Despatch from Colombo | Cricket

Spinning the ball on the pitch, no matter what

Shashikala Siriwardene

Shashikala Siriwardene  

Shashikala Siriwardene, one of Sri Lanka’s most celebrated women cricketers, has called it a day

Shashikala Siriwardene was barely 10 then. She enjoyed playing cricket, although Sunday morning classes were not easy. She couldn’t sleep in, she had to get ready for coaching. Riding pillion with her father who dropped her every week, little Siriwardene would invariably doze off.

“You know, he modified his bike, fixing a couple of extra metal frames to ensure I didn’t fall off it. He even made a compartment for me to keep my kit,” recalls the Sri Lankan star and former captain, who retired from international cricket earlier this month, after a brilliant spell — 4 for 16 — that led Sri Lanka to victory against Bangladesh in the Women’s T20World Cup in Australia.

As a child, Ms. Siriwardene had no clue that the gully cricket she played with her brother and his friends would spark a lifelong passion. Her father’s commitment, the consistent coaching, along with her own drive and skill, took her to the international arena — 17 years of international cricket — with an enviable record as an all-rounder in over 100 ODIs and nearly a 100 T20 games.

Understandably, retiring wasn’t an easy decision. “Seventeen years is a long time. Three generations of players have come and gone, but I was still around,” she told The Hindu at the Mercantile Cricket Association in Colombo, where she coaches aspiring boys and girls.

Every time she had a tough call to make — be it choosing between A level examinations and an important match or other career or life decisions, her father’s lesson came in handy. “Listen to your heart, do what feels right,” he had told her.

Ms. Siriwardene had toyed with the idea of quitting in 2013, when she got married to Namal Seneviratne, a former first-class cricketer. “I thought I needed to spend time with the family.” But her husband discouraged her. She was in great form and was winning high praise for the Sri Lankan team. “Why must you quit now? Just focus on your performance,” he had told her.

In about a year, Ms. Siriwardene was ranked as the top women’s all-rounder in the world and also made it to the World XI team selected to play at Lord’s which was “a dream!”

Andrew Fidel Fernando, a leading writer with ESPNcricinfo.com, describes Ms. Siriwardena as Sri Lanka’s “first real woman cricketing star”, who burst into national consciousness in the last decade. “She bowled, she batted, and won games by herself,” he told The Hindu.

“If Sri Lanka were doing well in a match, she more than likely was a big part of that charge.” Although Sri Lanka Women had impressed in the 2015 ODI World Cup, they got left behind a little by teams such as Australia, India, South Africa and New Zealand because the country’s talent search has been informal and their development systems not “as intensive”. However, an international career like Ms. Siriwardene’s feeds into how women’s cricket is approached at home, more importantly at the grassroots. “In Sri Lanka, we now have a world-class player in Chamari Atapattu, she would make it to virtually any team in the world. That is a result of the investment made by not just the boards and administrators, but also by players like Siriwardene,” Mr. Fernando noted.

Crowd-puller

Globally too, it is a good time for women’s cricket that, in Mr. Fernando’s view, has seen a “stratospheric” rise in the last few years. Ms. Siriwardene agrees. “The crowds at the T20 series in Australia should tell us that whether it’s the game in terms of technique and skill, performance or entertainment, women’s cricket can draw huge crowds,” she said.

As an all-rounder and former captain, Ms. Siriwardene has seen it all. But if there’s one thing that excites her the most, it’s her off-spin. “You know, I like to spin the ball no matter what. I don’t want the pitch conditions to limit me in anyway, I really try and spin the ball irrespective of the pitch,” she said, twirling her right wrist as she spoke.

In his tweet congratulating Ms. Siriwardene following her retirement, fellow Sri Lankan icon Kumar Sangakkara said: “You have done great service to Sri Lanka and the game. Your inspiration will make strong a whole new generation of young girls and boys to follow in your footsteps.”

Her sparkling career has already been drawing aspirants to the game. Debora Stefani began training only a year ago. “I used to watch a lot of cricket. I saw Shashikala miss play on TV and thought why not I too learn to play and that’s why I am here,” said the 19-year-old. While the teenager is thrilled to be coached by her icon, watching her last big match wasn’t easy, she admitted. “I was very sad.”

(Meera Srinivasan is The Hindu’s Colombo correspondent)

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Printable version | Mar 28, 2020 6:23:34 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/sport/cricket/spinning-the-ball-on-the-pitch-no-matter-what/article31069983.ece

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