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Asia Cup 2022 – Sri Lankan batter Bhanuka Rajapaksa ready to bring IPL confidence into the Asia Cup

You have a supremely-talented batter who isn’t the modern-day definition of fit – so what do you do as coach? It’s possible that Chris Silverwood has pondered the Bhanuka Rajapaksa question a few times.

But four months since becoming Sri Lanka’s coach, Silverwood doesn’t have to worry about the issue anymore, and for that Rajapaksa deserves some credit. A concerted effort to improve his fitness – with weight loss being one of the by-products – has led to a revival in his career.

At 30, an age where cricketers at the crossroads begin to wonder if opportunities will bypass them, Rajapaksa is enjoying a new wind in his young career. This change didn’t seem possible when he retired in a huff, citing differences with then coach Micky Arthur over the prescribed fitness standards, but sanity prevailed and he un-retired with a commitment to work on his fitness.

At the IPL this year, Rajapaksa showed his power-hitting skills for Punjab Kings, even if he couldn’t sustain his aggressive tempo over long periods. His abilities have now earned him a deal in the UAE’s International League T20 with Dubai Capitals, who also run Delhi Capitals in the IPL.

As Rajapaksa returns to a familiar venue, one where he began last year’s T20 World Cup with a match-winning half-century against Bangladesh, he is looking forward to carrying the confidence from the IPL and his recent T20 success into the Asia Cup.

“For me, the experience I bring after playing in the IPL will create good energy for the side,” Rajapaksa said. “One of the best chats I had with Liam [Livingstone] was when he said, ‘If it’s in the V, make sure the ball is in the trees’. He’d just be that aggressive. Proper slam-bang player.

“Coming back to the Sri Lankan side, I have brought in a lot of positivity after speaking to a lot of the IPL players, like Shikhar Dhawan, Mayank Agarwal and KG [Kagiso Rabada]. I don’t think I have the time to explain in detail the talks we had, but there were a lot of positive vibes. I’m hoping we can take that same brand of cricket to the world.”

“I’ve found the guys are open-minded, willing to learn. They want to learn and want to move forward. From a coaching perspective, I couldn’t have asked for anything more from the team.”

Chris Silverwood

As Rajapaksa spoke of the “brand of cricket” Sri Lanka want to play, Silverwood, sitting beside him, chuckled. He knows all too well the kind of adjustments England made to become the white-ball powerhouse they are today. Sri Lanka have a long way to go, but having an attacking mindset is a good place to start.

It isn’t something Silverwood can instantly make happen, though. He’s barely had any time to settle in as coach. Soon after his arrival in May, Sri Lanka played two Tests against Bangladesh at home, and then played Australia and Pakistan in two intense series.

The Asia Cup is going to be tough too, with Sri Lanka in the tougher group along with Bangladesh and Afghanistan. Silverwood, though, is happy with how the team is shaping up during his short tenure.

“My experience with Sri Lanka has been excellent,” he said. “I’ve found the guys are open-minded, willing to learn. They want to learn and want to move forward. From a coaching perspective, I couldn’t have asked for anything more from the team.

“It would’ve been lovely to play [the Asia Cup] in Sri Lanka, but unfortunately it’s not happening there. We’ve embraced the fact that we have to play it here [in UAE]. Our mindset is very much focused on what we need to do to compete and be successful in the UAE. A lot of the guys have the experience of playing here anyway, so we will use that. We’re here to do our best to win the tournament.”

While Sri Lanka begin the Asia Cup by playing Afghanistan in the tournament opener on Saturday, the spotlight is already on Sunday’s game – with India playing Pakistan. Silverwood said that flying under the radar could be exactly what Sri Lanka needs.

“I think every game is must-win, but if people are talking about something else, you can go about your business [normally], so it is an advantage, absolutely, ” he said. “But at the same time you have to meet these teams [India, Pakistan] at some point. We’re busy working behind the scenes to ensure we’re well prepared, equally we’ll be watching every game with interest to see what to do.”

Shashank Kishore is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo

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