"How do you leave behind the only life you've ever known," Maria Sharapova wondered in her column for Vanity Fair as she called time on her illustrious 28-year career last week. In team sports, that question perhaps rings with even greater poignancy, the act of walking away often requiring walking into an unknown without the security or support of team-mates you have shared the best part of your professional life with. Shashikala Siriwardene, the Sri Lanka allrounder who retired after 17 years of international cricket on Monday, too, knew it be would be difficult.
"From the beginning of the day it was very hard as I knew I was playing my last game," Siriwardene told reporters after her 4 for 16 - the best figures at the ongoing T20 World Cup - against Bangladesh set up Sri Lanka's only win in the tournament. "I was kind of nervous knowing I would be wearing national colours for the last time. It was pretty emotional, but I told myself it wasn't the time to get emotional.
"I knew my contribution would be important so I told myself to not think about my retirement until the match ended. I really love to perform, but the main thing was getting the win for the team. We knew we couldn't go without a win. We knew we had the skill and the potential to be in the top four. I'm truly satisfied that I did something to help my country. I'll miss being with these girls. I have spent more time with this team than with my family."
"On the field, we've been very competitive, but starting from Mithali Raj, Sana Mir, among us all Asian teams we have been sharing our knowledge because off it we are good friends. That spirit is very good for sports"
Having debuted for Sri Lanka at age 18, Siriwardene had already had three years of international cricket behind her before women's cricket in the country came under the Sri Lankan board in 2006. When the first set of central contracts for women were awarded in 2010, nearly 15 years after it was introduced for men, she had two 50-over World Cup appearances and one in the 20-over equivalent against her name. For the best part of her international career, though, Siriwardene, the longest-serving Sri Lanka women's cricketer in ODIs - and with the second most caps in T20Is after Chamari Atapattu - like most of those that came before or during her time, toiled away in obscurity.
"When we started playing cricket, we only had four clubs and only a few players involved," she said. "With one woman's effort - Gwen Herath, she is the one who started hard-ball cricket in Sri Lanka. At the time, my seniors did a lot of commitment. They had the passion for playing for the country, without gaining anything, the seniors just wanted to wear the jersey, represent the country. So, those were the things I saw when I came into the national team and I wanted to play simply out of the passion."
An individual career high came 11 years after Siriwardene first sported the Sri Lanka shirt, close on the heels of a milestone in her personal life. A year after tying the knot with Namal Seneviratne, a former first-class cricketer in Sri Lanka, Siriwardene became the No. 1-ranked T20I allrounder and then went on to turn out for a World XI side at Lord's. She counts those events among the highlights of her career, but the most cherished one is what was a first for Sri Lanka, which came under Siriwardene's captaincy.
"[The] 2013 ODI World Cup first time we could beat England and India," she said. "As a player, as a captain, it's a huge moment for us. It really changed the way the people see where the people think of women's cricket in Sri Lanka."
The turning point in Siriwardene's career came not on the field of play, but off it and, most importantly, pulled her back from the brink of a premature retirement - she had made up her mind early in her career that quitting the sport after marriage would be the best way forward.
"As any other Asian woman, I had to tell myself that when I got married I will have to stop cricket," Siriwardene, the only Sri Lankan woman to have scored 1000 runs and picked up 100 wickets in ODIs, said. "I got married in 2013. At that time we did well in the [ODI] World Cup in India, and he [Seneviratne] said, 'why do you want to quit, why do you want to stop when you're playing good cricket'. So I was surprised. He just said, 'every woman doesn't get this chance to represent the country and do well at that; if you are performing well, just focus on your fitness and performance - it's a big stage'.
"He advised me given he has played cricket himself and is a coach, so he knows how difficult it is to break on to [the top level]. He never pressured me; just kept encouraging me, so I could play for eight years after marriage. I think every woman needs that kind of encouragement to be able to play cricket or any sport after marriage."
Besides her husband and father - "Because of him I am here today, I dedicate my entire career to him" - there were a lot of other helping hands too.
"In 2015 I had a bone operation between my fingers," Siriwardene recalled. "Then in 2016, I had detachment of my hamstring during the T20 World Cup, and met with a road accident subsequently for which I had to do reconstruction of my PACL (posterior anterior cruciate ligament). There was bacterial infection and for 50 days the doctors couldn't find the name of the bacteria, so I had to come to India, and because of my doctor I could play for my country but my physios, especially Tasneem Yusuf motivated me to carry on as I battled with one injury after another.
A heartwarming message from the @BCCIWomen players.— Annesha Ghosh (@ghosh_annesha) March 1, 2020
So good to see @shikhashauny, @mandhana_smriti & @JemiRodrigues duly accord a farewell to allrounder Shashikala Siriwardene, who's been a great servant to the game for 17 years. THIS is what it's all about.#T20WorldCup https://t.co/CnSjA5gjXu pic.twitter.com/yjb03PNBXP
"And coaches and captains often let me play without my being fully fit. They would make sure I was kept away from fielding at the hard positions. I felt they needed me even though I was injured and that motivated me to keep doing my rehab. In the recent years, I have done more rehab and gym work than batting and bowling. It has not been easy…"
At the ongoing T20 World Cup, the only bright spots in Sri Lanka's campaign had been the impressive run captain Chamari Atapattu had with the bat, and the upset they fell just short of pulling off against hosts Australia after a superb new-ball burst from Udeshika Prabodhani. The final - and only - hurrah, though, had Siriwardene taking centre stage.
"The concept of playing the ICC Women's [ODI] Championship, against very good sides has helped [our team] a lot," Siriwardene said. "We learnt where we stand and how to improve. Otherwise we were just playing the seventh-eighth-ninth-ranked sides, so it didn't help us improve ourselves at all. At this moment, we have been more competitive than in other tournaments, so it's a fact that it's always good to play with good, quality countries to improve and it should happen in the future as well."
Siriwardene is a Level 1 coach with Sri Lanka Cricket, and has spent three years at the Devi Balika College in her country coaching young girls. After the Bangladesh game, she told presenter Alan Wilkins that she might continue to play a role in some capacity with her current domestic side, Sri Lankan Navy, and might even consider playing a mentor-like role with the national team.
For now, though, Siriwardene is happy walking away on a high, with a bouquet of memories and tokens of gratitude from team-mates past and present, fans and opponents - one of those coming not long after Sri Lanka lost to India.
"I was really surpised when I saw three of them in front of my room," Siriwardene said about the signed shirt India players Shikha Pandey, Smriti Mandhana and Jemimah Rodrigues presented her at the team hotel in Melbourne as a parting gift. "Then I invited them, waiting for me at the lobby. I had no plans to go down for breakfast, so they came to my room.
"It was the best moment in my career. We have played lots of matches against each other… On the field, we've been very competitive, but starting from Mithali Raj, Sana Mir, among us all Asian teams we have been sharing our knowledge because off the field we are good friends. That spirit is very good for sports. I must thank them for this moment. I am really happy to have had these friendships with all these players."