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WBBL 2023: From Being Unsold To Player Of The Tournament – Chamari Athapaththu Scripts A Revival In The Tournament

After the last two seasons’ debacle, Sydney Thunder went off to a flyer in the first half of the WBBL|09, winning 5 out of the 7 matches. Consecutive losses after a washout match against Hobert Hurricanes meant they ended the group stage in 4th position, before crashing out to Brisbane Heats by 44 runs in the eliminator.

Though the Thunder failed to replicate WBBL|06, despite a brilliant start of the season, one of the overseas signings, who came as a substitution scripted a remarkable turnaround not only in this season but in her career in WBBL. Chamari Athapaththu, the Srilankan captain, who was ignored in the inaugural draft that was implemented in this year’s WBBL, stole all the spotlight as the Player of the Tournament in WBBL|09.

After she was not picked for the inaugural action for WPL and in the draft in WBBL, the ace Srilankan all-rounder expressed her anguish in a tweet. Despite her dominant performance in the national colour in the shorter format of the game, her exclusion from WBBL could be supported by the fact that her performance in the Australian league didn’t match her calibre.

She was picked up by Melbourne Renegades in the 2017 edition of WBBL upon her stellar performance in the 2017 ODI World Cup where she came into reckoning, after her unbeaten 178 against Australia. She became the first Sri Lankan woman to play in a foreign franchise league.  In her first venture within any overseas league, she scored 175 runs with an average of 15.9 and she batted with a strike rate of 81.77 apart from taking up 4 wickets.

She returned to WBBL in 2019 when the Renegades recalled her for their remaining matches and the knockout games, subjected to their qualification.  She replaced English international Danny Wyatt and Tammy Beaumont as they were set to miss the matches, due to a bilateral series lined up against Pakistan. Her 2nd stinct with the ‘Gades coincided with her another whirlwind knock against Australia.

Chasing a mammoth total of 218 at the North Sydney Oval, Chamari Athapaththu started with her glorious cover drive against Megan Schutt. Apart from a flurry of strokes on the front foot, she punished anything that fell short, showing her prominence in the back foot as well. In her maiden T20I hundred in just 60 balls, she danced down the track to hammer the Australian spinners repeatedly through mid-wicket and long off,  before getting out to Megan Schutt for 113 from 66 balls.

She batted with a strike rate of 171 with 12 boundaries and 6 sixes. After the match, while she talked about playing positive cricket with courage, she also mentioned that despite her role in KSL and the Women T-20 Challenge, she didn’t get any contract in WBBL. However, she managed to score a mere 21 runs in two outings, her strike rate increased to 105.

READ MORE: WBBL 2023 Final: Adelaide Strikers Edge Out Brisbane Heat To Seal Their Second Consecutive Title

Her first half-century in WBBL came against Thunder when she scored an unbeaten 70 for the Perth Scorchers in 2020/2021. But in the rest of the session, she only managed to score 112 runs in 9 innings. Her strike rate increased to 118. Chamari Athapaththu again returned for Melbourne Renegades with 133 runs in 10 innings in the next session out of which an unbeaten 75 came against Hobert Hurricanes. Before the WBBL|09, she scored only 511 runs in 36 innings with two half-centuries.

After their successful campaign in WBBL 06, where they lifted their 2nd title, Sydney Thunder ended up in 7th and 8th position respectively in the next two years.  While they had 7 victories in WBBL 06 in the group stage, they managed to get only 5 victories together in the next two seasons. Apart from their inability to pick up wickets, their marquee players failed to score decent runs in the top of the order or the middle.

In WBBL|06, one of the major reasons for Thudner’s victorious campaign was their batting. Batters batted mostly around the Aussie-English duo of skipper Racheal Haynes and Heather Knight. So even if their top order was removed cheaply, they controlled the middle-overs.

In WBBL|07, Thudner paired Smriti Mandhana with Sammy Johnson and Tahila Wilson. Though Mandhana scored 377 runs with a strike rate of 130 in 13 innings including the unbeaten 114 which was the highest individual score in WBBL back then, Thunders didn’t get the desired opening stand in any of the matches. Out of 12 outings, Thudner only managed to go past the 50 runs mark in the opening stand once and more than 20 runs mark thrice.

Despite the individual efforts of Wilson and SJJ, who had a half-century a piece under their tally, Thunders lost wickets in the power play regularly and the inexperienced middle order in the absence of both Haynes and Knight succumbed to the pressure. Thunder’s opening woes became more daunting in the next season when the opening pair of Tammy Beaumont and Phoebe Litchfield managed to put up only one 50-plus stand for the first wicket and a couple of 30+ scores came in 10 innings.

In 23 innings, that has produced a result, in the last two seasons, Thunders accumulated only 406 runs at an average of less than 20, for the first wicket, using four different pairs.  So the Thunder was also in search of a decent opening pair and though didn’t go for Chamari Athapaththu in the draft, they bought her in as a replacement.

The Unyielding Rise of Chamari Athapaththu

And that inclusion seemed to have done wonder to the side. Thunder have included all-rounders like Kapp and again brought into the English skipper Heather Knight in the middle order and all of their overseas signings have been all-rounders which them the liberty to focus on a longer batting lineup till 8 without compromising 6 bowling options even in the absence of Sammy Jo-Johnson.

A 39-ball 52 in her debut match in the lime green with a strike rate of 133, followed by another 54-ball 80 with a strike rate of 148, Chamari Athapathtu’s positive cricket turned out to be the turning point for Thunder from the last two sessions debacles.  Though she hit a couple of 20-odd scores in the next two encounters, the Chamari-Wilson duo put up three fifty-plus stands in their first four matches together, and in all these three matches, Thunders won quite comfortably.

Chasing a modest total of 129 against Stars in the Chamari Athapaththu again rode the beast mode in her 69 in 40 balls. Though Meg Lanning used her plethora of spin bowling options, none of them were spared, as Chamari Athapaththu hit a couple of boundaries against McKenna, followed by Day and Capsey.

But the worst was yet to come and that day, Sasha Moloney faced the wrath of Chamari Athapaththu. A couple of boundaries in the first two balls were followed by a six. Athapaththu completed her third fifty of the season in five matches in 30 balls.  As Moloney tried to escape the next was called as wide and Athapaththu sent the next one in the gallery.

28 runs came from that over as Thunders were cruising along towards the target. Before getting out to Sophie Dunkley, she added another two boundaries to her tally. Her 69 from 40 balls consisted of 11 boundaries and 2 sixes. Thunders won by 9 wickets with 43 balls to spare.

Sydney Thunder, the side that managed to win only one match out of the fourteen in the last season, where their legend Rachael Haynes bid goodbye to all forms of cricket, defended their highest-ever score in the WBBL history, fourth-highest by any team, to climb up the top stop this season. Under Lisa Keighttly, who took charge this season, the revived Thunder side showed glimpses of their 2020 title-winning journey.

Thunder defeated Heats by 8 runs and once again it was the top order that came up with the guns blazing.  While Wilson got her career-best unbeaten 83 from 54 balls, Chamari Athapaththu’s 58 came from 31 balls with 4 sixes and 6 boundaries. For the 2nd consecutive match, the opening pair put up a century stand.

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Chamari pointed out that her talk with the head coach at the beginning of the tournament had helped her to get clarity in her mind. While speaking about it she pointed out that she was asked by the head coach what inspired her performances for the national side and she replied that the sense of responsibility that comes from the fact that she is the senior player in the side helps her to perform well. So Keighltly asked her to bring that sense to the Sydney Thunders side as well.

However, a washed-out match against the Hurricanes looked like shifted the momentum for Athapaththu and the Thunders as well. While in the first half of the tournament, Chamari’s 304 runs came at a strike rate of 143 with 4 half-centuries in 6 innings, She amassed only 248 runs from her next 8 outings, the highest being an unbeaten 77 from 53 balls against Perth Scorchers.  Her strike rate went down to 111 and she took almost 6 balls (5.69) to hit a boundary compared to less than 4 balls (3.78) in the first six matches.

In those 8 matches, Thunder won 7 matches, and out of those, the Islanders hit 5 match-winning half-centuries. How much Thunder depended on her batting was evident from the fact that in the later part of the tournament, while Chamari looked unimpressive compared to her opening stages, Thunder scored 125, 118 and 123 while batting first.

In the first 6 matches too, Thunder batted first thrice and scored 190,190 and 204. The failure in the entire batting department meant, Thunder had only one match out of 5 while chasing in the later part of the tournament and in that match too, Chamari Athapaththu scored an unbeaten 77 from 53 balls.

While it looked like the understanding between Wilson and Chamari was building quite well, The Thunder management decided to give Phoebe Litchfield a go at the top order. Before the washed-out match, this duo added 516 runs in 6 innings with an average of 86. Moreover, in none of the matches, Thunder lost a wicket in the power-play. However, the ploy with Litchfield failed miserably.

In the Chamari-Wilson partnership, the left-handed southpaw took that attack to the opposition with her swashbuckling hitting, Wilson rotated the strike with the boundaries in between. Wilson batted with a strike rate of more than 100 in this tournament, her best in the WBBLs, after sessions with Michael Klinger, eased the pressure off Chamari. In between hitting boundaries, if Chamari Athapaththu consumed dot balls in the opening overs, that was countered by Tahlia Wilson’s newfound avatar.

In the matches where Wilson opened the batting for the Thunders, Litchfield batted at number 3, and with the confidence of the national colour, she batted with a brilliant strike rate. But once Litchfield was moved up the order, she found it difficult to find her touch back, and that affected the partnership. As Litchfield found it difficult to find her grove, the pressure mounted on Chamari Athapaththu to utilise the opening overs and she got out in trying to accelerate and in none of the matches, the opening partnership crossed the half-century mark.

Though Wilson returned to the opening slot that partnership didn’t look as featured as it looked in the opening games.

However, Chamari Athapaththu became the backbone of Sydney Thunder’s batting while most of them struggled. She ended the season with 552 runs at a strike rate of 128 – second after Beth Mooney. Apart from the runs and the statical accolades what became a prized possession was a designated sitting arena, named after her in the last group stage match. ‘Chamari Bay’ as they called it at the iconic Sydney Cricket Ground completed Athapatthu’s revival not only in one of the most prominent women’s cricket leagues but at the same time in other thriving franchise leagues as well.

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