This article first appeared in my Column "Seamstress" for Wisden India.
|Chamari Atapattu, the new Sri Lankan skipper, has her work cut out.|
Early this year in January, when I turned out for India A in a warm-up game against the touring Sri Lanka Women, I got a good look at most of their players. We almost squeezed out a victory in that game, and I was confident our senior squad would win the One-Day International and Twenty20 International series convincingly. Then, someone in our team insightfully observed: “They aren’t here to play the one-dayers. It’s the T20s they have their sights set on.”
That was prophetic. India easily made a clean sweep of the ODIs, with Gouher Sultana, the left-arm spinner, doing most of the damage. But with their nemesis not part of the Indian T20 squad, the Sri Lankans clinched the three-match T20I series, their first-ever series win against India.
‘’It’s the T20s they have their sights set on.’’ This made sense considering that the ICC World T20 in Bangladesh was just a couple of months away, while the next 50-over World Cup was slated for 2017. This focus on the T20Is reappeared during England Academy’s tour of Sri Lanka in February 2014. The home side fielded a full-strength squad for the 20-over games, but an inexperienced one for the ODIs. Sri Lanka women’s cricket officials had a plan for their team, that much was clear, and it most likely involved at least a last four finish in Bangladesh, if not higher.
And they had the firepower too. Chamari Atapattu and Yasoda Mendis were providing the kind of hammer-and-tongs starts they needed, with Mendis doing most of the hammering. The all-round capabilities of Achini Kaushalya and Sanjeewani Weerakoddy gave them flexibility and strength in the middle order. Led by the experienced Shashikala Siriwardene and boasting an athletic fielding unit, they were more confident as a T20 side than a one-day one.
Alas, the World T20 in Bangladesh was the archetypical anti-climax for Sri Lanka. After pocketing the first group game by handing India a third defeat in four matches, the Islanders proceeded to lose their next three games, and hopes of a more substantial takeaway than a participation certificate were erased. The subsequent resignation of Siriwardene as captain completed the sinking of their proverbial Titanic, which, at the start of their journey, was unthinkable. And last week, the board launched an initial investigation into worrying allegations of sexual abuse of the players reported in a local publication.
While Bangladesh proved the unravelling of Sri Lanka’s dreams, it was the springboard into the limelight for another upcoming side, South Africa. Inhabiting the same pool as favourites Australia and strong challengers New Zealand, few would have predicted that South Africa would be the ones to make a last four appearance. They managed to beat the White Ferns in a T20I for the first time ever to force a three-way tie in the group, and thanks to big wins over Pakistan and Ireland, edged ahead on run rate. Although they ran themselves out in the semifinal, they had announced themselves on the global stage. In making only their second last four appearance in a global tournament, they had repaid the faith their administration was showing in them – Cricket South Africa had recently introduced contracts for six of their women’s players and team sponsor Momentum was backing them in a big way).
So, it was only a matter of time till South Africa pulled something like this off. Just like India’s style of play is suited to Tests, T20 best suits South Africa’s brand of cricket. To give you an idea, the team’s opponents in the semifinal, England, had been unable to hit any sixes in their group games. South Africa hit ten. The power-hitting game that the England (and India) team so covet is well established in the South African unit. When they can extend it consistently to longer, calculated innings, they could post totals that stretch the top teams. Contracts to eight more players in August was just reward for their toils and spoils in Bangladesh.
South Africa and Sri Lanka have more in common than might appear. Both appear to enjoy good support from their home boards. Both teams are looking at T20s as the battleground to announce their ascendancy. And both teams, both “T20 specialists’’, recently faced off in a one-day and T20I series in Sri Lanka, also comprising three ICC Women’s World Championship ODIs. South Africa Women were carrying the momentum of their World T20 appearance and the experience of a T20 series against England. Sri Lanka were hoping for a recrudescence of the wave of optimism with which they rode into the World T20, under their new skipper, Atapattu. So it was not surprising that the series was a closely fought one, with Sri Lanka eventually surrendering the home advantage and South Africa picking up dual series wins.
I can’t wait to see both teams in action in the 2016 World T20 in India. But the truly mouth-watering prospect is seeing how they evolve in time for the ICC Women’s World Cup in England in 2017. Will they be able to build strong ODI teams? There is time aplenty, and both teams need to use it wisely. South Africa Women can take a cue from how England built up to the 2009 World Cup. If they give their core unit of players consistent international exposure, they might see their promising youngsters bloom into match-winners, and peak in time to challenge the best in the world. Sri Lanka, meanwhile, will need to rebuild under a new captain, whose biggest test will be off the field: to hold the team together through the disturbing allegations being made within their board, threatening all the progress so far.