Sri Lanka Women captain Chamari Athapaththu believes the postponement of the global Qualifier to determine the final three spots at the 2022 Women's ODI World Cup from its June-July window to December is a "good thing". Just for context, Sri Lanka, hosts of the qualifying event, haven't had any form of international cricket for over a year now.
"To get an additional four-five months for our preparation is a good thing because we haven't played any international cricket in over 13 months," Athapaththu told ESPNcricinfo. "Things have been uncertain because of the Covid-19 pandemic and I was a bit worried that if the event went ahead as scheduled, we would have been underprepared. I hope that leading up to December we get a few more series apart from the one against Pakistan that our board is trying to organise."
ESPNcricinfo understands that talks between SLC and the PCB about Pakistan potentially touring Sri Lanka for limited-overs matches before the Qualifier are only at a preliminary stage. Should they come to fruition, the series might be held only after May.
Both teams, along with West Indies, are among the sides part of the 2017/18-2021 Women's ODI Championship who will vie for the three qualifying berths for the World Cup to be held in New Zealand from March 4 to April 3.
"Getting some match practice on a regular basis is going to be very important for us before the Qualifiers," Athapaththu said. "Thailand's debut in the T20 World Cup last year was proof of the kind of challenge teams outside of the top-ranked nations can present on the world stage. We cannot afford to take anyone lightly because it's qualification to a World Cup that's at stake.
"If there are long gaps [for teams] without any cricket for say a year or a year-and-a half, even the best look ordinary. I followed the recent series between India and South Africa. India are a top side, but they hadn't played for a year, so they couldn't play well. On the other hand, because South Africa had played some games before coming to India, they looked far better even in the absence of some of their senior players."
Among a raft of world tournaments that the ICC has postponed due to the pandemic is the inaugural Under-19 Women's World Cup. Originally scheduled for this year in Bangladesh, the tournament has been pushed back to January 2023. In Athapaththu's assessment, the postponement will rob several deserving young players of the opportunity to play in the world tournament.
"We have a good bunch of Under-19 girls," Athapaththu said. "The school cricket tournaments were on over the past few weeks and I think a few girls were on the radar as far as making the potential squad for the Under-19 World Cup was concerned. But, unfortunately, most of them will no longer be able to take part in it because a gap of two years is a sizeable one.
"Age-group tournaments come with age-related restrictions, so not having the tournament this year is a very disappointing thing for those young Sri Lankan girls and for me as an international cricketer. I feel bad for them because our qualifiers have also been postponed, but we will still get a chance [to compete in that tournament], but so many of these girls won't. We will now have to look for pretty much a fresh bunch of girls to field in the 2023 edition."
Athapaththu hits form in domestic competition
Since the T20 World Cup last year, where Sri Lanka won only one of their four league games, the only opportunity Athapaththu has had to play any form of top-flight cricket was in the BCCI's Women's T20 Challenge in November in the UAE, where she was the leading run-scorer.
On the domestic front, she was part of the recently concluded Women's Division One Tournament, the eight-team 50-over competition. Athapaththu, who plays for the Chilaw Marians Cricket Club, finished atop the tournament's run charts with a 429-run tally in seven innings at an average of 61.29, striking at 120.51. The next-best strike rate, 69.49, belonged to Nilakshi de Silva, who took the second place on this list with 246 runs at an average of 49.20.
For the record, the Navy Sports Club, who were undefeated in the league stage, emerged champions after clinching a two-wicket victory over the Army A team in the final in Welisara on April 2.
Inoka Ranaweera, representing Navy, was the leading wicket-taker in the competition, with 25 wickets in seven innings, at an economy of just 2.27. Kavisha Dilhari, the 20-year-old offspin-bowling allrounder with 14 international caps to her name, finished in the top 10 on both charts.
"I am glad we were able to host the women's inter-club tournament because several of our national-team players, seniors and youngsters alike, got a chance to shake off a bit of the rust," Athapaththu said. "It also allowed many of us to assess how we are doing individually because we have been mostly training individually in our hometowns because of the pandemic, though we have had a couple of national camps since September last year. The Covid situation has been an obvious a hindrance to hosting games in Sri Lanka but it's good to have got some competitive cricket this year."
Although there are substantial Covid-19 restrictions still imposed by the government, with over 90,000 active cases, Sri Lanka has largely avoided the worst of the pandemic, and many aspects of life have returned to normal. The island's Covid-19 death toll is just under 600.
In the recent past, SLC hosted the Lanka Premier League and a men's Test tour, and has a schedule lined up for the men's national team over the next three months. Athapaththu, who is currently training under her personal coach in Kurunegala, was hopeful that the Division One tournament would pave the way for more playing opportunities for Sri Lanka's women's cricketers, too.
"The inter-club tournament went well and Kavisha and many of the other national-team players expectedly did better than the others. If youngsters like her get more game time - on the domestic as well as international level - that will be good for the health of women's cricket in Sri Lanka. SLC is trying to organise practice matches against Under-17 boys, so that, too, could help us."
With inputs from Andrew Fidel Fernando and Madushka Balasuriya
Annesha Ghosh is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo. @ghosh_annesha