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Interviews

Bhanuka Rajapaksa: 'I've always felt like a rioter who would go and fight for the rights of the boys'

The Sri Lanka batter has had a tremendous start to his first IPL season, and he's hoping to take lessons from it back home

It has been a roller coaster year for Sri Lanka middle-order batter Bhanuka Rajapaksa, who announced his retirement from international cricket in January and retracted it a week later, only to be dropped from the touring T20I squad to India in February over fitness concerns. He was picked up by Punjab Kings in the 2022 IPL auction, and he started his debut season in the league with a blast, scoring 43 off 22 balls and 31 off nine in his first two games.
It's your first IPL. What has that experience been like?
It's like a dream come true. It was my wife who broke the news to me that I had been bought by Punjab Kings. From my young days it was always Punjab Kings that my entire family had been backing. It's sort of a miracle that I got into the same side that I've been supporting since I was a kid. It's so nice to be around so many legends. They're so humble. I'm looking forward to sharing as much information as possible.
What is the team environment like?
I don't think anyone can deny that this is the world's best league. Unfortunately I was not able to play in many other leagues around the world even when I was picked, because I had some NOC [no objection certificate] issues with SLC. But fortunately this time during the IPL, SLC gave me the freedom to go and represent Punjab Kings. It's a great opportunity, and it's exciting.
In your first match, against RCB, you hit 43 off 22. The bowler you took down most viciously in that match was Wanindu Hasaranga. You've played him many times in the nets. Can you tell us more about that innings?
We all know Wanindu is the No. 1 bowler. He hasn't played cricket for a couple of months, but he had the top rank in the world a few months ago. We all were hesitant in the beginning about how to handle him, but we had a plan, and we knew that trying to block him wouldn't do any good for the team. I spoke to the head coach and the team-mates, because it's important to bring local knowledge. I've seen him and faced him many times as you mentioned.
My game plan was that if the ball was in my area, I was going to go for it, because wickets are so good in India and you can trust the bounce. Everything turned out well for me that day. Hopefully if we meet again, it will go the same.
Hasaranga's googly is by far his biggest weapon. How confident are you at picking it?
One good thing from my school days is that I was coached by one of the best in Sri Lanka, Chulaka Amarasinghe, who taught us to pick the ball from the hand. That gives you that split second of an advantage, and you know if it's going to be a googly. Then it's a case of taking the length on and going for your shots. That's especially true for a bowler like Wanindu.
In your next match against KKR, it was a seam bowler, Shivam Mavi, that you took apart in your 31 off nine. Tell us about that.
One thing I learned from Mahela Jayawardene [who was Sri Lanka's consultant] in the T20 World Cup last year, was that sometimes it's really good to take on a bowler, especially if it's his first over. If you can put down a front-line bowler, they have to cover up and get a sixth bowler into the game, it could be very complicated for them afterwards. My plan had been that when I get an opportunity to score against a bowler, I try to take the maximum. It's a high-risk game, but I got the green light from the Punjab side. They have trusted my ability. That's something I'm confident with. If I feel like it's going to be a big over, I'd rather get 30 off five or six balls than a 30 off 25 or 30 balls. I've given a good opportunity for another batsman to come and settle in.
You haven't taken long to start hitting boundaries, and you're also batting at No. 3. Is that the role Punjab have given you?
The good thing with this team is that they know I have the ability and they know I could be batting anywhere from No. 1 to No. 7. In this era there's a lot of wristspinners and they come to try and dominate the middle overs. Unfortunately I wasn't able to face those wristspinners in the last couple of games, because I've being going hard and getting out. But one thing Punjab have told me is to go hard. That's going to be our role this year. There are going to be days when we get 200-plus runs. And there are going to be days when we'll get out for 75 or 80. We have accepted that. But we want to go hard. We've got the freedom to express ourselves. We don't keep meeting for hours and hours, and we don't analyse for days.
You said there that there's not been over-analysing. Does that suit you, because your batting seems very instinctive?
I'm someone who relies on my instincts a lot. I want to be as calm as possible. I might be in a rush when I score runs, but I just want to enjoy the game. It depends from person to person. Some people want to analyse for hours and hours and want to go through all the bowlers' strengths and all. I'm a person who takes it as the day comes.
What is the coaching system in Punjab Kings like and what have you learned?
We've got a power-hitting coach, Woody [Julian Wood]. It's something that I've done for the first time in my life. I've been in the system back home for a good ten years, but this is something very new for me. We might not be able to get the same facilities from SLC back home, but at least being given the opportunity to come and experience that here, and have that exposure [is good]. Then we can share that experience back home. With Woody we've been doing different drills, and you can see that's helping us as players.
Looking forward, it would be good to have this sort of set-up at home. It would help the boys. I've always felt like I was a rioter who would go and fight for the rights of the boys. I would still do that. I feel like we need the right people to come and support Sri Lanka. If we can get these sorts of coaches who are recognised, we could go a long way in our system back home.
What does it feel like to have made a big impact in the first couple of games in the IPL?
There's healthy competition within the camp, because there's Jonny Bairstow coming in. We've got six really good international [overseas] players in the squad, and we can only have four coming in. I've been in good touch in the last two matches, so I'm hoping that will make it easier for me. I always believe in skills; I think we should make use of people who are peaking at the right time.
You have had a difficult journey with your fitness, being left out of the Sri Lanka side on fitness grounds. Can you walk us through it?
It has been very challenging. It took me almost a decade to break into the national side. I played so many first-class games back home, and I went through the hardest times. But it was the right time for me. I was more mature. There were so many times when I wanted to give up, but my wife, my parents and my brother were always pushing me.
The fitness journey has been quite tricky. It's not my fitness out on the field. It's just my skinfolds. I've been on the chubby side from my school days, when I got a reputation for having sweets. But I got a personal trainer, and got a break again to represent Sri Lanka. That's the kind of person I am - I don't want to give up on something I've been focusing on.

Andrew Fidel Fernando is ESPNcricinfo's Sri Lanka correspondent. @afidelf