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Match Analysis

'The sun will come up tomorrow' - Chamari Athapaththu unbowed as Sri Lanka's journey ends in heavy loss

Sri Lanka captain pledges to carry on after young team fails in spirited bid for semi-finals

Firdose Moonda
Firdose Moonda
19-Feb-2023
Chamari Athapaththu is optimistic about Sri Lanka's future after a memorable tournament  •  ICC/Getty Images

Chamari Athapaththu is optimistic about Sri Lanka's future after a memorable tournament  •  ICC/Getty Images

It started with a sensational win over South Africa in the tournament opener and ended with a whimper as they were dismissed for their third-lowest total in T20Is. It's fair to say Sri Lanka came, saw, conquered and then crashed out. For Chamari Athapaththu, it's not a calamity.
"The world has not ended. The sun will come up tomorrow. I want to build a good team for the future. Today the feeling is not good but my focus is the next tour," she said, still smiling, afterwards.
That Athapaththu can even talk about the next tour is a win for Sri Lanka. They went without fixtures between March 2020 and January 2022 and know what the effects of a prolonged absence from the game can do for a team's momentum. Now, thanks to the first ever women's FTP, they have visits from Bangladesh (which did not take place prior to the World Cup as initially scheduled) and New Zealand to look forward to, as well as a tour of England later this year. "The youngsters need some experience. They need to play more cricket in future," Chamari said. "We have to play a lot of cricket against the top four teams."
Chamari's youngsters include under-19 captain Vishmi Gunaratne, who is only 16, offspinner Kavisha Dilhari, who has 10 more T20I caps to her name than her age of 22, and her opening partner, 24-year-old Harshitha Samarawickrama. All of them were excited about the prospect of reaching the semi-finals and anxious about beating New Zealand after losing to Australia, even if that result had been somewhat priced in.
"I'm not worried about the Australia games but I'm a little bit worried about today's game," she said. "It was a very crucial game for us and I felt some of the girls in my team put too much pressure on their shoulders. I think they didn't handle that pressure very well."
Sri Lanka's nerves showed almost immediately. They missed a run-out chance that would have seen Bernadine Bezuidenhout dismissed for 7 and then dropped her on 19. She went on to score 32 and share in a 46-run opening stand with Suzie Bates that set up New Zealand's innings. They also dropped Bates, on 37, as her 56 off 49 balls propelled New Zealand to a score above 160. In response, Sri Lanka were completely shell-shocked. They played their big shots too early and picked out fielders and once Athapaththu was dismissed, it became a procession as the last five wickets fell for 25 runs.
Their opposition knows exactly what that feels like. It was less than a week ago that New Zealand were bundled out for 67 - the second-lowest T20I total - two days after Australia had dismissed them for 76 to all but end their hopes of qualifying for the semi-finals. They were particularly distressed after their 65-run defeat to South Africa - a match that had the weight of a quarter-final attached to it - and captain Sophie Devine emphasised the need to figure out and discuss where things were going wrong. Athapaththu may be tempted to do the same but Amelia Kerr, who was part of Devine's team's talks, had some advice. "When there is emotion involved, sometimes you don't know what to say and it's better to review it the next day."
When New Zealand did that, they came up with a mantra for their last two games: "be tougher when things get tough," Kerr explained. "There was nothing wrong with the talent we have in this room, it was just to have that belief and be tough."
That may work for New Zealand, who have a fairly developed professional structure as opposed to Sri Lanka, whom FICA's annual global employment report said had "not professional structures", and both Athapaththu and Kerr acknowledged the gap is growing.
Unsurprisingly, they both cited Australia as the benchmark and while Athapaththu zoned in on the domestic structure, Kerr looked at T20 franchise leagues that have made the difference. "Australia has a good domestic structure. They play a lot of cricket - domestic tournaments and schools tournaments," Athapaththu said, while Kerr described the resources the Australian players have as "outstanding".
But they also pointed to the growing prowess of India as a signal to the rest to speed up their development. "In terms of what we are seeing around the world, with the Hundred in England, the WBBL in Australia and now the WPL, it's going to strengthen those countries a lot," Kerr said. "We are heading in the right direction: our match fees being equal to the men, and it allows us to earn more money so we can train more. Most of us do cricket full-time which is only going to help our game. We are behind those countries but if all countries can get that opportunity it is going to help grow the women's game."
And for Athapaththu, that is especially significant for the other teams on the subcontinent, which could have just one representative - India - in the final four. "India has a good structure but in Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, we have to develop our structure," she said.
Because she wants to be part of that process, Athapaththu herself has committed to at least another T20 World Cup - the next tournament is in Bangladesh in September/October 2024 - and perhaps even another 50-over tournament.
"I want to build a good team for Sri Lanka for the future, so that's my goal," she said. "I want to encourage the youngsters and be a role model. I always try to lead them from the front, so my target is playing another one or two years for Sri Lanka. That's what I want to do."

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's correspondent for South Africa and women's cricket