Chamari Athapaththu, like so many women international cricketers, has not played since the T20 World Cup in March due to the coronavirus shutdown.

The Women’s T20 Challenge was, therefore, a great opportunity to, in her own words, play at least three matches in a year there are likely to be no other for the Sri Lankan cricket team. And the left-handed opener took the chance with both gloves, lighting up the tournament with two slam-bang knocks in her two outings in Sharjah so far.

She is the leading run-scorer after the three-match league stage by a fair margin (she has 111 runs in two matches, ahead of teammate Harmanpreet Kaur who has scored 62) and on Saturday, put on a batting display that might go down as the best of this year’s edition.

In a must-win match for Supernovas, she set the tone with a 48-ball 67 to ensure her team reached the final to defend the title they had won last year. It was the highest score of this edition and powered the highest team total in the brief history of the Women’s T20 Challenge so far. In the end, it came down to a narrow, two-run win off the last ball after Radha Yadav held her nerve, but the foundation was set by the Sri Lankan right at the start.

Watch: Opener Chamari Athapaththu’s brilliant 67 set the tone for the Supernovas

Choosing to bat first, Harmanpreet Kaur had taken a gamble given the Trailblazers’ bowling attack had wiped out Velocity for a paltry 47 just two days before. The spin-heavy line-up had made it difficult to score runs in the last match while veteran pacer Jhulan Goswami had been at her vintage best.

But none of that mattered to Athapaththu.

After a sedate start against Goswami, she made her intentions clear with two boundaries in the second over of the innings bowled by Deepti Sharma. Captain Smriti Mandhana seemed to hold back left-arm spinner and World No 1 Sophie Ecclestone, the star of the last match, because of the left-hander on strike. But even the off-spinner was targeted to no end as she lofted a six and then swept for a boundary, hitting the young Indian for 21 runs in nine balls.

Once she got her eye in, even Goswami was taken for runs in her third over as Supernovas plundered 50 runs in the Powerplay, even as her opening partner Priya Punia struggled on a single-digit score. The Sri Lankan did the bulk of the scoring, continuing the onslaught even after the field restrictions were off and scoring 80 in the first 10.

It was an exhibition of her clean ball-striking, excellent timing and smart shot selection. Athapaththu is as devastating a batter in world cricket as any and, this was just another reminder. The Sri Lankan southpaw picked her gaps with ease and employed the slog sweep to great effect. Once she got under the balls from the spinner, her pickup and execution for an aerial stroke was crisp and smooth.

Her half-century came off 37 deliveries and she kept picking regular boundaries even as Trailblazers finally managed to stop the flow of runs. She was finally dismissed in the 17th over by part-timer Harleen Deol, failing to get the right distance on her shot. But not before setting the tone for a match-winning target, supplemented by a late flourish from Harmanpreet.

In a winning cause

This year the Women’s T20 Challenge is depleted when it comes to foreign players owing to clash with Women’s Big Bash League in Australia. But with Athapaththu in full flow, it was another reminder of how the game’s stars are not always from the best teams.

Every time, the southpaw settles in for a big-hitting show, there are a number of references to Australia on social media. That’s because her best and biggest performances in both T20 and ODI cricket have been blistering centuries against the top side in the world.

But both have been phenomenal efforts in losing causes. The Sri Lankan women’s team has some way to go before a collective and consistent effort leads to big wins. Fans from the country often talk about Athapaththu is a product despite the system, not off it. Earlier this year, she was the only frmale player to earn a Sri Lanka Cricket top contract.

But in an odd way, with Supernoavs and even a three-match exhibition, the Sri Lankan’s individual performance is part of a successful team. She had an ordinary outing for the team last year and despite scoring 44 off 39 in the first game, the most in a team score of 126, ended on the losing side. But on Saturday, her player-of-the-match worthy performance formed the basis of a crucial win. Heading into the final, to be played against the same side, the opener will look to do even better in what might be the last match she plays this year.