is sent home. This isn’t just a captain. It’s your talisman and the most capped player for your country. As losses go for a team, it is a Grand Canyon sized one.

That was the position the Sri Lankan Women’s team found themselves in before their match against Ireland in the World T20. The team had no hesitation in appointing Chamari Athapaththu as the stand in captain. She’d done it before, just a few months ago. That time, Shashikala Siriwardene broke her finger.

There are a couple of things you notice immediately about Athapaththu. Not least the spelling of her last name on the back of her kit. It’s strangely refreshing to see her name spelled like it is actually pronounced in Sinhalese, compared to the bastardized version Marvan used to prance about in to help make it easier for the Caucasian commentators.

Then, there is that commanding presence she has on the field. She cuts a figure of authority and certitude in her sun hat as she tweaks the field or speaks to a bowler. Let’s just also take a minute to appreciate that sun hat. Not many players wear the hat anymore the way she does. It’s like some beautiful homage to Arjuna in his heyday.

More impressive is her attitude. While Angelo Mathews talked about how he wasn’t mentally prepared to take over the job when Lasith Malinga’s resignation left him high and dry, Athapaththu took it in her stride.

She said she understood the responsibility, felt no pressure in taking over the job and was focusing on beating Ireland. While not taking away anything from the women’s team, Mathews was inheriting a misfiring old station wagon which had previously won an F1 race that everyone was keeping a close eye on. So he did have some credit to play with. But it was refreshingly comforting to see a Sri Lankan captain take control of a bad situation with an aura of calmness that would have helped settle the team.

Sri Lanka went on to beat Ireland under Athapathhu, lost to Australia, the defending champions, and capped off their campaign with a win over a strong South African side.

At the same time as the men were getting thrown about, the women were giving Sri Lanka a good name. But sadly not many people knew any of this was happening in India.  Even fewer Sri Lankans know about the women’s team at all.  Before the World T20, I was one of those caught in the middle. While being aware of the Sri Lanka Women’s XI and their adventures it wasn’t something that was front of mind. This wasn’t for lack of trying.  Women’s cricket isn’t exactly a broadcast rights goldmine. While this may change with the Women’s Big Bash League in Australia, Sri Lanka’s board hardly ever markets its team. The women live in this void like a perpetually ignored middle child.

When I tuned in this time, what I saw was impressive and surprising. Not surprising in a, oh wow, these women can actually play cricket. What was impressive was how much the Sri Lankan team was competing against the top teams. Sri Lanka are a decent side. They generally do well without winning much. But Compared to Australia, New Zealand, England and now West Indies, however, they were always a tier or two below.

Yet one look at the determined attitude of Athapaththu or Dilani Manodara or Sugandika Kumari was all you needed to see that this team hadn’t showed up in India just to make up the numbers. While watching the men’s team these days is like a really terrible case of sand in your eye, the women were instilling a healthy spoonful of hope into the state of Sri Lankan cricket.

Athapaththu had a World Cup that Lahiru Thirimanne would have given up his first born for. Consistent runs at the top of the order, taking on bowlers and hitting over the top. It was captivating and unrelenting. She’s the only batsman outside of a Big 4 team to rank in the top ten for the most runs scored in the tournament, with a combined average and strike rate of 148. Which should impress Scott Styris and Mike Hussey.

Athapaththu’s partnerships with Manodara was what propelled Sri Lanka’s batting. Manodara was also the chirpiest wicket keeper in both the men and women’s tournament. While Athapaththu surveyed her troops from under her sun hat, like a General plotting tactical moves, Manodara was the mascot who seemed to want to charge at the opposition with nothing but a bayonet in her hand. Sugandika Kumari’s bowling was like witnessing a weird twilight zone experience of a slimmer Rangana Herath imparting black magic on some unsuspecting batman.

More Athapaththu heroics was also what triggered a collapse of South Africa from 50 for none to 104 all out. Athapatthu’s one handed pick up and throw to the keeper, in her follow through, to allow Prasadani Weerakkodi to uproot all the stumps she could get her hands on, was poetry.

Disappointingly, these two were the only batsmen that showed any substance for Sri Lanka. Every time they set up a platform, the rest of the batting showed up to carpet bomb it to dust. Against NZ they were 82-1 in the 12th over and ended up with just 108 in the 20th. Up against Australia they slapped around an attack that included Ellyse Perry, Megan Schutt and Kristen Beams to be 75-1 in the 10th over but finished with only 123.

These two games highlighted the gulf in skill levels and professionalism that exist in the women’s game when you put the Big 4 teams up against the rest. While teams like Sri Lanka can compete for periods in the game, everything tends to fall away when the better drilled and professionally superior teams decided they were done mucking about.

When Sri Lanka completed their win against South Africa in their final game, Athapaththu calmly walked into the huddle, clapping, knowing their campaign hadn’t yielded what they set out to achieve, but satisfied with what they had accomplished. Cramped in a group with the world champions and the third ranked team in the world, their chances of getting to a Semi Final were nonexistent. But apart from the one bad game against New Zealand, they competed in each of the other matches and had Australia on the ropes for a large portion of the game when they were batting. Athapaththu and Siriwardene would have given an arm and a leg for the won-2 lost-2 tally they ended up with before the tournament. In Siriwardene’s case she only needed to sacrifice her hamstring. For a side that lost their last eight games before the WT20 in this format, this was huge. Bigger than huge. It was real.

These are hugely encouraging signs for the women’s game in Sri Lanka. But it must be deeply depressing to play to empty stands and barely get a Facebook meme go semi-viral for what they achieved in this World cup.

If seeing the women’s team do well was surprising, then the way Sri Lanka Cricket looks after the women’s game, hardly is. Cricket Australia pumped so much marketing into the women’s BBL last year that it was impossible to ignore. Australia tour other countries regularly, play test cricket, and more importantly, are paid well, although still not as much as the men.

The Sri Lankan women’s team can only dream of such opportunities and riches. The SLC pays the national women’s team the rate equivalence of a lower tier first class cricketer in the men’s game. These are players representing their country in ICC events, spending large chunks of their life away from their families, struggling to accumulate opportunities to play and experience competitive cricket on a regular basis. They’ve played a grand total of one test match. Which they won. There was a sexual misconduct case against the team’s management and there is virtually no domestic cricket structure for the players to improve their skills in. Sri Lanka Cricket does not really know how to run the men’s game, so there is really no hope for the women.

Perhaps the light at the end of the tunnel is in the Southern Hemisphere, when the WBBL Season 2 kicks off later this year. There were no Sri Lankan’s in the first edition last year. Hopefully players like Athapaththu or Manodara did enough to get noticed for Season 2.

Women’s cricket in Sri Lanka is not a thing, at least not in the sense that a thing is something that exists. Its existence is more like a mirage.  And that is a tragedy not only for Sri Lankan women but to Sri Lankan cricket.

You need performances like this to help people remember that women in Sri Lanka also do cricket. Sadly even then, it barely seems to register a ripple in the fabric of Sri Lankan cricket. Performances like this should be causing giant fifty-foot super waves that terrify and excite us and wipe out the collective ignorance. But only if they get noticed. So notice them. These women exist. They play cricket. And they play it well.

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