No one else can hear the sounds of an athlete’s body breaking. Bones scream as they fracture, cartilage twinges as it snaps and muscles roar as they rip, but the outside world only hears the athlete cry out in pain. For the athlete herself, the sounds inside are strident; she hears them only too loudly.
In March 2016, Shasikala Siriwardene, the Sri Lankan captain, heard her left hamstring rip as it endured a five-centimetre tear. In August the same year, she heard her right ACL sever as it was crushed under a motorcycle. For much of the year after that, every cell in her body moaned in despair, fighting an infection that would not depart.
Today, she stands, runs, bowls and bats. And now she is playing her last World Cup.
Siriwardene’s resolve is one of the challenges an ascendant India must overcome in their fourth World Cup match in Derby on Wednesday. She is one of only seven players in the world to achieve the all-rounder’s double (1,000 runs and 100 wickets) in ODIs. By a margin of 35 wickets, her off-spin bowling accounts for the Island nation’s largest individual haul of wickets. And the right-hander is their second-highest run-getter. While she is no longer captain, she is their most experienced player. If she plays all seven league games, she will be the first Sri Lankan to reach the milestone of 100 ODIs.
Siriwardene made her debut for Sri Lanka in 2003, at the age of 18. She became the captain in 2005, and has since then led the team in 55 of her 96 appearances. Under her, Sri Lanka reached their zenith in the 2013 World Cup in India, when they beat both England and the hosts – knocking out the latter — to reach the Super Six stage. Siriwardene scored 34 and took two wickets against England, and 59 with two wickets against India. It helped Sri Lanka finish fifth in the tournament, their best-ever performance.
At the time, Siriwardene’s career was a decade-old, and thoughts of retirement crossed her mind. “The 2013 World Cup was a very successful one for me, so I thought I have done well (enough) to give up”, she said. It was her husband Namal Senevirathne, a player and coach himself, who persuaded her to continue. “He knew how valuable representing the country is. He said… ‘I’ll support you’, so I thought I should continue as long as I perform well.”
Three years later, in the 2016 World Twenty20, a hamstring injury threatened to cut short the extra years that she had given herself. Her hamstring had to be surgically reattached, and she went under the knife in Mumbai. Having just turned 31, she wondered whether that would be the end of her career. It was her surgeon Dr Dinshaw Pardiwala – who also operated on Saina Nehwal after the Rio Olympics — that gave her hope. “He gave me confidence. He said this is just another surgery and I will be normal. He said I will be able to play competitive international cricket within five months, but within three-and-a-half months, I was alright and playing normal cricket,” she said.
But like losing two wickets in a row, Siriwardene was dealt another challenge. A motorcycle accident, in which her motorcycle fell on her right knee, damaged her anterior cruciate ligament. She missed the series against Australia at home, and targeted the World Cup Qualifiers in February 2017 as her return.
Things did not go to plan though. She contracted a stubborn infection shortly after the surgery, and was laid low by fever for one and a half months. Between the two surgeries, her father, to whom she was very close, passed away.
“It was the toughest time in my life,” she said. Through that period, her mother and her husband kept providing her encouragement. "At first after the accident, I still had courage; I thought ‘I can do this, I can overcome this’,” she said, "But after the infection, I had lost all hope."
"By myself, I couldn’t come out from that. They (her husband and mother) were speaking to me, reminding me about Buddha’s teachings. They were trying to remind me that ‘this is life; sometimes we can face these kinds of things’.”
But with major injuries to both legs and a recovery schedule that was thrown off by her infection, she came to a point where she had given up every sliver of hope of playing cricket. She decided to go to India for further treatment "to become a normal person again, not a cricketer".
Pardiwala once again gave her a second wind in her sails. Under his watch, Siriwardene’s infection was brought under control in two weeks. After being confined to a bed for more than 45 days, Siriwardene learned to walk again. Her physios and Sri Lanka Cricket officials encouraged her to play the World Cup, and she began a long rehabilitation process. While she missed the World Cup Qualifers and the entire domestic season, she played "five to six" practice games with boys' teams, and was picked in the World Cup squad.
Against Australia in their second game, Siriwardene’s experience provided the only real support to Chamari Athapaththu, who scored 178* off 143 balls. She scored 33 in the next game against England. She will be hoping to bring all her experience to the game against India, whom Sri Lanka have beaten just once in 25 encounters. It could be her last shot against India; she has no hesitation in admitting that this will be her last World Cup.
“I had bad times, and good times, both as captain and player. I missed a lot of tournaments because of injuries but I am really happy to be on the verge of playing 100 matches,” she said.
She has heard her body break. But now, back on the cricket field, her heart is singing.
The author is a former India cricketer and now a freelance journalist. She hosts the series ‘Cricket How To’ on YouTube, and tweets @SnehalPradhan