Mountaineering is one of Chamari Athapaththu’s favourite ways to unwind. On Thursday at the County Ground in Bristol, she scaled a new peak. Her unbeaten 143-ball 178 is one of the best-ever knocks in the history of women’s cricket because of the audacity with which she attacked a strong Australia unit. She hit 22 fours and six huge sixes, covering the entire wagon wheel and forcing the defending champion to work on getting the other Sri Lanka batters out in their second game of the 2017 ICC Women’s World Cup.
Very few had expected Sri Lanka to challenge Australia, and the end result did go Australia’s way. But the way it had been arrived at meant several preconceived notions of how the match would pan out were upended.
“I would really like to play in Big Bash (League) and English (Women’s Super) League,” said Athapaththu. “Only a few Asian players have a chance in those leagues. Hopefully, I will get a chance next season. It’s my dream.
“This is my first hundred in World Cups and my highest score. This is my best achievement,” she added, even while dedicating the knock to her late father. “Australia has a lot of experienced bowlers in (Ellyse) Perry and Megan (Scutt), and also they are playing in leagues and county matches. I trusted myself and I played to my potential.
“He (father) is the hero of my life. He helped me a lot in my career,” she said. “Thank you very much dad.”
Athapaththu already has a potential bid from Melbourne Stars. “If she is going to bat like that everytime, I would be happily have her (at the Stars),” said Meg Lanning, Australia’s captain. “Once she got going she was very hard to stop and I don’t think any boundary is big enough for her.
“We tried all sorts of tactics to slow her down and get her out, but she was too good for us,” added Lanning. “Some of those shots she was playing were incredible. Well done to her. It was certainly one of the great knocks.”
Imagine a line-up of Athapaththu, Stafanie Taylor and Harmanpreet Kaur at Sydney Thunder – her favourite franchise. That’s in the future, but the present brought back memories from two big knocks in England. On Twitter, Andy Zaltzman connected Athapaththu’s knock with Kapil Dev’s famous unbeaten 175 against Zimbabwe in Tunbridge Wells in the 1983 ICC World Cup. The newer fans who knew Bristol as the venue of Sachin Tendulkar’s 140 not out against Kenya in the 1999 World Cup soon after his father expired, now have another reason to remember the venue.
On one of historic days for Sri Lankan cricket, Athapaththu had two other stalwarts who are her idols – Kumar Sangakkara and Sanath Jayasuriya – on her mind while batting.
The innings was divided into two parts. Having taken strike in the first over after Nipuni Hansika perished, Athapaththu focussed on building the innings. A lack of support from the rest of the top-order, who were unable to rotate the strike, meant that Athapaththu was left with no option but to attack in the second half of the innings. She reached her century in 106 balls, and hit the remaining 78 runs off just 37 balls. Her first six came in the 37th over of the innings.
“I started like Sanga and ended like Sanath. Thank you very much Sanath aaiya (brother) and Sanga aaiya,” she said. “For the first 25-30 overs, I tried to go for singles and the odd boundary. After 35 overs when the Power Play started, I tried to hit the ball over the rope. I am really happy. My coach Hemantha Devapriya and personal coach Jeevanta Kulatunga helped me a lot with my game.”
Having made 53 in the first game against New Zealand Woen, Athapaththu is the only player to have crossed the 200-run mark at the end of the tournament’s first week. There have been seven centurions, and what each of those knocks has shown is that so far, players are willing to give themselves time before opening out. It is a marked improvement from the past, when women cricketers were unable to pace their innings, either getting bogged down by dot balls or getting out after a few rash strokes.
After Athapaththu took Sri Lanka to 257 for 9, Lanning, with Mitchell Starc in the house, led Australia’s charge with her career-best show of 152 not out to record the best chase in ICC World Cup history.
“I think the wickets at the moment are pretty conducive to scoring runs. As soon as you get any width out there, you can free your hands and it runs away pretty quickly,” was Lanning’s assessment. “It’s harsh on the bowlers, and I think it’s hard for them to consistently do well. But it will be interesting to see how it plays as the tournament progresses.”
Lanning has walked the talk with 11 centuries – the most by any batter. At just 25, she could push the benchmark to new heights over the next few years.
“I don’t really think about it too much,” she said, when asked about her batting philosophy. “I just go out there and score as many runs as I can. I am in the No.3 position, so I get to bat for a long time and when I get in, I do try and put a big emphasis on getting that big score and help the side along. I don’t really think too much about it, and try and enjoy it as much as possible when I am out there.”
Enjoying the time out in the middle is the key to batting success – first Athapaththu, and then Lanning showed how it is done.