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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 23 June 2018

From Anuradhapura to Abu Dhabi: Sri Lankan cricket hero Chamani Senevirathne gets ready for a second innings with Team UAE

A veteran of five World Cups, the player-cum-coach is making an unlikely comeback – for the Emirates – as they prepare for the ICC Women’s World Twenty20 Qualifier

Chamani Senevirathne has found a home in Abu Dhabi and revived her career at Zayed Cricket Stadium. Satish Kumar for The National
Chamani Senevirathne has found a home in Abu Dhabi and revived her career at Zayed Cricket Stadium. Satish Kumar for The National

Chamani Senevirathne has returned to international cricket four years after saying goodbye. In a new role. For a different team.

The former Sri Lanka captain has been named in the UAE's 14-member squad to play in the ICC Women’s World Twenty20 Qualifier from July 3-14 in the Netherlands. Going by her career statistics, she could be picked for her experience alone.

A veteran of five 50-over World Cups, Senevirathne has also played in two World Twenty20s and an Indoor World Cup. She remains Sri Lanka's only Test centurion more than two decades after scoring 105 not out against Pakistan.

Clearly though, current form has been the main reason for her selection.

Senevirathne led Abu Dhabi Cricket (ADC) to the UAE National Women’s T20 League title last week. Her feat was even more commendable given that she was captaining a newly-formed team. Opening the batting, she emerged the third-highest scorer in the tournament: 225 runs at an average of 45.00 and strike-rate of 123.63.

She was also player of the final last Friday, smashing 80 from 56 balls as ADC beat Desert Cubs by 13 runs at Zayed Cricket Stadium.

Clearly the cricket in her is still alive. So why did she have to leave Sri Lanka to come to the UAE?

Her short, three-word answer: "lack of opportunities". Indeed, Senevirathne played just one Test for Sri Lanka since making her international debut in 1997, although she did feature in 80 one-day internationals and 32 T20 matches. But thereafter, there was little scope for her either as a coach or an administrator.

Even though she had been picked for Sri Lanka's tour of India in 2014, she chose to retire from the game before moving to the Emirates, where she now works as a coach and fitness trainer at Zayed Cricket Academy.

Senevirathne is remarkably fit for someone who turns 40 this year, but that is hardly surprising given that she is a fitness fanatic. She has kept herself active by playing in tournaments such as the recent T20 league and training at the academy.

Her all-round abilities have hardly waned either, as was evident at some of these tournaments.

“I have been playing club cricket since I was 16 and have continued to play after arriving in Abu Dhabi; not as much as I used to do, but still good enough to be competitive,” Senevirathne said.

Chamani Senevirathne enjoys competing with players half her age. Satish Kumar for The National
Chamani Senevirathne enjoys competing with players half her age. Satish Kumar for The National

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She admits she is surprised to be back as an international player.

“I retired from international cricket for personal reasons, and when I left Sri Lanka I never thought I’d play international cricket [again]. But here I am wearing the shirt of another country again," she said. “It’s a real honour to get selected for the UAE. Cricket has been all my life."

So how does she view her role in the new team?

“I’ll be happy if I can make a contribution to the UAE and share my experience with my teammates. Obviously it’s a tough task for an associate member, but we’ll give our best shot to qualify [for the World T20].”

"Tough" is a word that often appears in Senevirathne's vocabulary. Born and raised in Anuradhapura, a city almost 200 kilometres from Colombo in the North Central Province which is famous for its well-preserved ruins of an ancient civilisation. And as a young player, she had to go through plenty of hardship to progress in her career.

“Those were tough days when I had to travel to Colombo at the crack of dawn and return home very late,” she said.

“At the end, it was indeed a very exciting and rewarding journey. I was fortunate to play in three different formats of the World Cups. I cherish all those beautiful moments and my time in international cricket.”

Chamani Senevirathne works at Zayed Cricket Academy, but she hopes to open her own coaching school one day. Navin Khianey for The National
Chamani Senevirathne works at Zayed Cricket Academy, but she hopes to open her own coaching school one day. Navin Khianey for The National

It is a journey she continues to enjoy. Decades after starting out, she continues to play the game and compete with players half her age. Her passion for cricket has brought her to coaching.

“Having spent most of my time playing cricket, my job as a cricket coach is the next best thing to happen to me,” she said. “I want to nurture as many young cricketers as possible from the Zayed academy to reach a good level.

"Our goal is also to encourage girls and develop women’s cricket in the country.”

UAE squad

Humaira Tasneem (c), Chamani Senevirathne (vc), Subha Srinivasan, NIsha Ali, Udeni Kuruppuarachchi, Chaya Mughal, Roopa Nagraj, Esha Oza, Ishani Senevirathne, Heena Hotchandani, Keveesha Kumari, Judith Cleetus, Chavi Bhatt, Namita D’Souza.