THE RAJAPAKSA HISTORY
Rajapaksa stunned KKR with a 32-ball fifty © BCCI
Mickey Arthur, as head coach, takes no prisoners. In the middle of 2021, decades into the educational career of the event, it was not welcome for Bhanuka Rajapaksa. The Sri Lankan batsman openly departed with his displeasure at being overlooked for selection because of the requirements of the match, and Arthur was duly reprimanded. “I don’t like unskilled cricket,” the South African said in the interview, and Rajapaksa was further blamed for his poor decency, his ill-matched farming standards, and his contagious love of sporting techniques.
So, one month from the final in Sri Lanka in June 2021. Rajapaksa’s only way back to the national program was to get his film test under 80 reading and complete the 2km cover test in eight minutes 35 seconds. For the uninitiated, the Skinfold test is a fun method of calculating the percentage of fat in a player’s body. And at that stage Rajapaksa’s selection of films was 104.
“He asked me if it’s possible?” Nigel Aaron, the certified fitness coach for Sri Lanka under their sports ministry, tells Cricbuzz. “I was saying that it was technically a vigorous workout that had to carry a certain amount of weight during the month and at the same time maintain fitness and at the same time to complete the 2km test. It was not only about carrying the skinfold. but having the strength to retain it.
Finding this balance was not even the toughest of Rajapaksa and Aaron’s challenges. The SLC’s training schedule came at the peak of the coronavirus pandemic, which meant there were no gyms that Rajapaksa could access. But he used his cricket passes from SLC to give him permission to go out, for sessions that amounted to three hours each evening at his house.
“We don’t have the best facilities at home so we have to do something improvised,” says Nigel. “He had ropes and kettlebells but later scientifically on my part I did a lot of metabolic training to get a high metabolic rate and get down to a fat percentage. We had the same way of training his 2kms. We were some crazy. training, like pushing vehicles to resistance bands. It is the force of Caesar to you don’t want to lose as well.”
Although Rajapaksa was worried about how things turned out in May, he was secretly working hard to match the standards of the SLC. It had taken him almost a decade since he turned 154 on the tour of Australia in 2009 as a sub-week, and was not to benefit due to fitness problems.
Opportunity has not always been Rajapaksa’s friend but it never © Getty
“Of course he was tired the first two days but he kept going,” said Nigel. “He never said ‘Enough, Nigey’. Sometimes he dances MM, we would run 2kms on the road then we would come back and do some fighting. Then he would be like ‘Let’s go?’ . He’s too fierce. He’s driven nowhere,” he adds.
“There were days when he would call me and ask, ‘Do I have a piece of chocolate?’ .
They were still delayed until July 4, the day of the appropriate test. As expected, his skinfold reading went up to 71 while he had lost a lot of weight, going from 94kgs to 82 in that month. He also completed the 2 km run in 8 minutes and 33 seconds. The happy aftermath of this feat was picked up in the India series in July, around Arthur’s opinion of himself and after his abstinence he accidentally dug into an entire bar of Lindt.
In the following months, Rajapaksa played little cricket. After the India ODIs in July 2021, he went to South Africa in September, where his runs eluded him. But his acing parameters earned him a place in the T20 World Cup in the UAE in October-November, where he scored a half-century in one of two wins that his team achieved in the Super 12s before bowing out. The busy end to 2021 involved spurs in the T10 league, where he smashed 249 runs with a strikeout of 193.02. Four days after playing his last game in Abu Dhabi, Rajapaksa returned to Colombo to lead the Galle Gladiators in the Lankan Premier League. He started with the 31st ball and took the part till the end.
But in mid-December, he hit another roadblock. Sri Lanka Cricket has introduced the fitness parameter, now it expects players to bring their batting numbers up to 70 and complete a 2km run in 8 minutes 10 seconds. Failing to meet the standards, Rajapaksa offered to retire from international cricket, only to be told – by the board and the country’s sports minister at the time, Namal Rajapaksa – to go ahead with it. He did not choose to travel to Australia in January – again at the right time – for the T20Is in India in February. This happened despite Sri Lanka struggling for an attacking middle order – Rajapaksa had shown that he could provide such a capability.
A week before the Sri Lankan board once again played tough on themselves, an opportunity opened up, ironically in India, at the insistence of Anil Kumble. The Punjab Kings were the only Bhanuka lifters as their then head coach saw the spark.
“When Anil Kumble saw him playing, he told me to pick him up,” PBKS batting consultant Julian Wood tells Cricbuzz. “I was told not to pick him, he’s not fit enough. It’s a nice story for Kumble because he said I don’t care if he’s fit, he can hit the ball for six. I don’t want to run 100m. In 10 seconds, I want to hit the ball for six sixes.”
Confidence in his ball-striking ability was well-placed, but he arrived at the Punjab Kings’ camp 10 days before the 2022 IPL season without a game of cricket for the previous four months behind him.
“I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do before [10-day camp] but he really looked rusty. So I asked him when he came up, what are we looking at? And he said, ‘I just want to hit some balls and get back to playing,'” Wood revealed.
As a power-hitting coach, Wood designed drills that captured Rajapaksa’s imagination while improving during the course of the camp at the appropriate time. “To the sides of the bat, the bat is heavier.” [throwdowns]. What it does is give power. If you’re used to being heavier and using your bat [usual] right off the bat, you have complete control. That exercise also increases the speed of hand drills. So basically it just gives him an awareness of his body with awareness on the crack,” Wood explained.
Jonny Bairstow has been a boon for Rajapaksa in the early going, and has been used as a left winger in the top three for PBKS. He started with a 22-ball 43 against Royal Challengers Bangalore and has kept the score in at least five of the nine matches he has played in this tempo. While early opportunities got him to play, it was soon to organize and build games to open up a new world for Rajapaksa.
“I think there is a lot that he learned in fitness and mindset and the team from the IPL. He was sending me workout stills. He was telling me how the exercises were very different. He was sending me saying Nigel look here, they also do yoga sessions,” Nigel says.
The forest saw too much change. “Perhaps at the end of the IPL he sat down and had a moment for himself and thought, you know what, I’m in a good position here. If only I can get myself something more comfortable, that’s to improve my game. Maybe the IPL kickstarted that “Wood counts.
By the time he finished his first IPL stint – when he completed 206 innings in 9 innings at a rate of 159.69 – a lot had changed behind the scenes in Sri Lanka with Chris Silverwood taking over as head coach. His arrival with the match provided the smoothness required, and Rajapaksa returned to the Sri Lanka squad for Australia’s ODIs and soon made it to the UAE Asia Cup as well.
Rajapaksa 2.0’s biggest moment came in the 2021 Asia Cup final ©Getty
“I understood he had fitness issues before, but looking at him in the Asian Cup, I think he lost something, he looked fitter. I just saw the Asian Cup on TV and he definitely looks fitter and a bit lighter,” Wood said.
Batting lessons and opportunities have been brought forward to the Asia Cup, where I star in the title win. But his form has waned as he suffered a poor World Cup 2022 in Australia and has just one score in the 30s since a match-winning 71 in the Asia Cup final for Sri Lanka – all while at No.5.
Which now brings us to IPL 2023. PBKS withdrew its campaign after yet another low finish in the previous season, and saw Kumble – the biggest advocate of Rajapaksa’s signature – replaced by Trevor Bayliss.
However, Rajapaksa retained and went on to another season where Bairstow was initially unavailable and eventually reigned in, while Liam Livingstone arrived late. In a squad with last season’s leading scorer (Kagiso Rabada), a bona fide T20 star (Livingstone), an 18.5 Cr allrounder signing (Sam Curran) and replacement batsman Matthew Short of recent fame (leading score in the BBL), Will Rajapaksa is almost always the most charming and serviceable of all overseas players. option But the current situation meant that 2022 would once again be the season No.3 in the Punjab Open. And as in the previous year, he himself did a great deal.
The most important aspect of Rajapaksa’s 32-ball 50 on Saturday was that Sunil Narine had one of his worst days in his IPL season and career. Narine scored 40 runs in four overs – the most he has leaked in an IPL game – while Rajapaksa scored 23 of those in the first two overs with premeditated shimmy tracks and sweeping strokes. Shardul Thakur also took credit, exerting force against leg balls and shrewdness when the bowlers tried to lure him into the outside trap.
“As long as I keep my arms free, I’m happy,” Rajapaksa said with a shy smile in the middle of the innings break, answering a question about what the new head coach had ordered for him. The backroom change brought uncertainty but once again his stars aligned as the two-time IPL-winning coach did not pull out the batting blueprint from the previous year.
There is a disturbing perversion to Rajapaksa’s international career, with tension and poor form always lurking around the corner. But in PBKS, the two top spots, Rajapaksa forged a steadfastness in the opportunities presented to him and found solace in ophthalmology. In return, PBKS have a top-order asset that adapts their batting strategies as a team.