Chamari Athapaththu – Living the dream in the WBBL

Chamari Athapaththu
Chamari Athapaththu - The first Sri Lankan cricketer in the WBBL © Getty

“Why are the cars not honking?”

It wasn’t quite the first question Melbourne Renegades coach, Tim Coyle expected from his team’s international signing, Chamari Athapaththu while driving her from the airport to the team hotel. Accompanying Coyle in the car was Athapaththu’s uncle, Vernon Tissera, who quickly explained to his niece that Australia is significantly different to Sri Lanka and there was a fair chance she might never hear a sound of a horn during her tenure down under.

“It is her first trip to Australia, so I had to explain to her the rules in Australia and Tim just looked at me in a funny manner” Tissera tells Cricbuzz.

Tissera, a cricket enthusiastic and young cricketer’s development program co-ordinator in Melbourne, played a crucial role in luring Athapaththu to the Renegades for the third edition of the Women’s Big Bash League.

“We run the young development of cricket program in Victoria. It is nearly running for 10 years – it is mostly for boys, but few years ago we started to take a girls team over to Sri Lanka during the winter months,” he explains.

It is during that first tour with the women’s team that Tissara ran into Athapaththu at the St Joseph’s school in Colombo. The pair was introduced to each other by the then Sri Lanka women’s team coach, Harsha De Silva and have stayed in touch via email and social media ever since.

“We used to keep in contact and she would ask if there was any opportunity to play cricket in Australia. Unfortunately, the women’s game wasn’t big back then, so it was difficult, especially for a girl to be sponsored by a club,” Tissera adds.

The minute the WBBL was launched, Tissera decided to try his luck and contacted Cricket Victoria to check if there was an opportunity for Athapaththu. But for two consecutive years, he was politely advised that there was no room for an international player at the Melbourne Stars or the Renegades.

Come September this year, only three months after Athapaththu stroked a masterful 178 against Australia during the Women’s World Cup in England, Tissera decided to try his luck again.

“I sent the email at night and next morning I received a call from Tim Coyle [the Renegades coach] saying they were definitely interested and wanted to get in contact with Chamari.”

“I immediately called Chamari in England, she was playing in the Kia Super League and told her that she will get a call and to accept the offer”

“She was so excited, the minute the phone rang I think she answered Tim [Coyle] – saying Yes, yes, yes – I want to play in the WBBL”

The deal was done and Athapaththu became the first Sri Lankan female cricketer to be signed by a WBBL team.

“Yes, my uncle [Tissera] – helped me get the contract and I’m grateful to him” Athapaththu tells Cricbuzz. “The WBBL is now a big competition – lots of people come to watch us play and I really wanted a chance to play in it.”

Chamari Athapaththu
Chamari Athapaththu smashes one to the fence during his stupendous knock against Australia in the World Cup © Getty

Athapaththu accepts that the opportunity might never have eventuated if it wasn’t for the blistering knock against Australia – a 143-ball 178 in a losing cause.

“It was the most important innings because now people were talking about me. After that match – Alex Blackwell, Meg Lanning and Elysse Perry came to me and praised me (for) my knock. They all said they were happy about the way I batted and congratulated me on my performance.”

“It was a very satisfying feeling for me to have my opponents come and praise me in that manner” she says.

During her epic innings of 178, Athapaththu bludgeoned the Australian pace bowling artillery of Ellyse Perry, Megan Schutt and Belinda Vakarewa to all parts of the ground. Throughout the World Cup, she looked at consummate ease against some of the finest pace bowlers in the world and cites her upbringing for handling pace comfortably.

“Throughout my earlier career, I would play with the men. Right from Under 15s , 17s and even Under 19s, I played with boys who used to bowl fast. I was able to compete with them, so that was big boost for me.”

“It was a great experience playing against a lot of bowlers bowling over 120kmph when I was still coming up through the system. Looking back at that period, it helped me handle the pace bowlers and now in the women’s game, I’m very comfortable handling the faster bowlers. It does not trouble me and I feel I can handle it,” she adds.

In fact, so confident is Athapaththu against fast bowling that a couple of months ago, during a net session, she even asked Sri Lankan pace sensation Lasith Malinga to bowl to her.

Athapaththu was introduced to cricket at the age of five in her home town of Kurunegala, but despite playing the game for most of her life, she is still trying to master the T20 format.

Tissera says she loves the challenge and is extremely determined to prove herself in the WBBL this year. Her immediate goal is to ensure the Renegades qualify for the finals and then hopefully propel them to their first WBBL title.

“For me, the WBBL is teaching me how to play in the T20 format. The bowling, where to bat, how to rotate strike, build partnership, how to finish – to be able to do that in this competition I feel will only enhance my game,” she says.

Tissera has played an instrumental role in ensuring Athapaththu’s participation in WBBL03 and he is determined to ensure he can help her out as much as possible.

“Initially, she found it difficult to adapt to the food, so we had her over for a nice Sri Lankan meal. Now, she has settled well and has never said, ‘uncle I’m home sick’.”

Athapaththu believes her Renegades team members along with the support staff have made it easy for her to ‘fit in’ as well.

“Renegades have been terrific for me. They have helped me settle in Australia. They are always encouraging me – I love playing with them.”

For now, not only is Athapaththu fine tuning her game, but is also picking up on a few Australian phrases such as “no worries mate” or “want a cuppa”. Importantly, she has made a decent start on the field scoring a fine innings of 42 in the opening game.

“Hopefully, I can do well and then play again in this tournament next year” she concluded.

If she does do that, she might well be inspiring many more Sri Lankan women to want to take up cricket and even show off their skills in Australia.