Athapaththu's frustrating wait for big-franchise deals looks set to end

Chamari Athapaththu powered Sydney Thunder Getty Images

"How long will it take?" Chamari Athapaththu's question was understandable as she sheltered in the dugout late at night from the now-constant Leicester drizzle for one more interview, her side defeated and team bus waiting.

There was no real sense in her polite query of her not wanting to be there, just a genuine wish to know if she was at risk of missing her ride. It also formed the crux of the conversation that ensued; how long will it take for Athapaththu, prolific on Sri Lanka's tour of England, to get her franchise career off the ground?

There had been stints in the WBBL with Melbourne Renegades, twice as a replacement, and Perth Scorchers during their run to the 2021-22 title, plus two matches for Guyana Amazon Warriors at the inaugural WCPL last year. There were also appearances at the FairBreak Invitational and the Women's T20 Challenge. But the first WPL draft came and went and the Women's Hundred staged its latest edition in the midst of Athapaththu's rich vein of form - the two biggest emerging women's franchise tournaments - and still no calls came.

But, after being brought somewhat belatedly into the WBBL - again as an overseas replacement - Athapaththu has torn up the competition. By the time her Sydney Thunder side bowed out in Tuesday's Eliminator, she was the tournament's leading scorer with 552 runs at an average of 42.46 and strike rate of 127.18. She also had nine wickets at 27.22 and an economy rate of 6.83, including 3 for 20 with her offspin in her opening match against cross-town rivals Sydney Sixers. Her 41 off 40 balls was her side's best by far as Thunder exited with a 44-run defeat at the hands of Brisbane Heat and Athapaththu went into that match as Player of the Tournament.

Little did Athapaththu know any of this would be the case on that soggy September night immediately after losing an ODI series to England 2-0. That defeat and a lack of clarity on her franchise future put a dampener on what had been an otherwise successful tour for Sri Lanka and their captain.

Athapaththu starred with bat and ball, including hitting a 26-ball fifty, as Sri Lanka secured their maiden T20I victory over England to level that leg of their visit, and she backed it up with 44 off 28 balls and 3 for 21 as the visitors prevailed 2-1, claiming Player of the Match and Series honours.

It was during those T20Is that Athapaththu took to social media to express her frustration at being overlooked for a franchise deal.

Asked at the end of the England tour how she felt about the situation, she remained exasperated.

"I don't know, I don't know actually," Athapaththu said. "I'm not lucky enough. I think so because I play my best for my country and I played against the best teams in the world - against New Zealand, against England, against Australia. My best performance always against Australia, New Zealand, England, and India, so the top-four teams, and South Africa as well. The last [T20] World Cup, I scored 70 [68 against South Africa] in the opening game, [three days later] was the WPL auction but no one picked me.

"And this year, same thing, after the New Zealand series and after the England T20 series - I'm the player of this series, but the WBBL will not pick me. So I can't control these things. I just play my game. I enjoy every day in the middle because, number one, my priority is playing for my country so I just do my best for my country."

That's not to say her ambition to play top-level franchise cricket consistently wasn't bubbling away, barely beneath the surface.

"Hopefully, fingers crossed," she added. "It's not dependent on my side. If they invite me, if they pick me, definitely I'll come and play franchise cricket because I played a couple of years in the Kia Super League and Women's Big Bash League, CPL, PSL exhibitions and Women's T20 Challenge in India, but yeah, let's see."

Earlier, at home against New Zealand in June, she scored two unbeaten centuries in Sri Lanka's 2-1 ODI series triumph, their first bilateral series victory against the opposition. She also scored 80 not out off 47 balls in the final match of the T20I leg, which New Zealand won 2-1. She rose to the top of the ICC women's ODI batting rankings in July and currently sits third, while she is seventh on the T20I rankings, having reached a career-high sixth in September.

In explaining her dream run in international cricket for 2023, Athapaththu said: "I worked hard on the nets because last year I didn't get any franchise cricket, so I worked on my nets and I want to play my best cricket for my country, that's my dream. I want to prove to everyone I'm a really good player. I can only prove it to them in the middle, so I work on the nets and play my fearless game every time."

Initially overlooked in the overseas draft for the current WBBL, she was snapped up by Thunder as cover for the existing overseas contingent of Marizanne Kapp, Heather Knight and Lauren Bell. With Knight as captain, it took an illness to No. 1 draft pick Kapp to make way for Athapaththu initially. Bell played just twice for Thunder and was recalled by England ahead of their upcoming tour of India, by which time Athapaththu had made herself indispensable.

She scored five fifties in the tournament this year and crashed 18 sixes, third behind Grace Harris and Sophie Devine. In doing so, she helped Thunder to a vastly improved performance after they recorded just one win last season.

The knock-on effect so far has been another deal, Athapaththu signing for Northern Brave, with whom she will link up for New Zealand's Super Smash late next month. With the auction for the 2024 WPL due to take place on December 9, she could be taking another significant step in her franchise career before long.