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Athapaththu: 'I have a big responsibility, but I love that pressure'

She has been carrying the team almost on her own but feels that with a lot of youngsters coming through, she can play freely now

Firdose Moonda
Firdose Moonda
At this World Cup, Chamari Athapaththu wants to hit the longest six, with an off-drive  •  Sri Lanka Cricket

At this World Cup, Chamari Athapaththu wants to hit the longest six, with an off-drive  •  Sri Lanka Cricket

Chamari Athapaththu doesn't mind carrying the hopes of Sri Lankan women's cricket almost on her own.
As their best-known, most experienced and most successful T20I player, she understands the buck starts and stops with her, and has made it her mission to inspire future generations to build her country's sporting future.
"I know I have big responsibility and pressure but I love that pressure," Athapaththu told ESPNcricinfo ahead of Sri Lanka's final warm-up match, against West Indies in Cape Town. "I know how to handle that pressure. A lot of girls want to play cricket because of me and Shashikala [Siriwardene, the current Sri Lanka Under-19 Women's coach and the country's most-capped ODI player]. Some girls see us as role models. The culture [in our country] has changed. Girls are really interested in playing cricket and just need their parents and families to help them. My generation was totally different; the new generation has changed."
Athapaththu began playing cricket at the age of five and learnt to hit the ball hard because her uncle taught her how. It wasn't until she was a little older that she started playing with other girls. "When I started my cricket, there was no proper structure," she said. "Now we have good structures with grass-roots level cricket. In Sri Lanka, the situation is really good and in our culture, there are no barriers for girls."
While that may be true culturally, Sri Lanka have faced many other hurdles, especially in the last two years. Their women's team played no matches between March 2020 and January 2022 as a consequence of the Covid-19 pandemic, and the FICA report into women's employment found that they, along with Bangladesh, suffered disproportionately from lockdowns. The same report was critical of Sri Lanka's development and said the country's women had "no professional structure" to play under. That Athapaththu's assessment is so different to the FICA's speaks both to how far Sri Lanka have come and how far they have to go.
For Athapaththu, the turning point could be coming soon, despite the desperate financial situation her country is in. "In the last two years, we struggled a lot, but in the last six months, we've played a lot of cricket," she said, referencing the Commonwealth Games, the series against India and Pakistan, and the Asia Cup. "Our preparation has been really good and we have a lot of good young players coming through - Harshitha Samarawickrama and Under-19 captain Vishmi Gunaratne - and they take some of the pressure off me. I can bat freely [now]."
"I want to hit the longest six at the World Cup with the lofted off-drive"
Athapaththu has already been the most expressive Sri Lanka batter in this format. She is their highest T20I run-getter and 13th on the all-time list. She is their only T20I centurion, and has two of the three other scores of 80 or more Sri Lankan batters have made. Overall, her six scores of 50 or more are the most by any of the country's batters, and at this World Cup, she hopes to claim another milestone: "I just want to hit the longest six."
With which shot? "The lofted off-drive. It's harder than a pull but I love it."
The chances of being able to pull off strokes like that on well-worn, mid-summer surfaces that have not lived up to South Africa's reputation of being the home of pace and bounce are slim. But it may not be the worst news for Athapaththu. While it may mean she is not able to bat as fluently as she wants to, she knows conditions could work in favour of her bowlers.
"The Sri Lankan wickets are slow but I feel these wickets are a little bit slower than Sri Lankan wickets because of the weather and because they have played a lot of cricket in the last couple of months," she said. "And the weather is almost like Sri Lanka as well."
Memories of the home will give Sri Lanka some extra motivation too. The last time they played a T20I at home, they beat India by seven wickets, with Athapaththu doing exactly what she so often does. She carried the batting with an unbeaten 80 off 48 balls to give Sri Lanka a win over a side that had long pulled away from them in results, depth and money. Sri Lanka know they have catching up to do and Athapaththu hopes they will start at this World Cup. "We just want to win some games and make people smile. Sri Lankans love cricket so we want to win for them."

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent