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Athapaththu: 'I want to see my team in the semi-finals of the World Cup'

Sri Lanka captain smashed 195 not out in a record chase on Wednesday but she still rates her 178 not out as her best knock

Firdose Moonda
Firdose Moonda
18-Apr-2024 • 14 hrs ago
File photo - Chamari Athapaththu helped Sri Lanka to a record chase  •  Getty Images

File photo - Chamari Athapaththu helped Sri Lanka to a record chase  •  Getty Images

Sri Lanka are yet to qualify for either the T20 or ODI World Cup but their captain Chamari Athapaththu has already set a goal for them if they get there.
"I want to see my team in the semi-finals of the World Cup," she said after Sri Lanka ended their tour of South Africa with a six-wicket win in the third ODI. "I've worked so hard in the last 15 years and I've achieved a few things as a player but as a captain, I want to do more. I want to see my team in the semi-final of this World Cup. That's my wish."
It's only fair to allow Athapaththu some licence to set targets like these, especially after her scintillating 195 not out against South Africa on Wednesday evening. Not only did she achieve the third-highest individual score in women's ODIs but she also led Sri Lanka to the highest successful chase in the format to underline both her own dominance and the growing pedigree in her national team.
In the last 12 months, Sri Lanka have won T20I series against Bangladesh, in England and South Africa and reached the final of the Asian Games. They've also won ODI series against Bangladesh and New Zealand and took a game off South Africa to keep themselves in the running for automatic qualification the 2025 ODI World Cup, a must for Athapaththu after they missed out on the 2022 tournament. To get there, they must do well against West Indies, who are languishing in ninth place on the ten-team Women's Championship table, and Ireland, who are tenth. So Athapaththu has every reason to think her team can get the points they need to finish in the top five, especially after contributions like Nilakshika Silva's unbeaten 50 against South Africa.
Before they turn their attention to the ODI World Cup, there's the T20 version in Bangladesh later this year to think about. Sri Lanka's campaign to qualify for that event starts next week in the UAE, where they enter the qualifiers as favourites. They take the form of nine T20I wins in their last 15 matches into it and are grouped with Thailand, Scotland, Uganda and USA, and must reach the tournament final to qualify for the T20 World Cup.
"I know it is a very big task for us," Athapaththu said. "Every team is really good and every game is really important for us. We will focus on one game at a time."
The use of the word "we" is important there. It was only ten days ago that Athapaththu cleared up doubts over her international future after cryptic Facebook posts that suggested the end was near. Ahead of the ODI series against South Africa, she confirmed she would play at the T20 World Cup Qualifier but indicated she would make a decision about stepping away in the near future and she stuck to that line after the series as well.
"My retirement is very soon," she said. "I can't mention dates, but very soon. We can talk about these things later. For now, I'm always looking after the young girls. I've built a young team. I want to see these young girls in the World Cup one day. As a captain, I am really proud of my young girls and they are playing really good cricket. I sacrificed a lot of things for Sri Lankan cricket in the last 15 years. I am happy to lead this team. I am a really, really proud captain. I hope my girls play really good cricket in future as well. I hope my team can play their best cricket at the T20 World Cup."
All indications are that if Sri Lanka make it to the Bangladesh tournament, and perhaps even the ODI World Cup in India next year, Athapaththu will stay on but she is also looking at the future. While she basked in the success of her innings in Potchefstroom and accepted congratulations from the greats of Sri Lankan cricket including Mahela Jayawardene, Lasith Malinga and her "life time super hero" Sanath Jayasuriya, she does not want to stand in the sun alone. "I want to see another player in Sri Lanka pass my score very soon," she said.
In fact, she sees it as essential that Sri Lanka's batters, in particular, whom she regards as vastly improved, start to hit some high notes because she has experienced first-hand how that can impact a career. She referred to her previous best - 178 not out against Australia at the 2017 ODI World Cup - as her top knock because it opened doors for her internationally.
"I always rate the 178 No. 1 because that 178 changed my cricket career," she said. "No one knew about me then but after I scored that 178, I got an opportunity to play in franchise cricket and I learnt a lot of things in franchise cricket. Some people think franchise cricket is all about money but I don't think like that. I learnt a lot of things and I shared my knowledge. I learnt from other players, world-class players, and we shared the same dressing room. So I rate my No. 1 innings as the 178 but this innings was a good innings because we chased 302."

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