Bhanuka Rajapaksa: A key player, but not for Sri Lanka | Sunday Observer

Bhanuka Rajapaksa: A key player, but not for Sri Lanka

22 May, 2022

Bhanuka Rajapaksa has been continuously shining in the ongoing Indian Premier League (IPL) tournament as he hit a blistering 27 runs off 18 deliveries with two, sixes and two, fours in the match against Rajastan Royals on May 7.

He started his IPL journey on March 27, 2022, in Bombay against Royal Challengers Bangalore with devastating 45 runs off 22 balls including 4 sixes and 2 fours which helped his team to successfully chase a target of 206. In his second encounter on April 1 against Kolkotta Knight Riders, he smashed 31 runs in a mere nine balls with 3 sixes and 3 fours, while in his sixth match on May 3 against Gujarat Titans, he recorded 40 runs in 28 balls with one six and 5 fours. In the seven matches of the IPL, he collected 201 runs with the average of 28.71 and strike rate of 166.1. There, he hit 28 boundaries with 15 fours and 13 sixes.

A key batsman in Punjab Kings

Most of the International cricket commentators including Ian Bishop, Kevin Peterson and Sanje Manjrekar have highly commended Bhanuka’s IPL batting. When he was shunned from the franchise squad after the first three matches in this IPL, many commentators and cricket fans criticised Punjab Kings’ team selection.

Netizens strongly buzzed why he was not among the 11 members who play the game. Punjab Kings lost all the four matches they played without Bhanuka, and in his comeback match against Chennai Super Kings on April 25, he scored 42 runs off 32 deliveries with 2 sixes and 2 fours.

Another absorbing thing we should focus on is that Punjab Kings got him to keep wickets apart from being given the prime slot of number three. This was never a thought that Sri Lanka’s selectors had.

Stupidity of parameters

Although Bhanuka Rajapaksa is one of the key batsmen in the Punjab Kings side, sadly, Sri Lanka’s cricket selectors headed by Pramodya Wickramasinghe, turned a blind eye to his performances as they have been obsessed with fitness standards. As a result, he was unable to play any T20I or ODI match since last year’s World Cup in UAE.

The funny thing is that while Bhanuka performed well not only in the World Cup, but also in subsequent domestic tournaments, he was continuously ousted from the side bringing less performed players to the national team. Even the former head coach, Mickey Arthur, didn’t give him due attention on the pretext of fitness standards - all the selectors seem to prioritise the fitness criteria rather than performances.

But Bhanuka Rajapkasha is a player who speaks out injustices. So, when he was repeatedly removed from the side, in a Youtube channel interview which was broadcast in June, 2021, he openly criticised moves by the selectors, and pointed out the failures of head coach, which brought about disciplinary action against him – there, he was fined $5,000 for criticizing Sri Lanka Cricket in interviews.

However, thanks to the media publicity, the attention of most former cricketers such as Aravinda De Silva, Mahela Jayawardhane and Sanath Jayasuriya was directed on Bhanuka and his issue. Most of the time the media highlighted Bhanuka’s performances in Sri Lanka tour in Pakistan in October 2019. Though most of the prime players opted out from the series due to security reasons, Bhanuka used it as an opportunity to prove his mettle. There he was able to become the leading run-scorer of the 3-match T20I series while scoring a fluent 77 runs with a record breaking third-wicket partnership for Sri Lanka in the second match against Pakistan.

Two km run

With this high performance in the series, he was named as the captain of the Galle Gladiators franchise team in Lanka Premier League (LPL) by its Pakistan owners. Sri Lankan Cricket selectors who closely observed the LPL tournament were surprised to see Bhanuka’s classy performances with the bat and the manner in which he lead his team to the LPL final in 2020 as Galle Gladiators’ captain.

After the LPL in 2020 and 2021, most cricket fans and media in Sri Lanka hoped that Bhanuka would be a permanent member of the national cricket team, not just in T20s, but also ODIs. But sadly, once again he was eliminated from the team. The reason is his failure to pass the 2-Km run fitness test - the players who take 8.10 to 8.55 minutes to complete the 2 km distance are eligible for selection in the national team but the real benchmark of this is to complete 2 Km distance in 8 minutes and10 seconds.

The players who fail to complete the fitness test under the given benchmark of 8.10 minutes, but within 8.55 minutes undergo some percentage of salary deduction. On the other hand, if a player takes more than 8 minutes and 55 seconds to complete the 2 km run, he will not be included in the national team. This new rule was brought into practice from January 7, 2022 replacing the old Yo-Yo Test.

Skin-fold test

Bhanuka who has always concentrated on skills rather than fitness realised he could not meet those fitness standards. So, in January this year, he announced his retirement from all forms of cricket. This provoked a storm of agitation by fans. At that point, many former cricket legendaries such as Mahela Jayawardhane (Consultant of SL team), Sanath Jayasuriya and Lasith Malinga asked him to reconsider his decision. Ten days after his announcement, Bhanuka reversed his decision and again started to train for the upcoming two cricket series in Australia and India.

In his comeback, he fulfilled the two km fitness bench mark, but then, unfortunately, there came another hurdle: the skin-fold test - the previous benchmark level of the skin-fold test was level 80, but now it had been lowered to 70. Bhanuka, as expected, could not pass the test, and in the end, he was overlooked for Sri Lanka’s recent T-20 series in Australia and India where they lost all eight matches.

However, while SLC selectors bother about fitness tests, IPL bodies are not obsessed with fitness levels, which is why Bhanuka was not only selected for Punjab Kings but also given third place in the batting lineup. Of course, national cricket and franchise cricket are two different formats, but mind you, if our past bowling trainers such as Champaka Ramanayake had not considered Lasith Malinga for the national team, a world class bowler such as Malinga would have been lost forever not only for Sri Lanka, but also for the entire world.

Maybe this is why Punjab Kings bought Bhanuka Rajapaksa for a base price of US$ 65,000. As of now, he has fully justified the faith his franchise owners have put in him.

The new lesson

In the end, Bhanuka Rajapksa was able to teach a lesson for Sri Lanka cricket selectors and also Mahela Jayawardane, the consultant of the SLC team, who also hangs on fitness rules. No doubt, Mahela is a cricket legend, but in spite of that, his decisions are not always correct - they are not commandments of God. This is why he failed in this IPL season where Mumbai Indians lost eight out of 10 matches.

Fortunately, the tenure of the Pramodya Wickramasinghe-headed selection committee ended last month. So, it is a compulsory duty of the new selection committee which is due to be appointed soon, to reconsider the present fitness rules and decide how to utilize unique skills in players such as Bhanuka Rajapaksa.