The last ten months have been frantic for Bhanuka Rajapaksa. He retired in January after he was dropped on fitness grounds. His expulsion became a national debate, was raised in the parliament and a probe ordered, then he was talked out of retirement and had the self-realisation to shed some of his weight. He became a father, made runs in the IPL, made statements against the government during the crisis and reeled out a knock of utmost calm and grace under pressure.
But for his popularity among the team’s fans, as well as the undoubted talent in fluid stroke-making, he would have long retired and been a cautionary tale of those taking fitness lightly.
Rajapaksa himself realised the significance of fitness. Never fond of gym work, he took long sprints on his neighbourhood beaches and the streets. His fitness improved, he shed some weight, but most importantly, he felt wanted. In an interview to Papare.com, he said: “What hurt me was that I was batting well and in a good frame of mind. There was no communication about my fitness part. It was not like I was lazy and did not focus on my fitness.” But common sense prevailed and he was talked out of retirement, chiefly due to the persuasion of captain and friend Dasun Shanaka.
— Sri Lanka Cricket 🇱🇰 (@OfficialSLC) September 11, 2022
The decision could not have stood more vindicated than it had on Sunday. Rajapaska was both the rock and the rambler, the sustainer and the executor. He made a well crafted unbeaten 71 off 45. When he strode into the middle, Sri Lanka were in a creek at 3/36. Soon, they plumbed to the depths of the sea bed. They were 5/59. Panic screamed on the face of the Lankan fans, the dressing room were in near mourning. Pakistan were whipping up an irresistible field of energy, but through all this travails and tension, Rajapaska remained unaffected, his face wore the drowsy expression of someone who had woken up from a pleasant siesta. He would coolly nudge the ball around, stroll for singles, even stifle a yawn. Not for him the urgency of someone on a rescue mission.
The same casualness manifests his batting. He never looks hurried, never complex or seldom petulant. His face does not offer a window into his mood or that of the match. He creates the same impression on the audience too, he soothes their nerves, relieves their worst fears and gives them the assurance, leaves them wowed and awed with his strokes that ooze a laid-back charm.
Even the six creamed off Naseem Shah, off the last ball of the Lankan innings was more languid than violent. A forward stride and a clean swing of the blade, the flip of the wrists at the last split-second providing the placement and the elevation. His movements are easy, even minimalistic —there is no shuffle or awkward twitches, no strain on the body or fuss on the face. As if heaving a 90-miler is the easiest shot in the game. Two balls ago, he had paddled-glanced Shah for a shot. A smooth stroke alright, a T20 staple even, but the audacity to shuffle across a yorker-spewing machine is remarkable. Even for that stroke, he had time, in fact lots of time, as he waited on his haunches and just twirled the wrists over. The follow-through gave a measure of his balance. He did not overbalance and fall over. He just stood like the bronze statue of a lover proposing to his beloved, on his bended knee, a bat for a rose in his hand. Some time earlier, he had cuffed Naseem Shah over square leg with not so much as a whip as a whirl.
He brings joy to watching cricket with his sparkling freshness and life-affirming exuberance. The drives and the dabs, the carefree timing, the cheeky boyish grin: here is a player who seemed to encapsulate the sheer fun of being really good at cricket.
But bowlers would disagree. Shah tried to rattle him with pace, but he remained un-rattled. Haris Rauf tried to intimidate him with stares and growls; he remained unintimidated. The spinners tried to trap him, but he remained un-trapped.
Unlike many of his top-order colleagues, he knew when to attack. Batting with Wanindu Hasaranga he was mostly quiet, rotating the strike and letting Hasaranga blossom. But in between, out of nowhere, like a rare evening breeze in a desert, he would hit a boundary. There was a delicate dab through the third man fence, when he just dropped the wrists, bent his body and picked the ball off the stumps. It almost looked like he was beaten, but somehow at the last moment, the bat intervened. He creates a similar impression when he runs — it would seem that he would invariably be caught short of the crease, he doesn’t leap either, but he makes the ground. As if all this was an illusion. He creates a similar impression when he bats, that all of his strokes were an illusion.