Skills “come first” for Bhanuka Rajapaksa but the Sri Lankan batter has realised that survival in modern-day cricket is not possible without attaining required fitness standards. Dropped from the national team over fitness issues, Rajapaksa now wants to have a conversation with a supremely-fit Virat Kohli, who he calls the ‘Cristiano Ronaldo of cricket’.
Being part of the Indian Premier League (IPL), the 30-year-old Lankan can have that opportunity to meet the former India skipper and hopefully turn the tide having endured a dramatic start to year 2022. The 30-year-old announced his international retirement this January and withdrew it a week later on the insistence of authorities. However, he still missed the plane to India due to the same fitness issues, last month.
Rajapaksa is sure that the two-month long stint with Punjab Kings would benefit his game immensely and take his fitness to the next level.
“IPL is the best league in the world and with every teammate of yours you get to learn a lot about the game, so I am loving picking the brains of Shikhar Dhawan. I get along very well with Mayank Agarwal as we played U-19 together,” Rajapaksa told PTI in an interview.
“Outside of the team Virat Kohli is always someone I could speak to and get some advice on fitness. He’s at another different level when it comes to fitness.
“To me, he is the Cristiano Ronaldo of cricket for sure. The work he puts in you can obviously see the results. You can compare him to anyone when it comes fitness or even skills wise. He plays so hard and you can learn a lot by talking to him,” he said.
On the ‘fitness versus skills’ debate, Rajapaksa has a clear view.
“As a player you need your fitness but it could be different from person to person. For me, of course, skill comes first. And then the fitness, but if you are not fit enough you definitely can’t perform.
“I’m actually working hard on my fitness. Whenever I get a free day I hit the gym early in the morning. That there are some fitness requirements to represent the country and with fitness, my international career would be longer.
“I’m hoping to play for the next three to four years at least and do the best for the country because after my resignation I had to withdraw it back because I had a couple of conversations with the technical committee and the Sports Minister as well. They wanted me to reconsider my retirement and I decided to withdraw it,” he said.
Rajapaksa feels he is now doing “all the right things” as he looks to extend his international career by at least three to four years. He scored a match-winning 43 off 22 balls against RCB on his IPL debut on Sunday. With Jonny Bairstow yet to join the squad, the soft-spoken Sri Lankan wants to make the most of the opportunities that come his way over the course of 14 games. Rajapaksa is a big believer in God and his belief in God grew stronger with the way he made his Sri Lanka debut in 2020, nine years after he started playing first-class cricket. With the senior players refusing to travel to Pakistan, Rajapaksa got his big break and since then he has played five ODIs and 18 T20 Internationals in a roller coaster career.
“It’s all about timing for me. I think God’s timing is the best timing and that Pakistan tour changed my career. I am pretty sure that I would have never been called to play for country if it was not for the withdrawal of senior players. The last two years has been extraordinary for me.
“I had to wait almost nine to 10 years till I got my first opportunity and playing so many years of first class cricket has only helped me in international cricket,” said Rajapaksa, who has impressed of late with his power-hitting.
He likes to call himself a “skill and touch” batter who just focuses on timing the ball. At the relentless insistence of his friends back home, he has taken up yoga which he is getting to experience at Punjab Kings. “I never knew the importance of yoga but it has helped me relax my mind and I have added it to my routine. As I said I am a big believer in God. I appreciate every thing that comes my way and have worked really hard to achieve whatever I have in my career.”
Talking about the Punjab Kings unit, the Sri Lankan feels the team has a ‘proper squad’ full of power-hitters who can take the franchise to its IPL maiden title.