Dimuth Karunaratne is not a player who will draw in crowds. He won’t leave spectators on the edge of their seats, nor will he stop them from leaving early. What he is, however, is part of what is now a rare breed of Test opening batsmen. And more importantly, he is fast becoming the foundation around which Sri Lanka can build their revival.
Karunatratne is a classic Test opener. He does not possess an extravagant backlift and he does not play many sparkling shots to match. Yet what he does have is a solid technique based on a watertight defence and compact strokeplay. Perhaps the flashy modern way of scoring quickly has meant that Karunaratne does get the credit he deserves but his recent performances for his country underline his importance.
An outstanding, marathon-like knock of 196 against Pakistan in Dubai was the key contribution in Sri Lanka securing a surprising 2-0 series win over Pakistan, a team that reached world no. 1 just over a year ago. He batted for 405 deliveries and made playing Yasir Shah look easy – a challenge many established batsman have failed with over recent times.
Yet there was something even more timely to this knock than just setting the platform to victory – his runs came in the first innings. In ten Tests before the series against Pakistan, Karunaratne averaged just 14.8 in the first innings, with a top score of just 30. However, in the same ten matches, the left-hander averaged 64.8 with a best of 141. Indeed, his debut featured a similar pattern – a duck in the first innings and 60 in the second.
So Karunaratne’s effort in the UAE has set him on the way to banish some of his first-innings nightmares. “I had got some good confidence during the India series and wanted to continue that, but the one thing was that I’ve not been able to bat well in the first innings,” said Karunaratne, following Sri Lanka’s series victory.
“Before this series, when I analysed my batting, although I had batted well, I hadn’t been able to provide runs that helped the team win. But in this series, I think because I did well in the first innings, the team had the strength to win. More than the Man-of-the-Match and Man-of-the-Series awards, the joy of being able to contribute to a win is in my heart.”
Karunaratne is fast making a habit of scoring vital runs when his team needs them most. His maiden Test century, 152 from 363 balls against New Zealand in Christchurch, almost brought his side a draw when a hammering looked inevitable. Four of his next five Test centuries came at home but his 141 in Colombo against a rampant India side who had destroyed England 4-0 on similar pitches was another example of his improving quality, even if it was in another losing cause.
The 29-year-old’s confidence is fast growing and his latest hundred showed he is improving on his weaker areas – making first-innings runs and scoring them outside Sri Lanka. Karunaratne finished the series in the UAE with 306 runs – more than any other player and his average of 76.50 was equally as impressive.
Excellent stamina and a huge appetite for runs are other features of Karunaratne’s game that are admirable. Five of his seven Test hundreds have seen him reach 130 or more and, in another interesting stat, no opener has faced 300-plus balls in an innings on more occasions than Karunaratne (4) over the past three years – a number better than more established openers such as Alastair Cook, David Warner and Azhar Ali.
Sri Lanka is a nation known for its love of cricket as much as its idyllic beaches and scenery. Yet the Test team is still trying to cope with the loss of so many great players over the last half a decade. One would think that finding the next generation of talent to drive their Test hopes shouldn’t be a problem. However, nurturing and maturing these younger and inexperienced players is another stepping stone.
So when a player as promising as Karunaratne comes along, Sri Lanka need to appreciate it. The talent is there, with Kusal Mendis, Dinesh Chandimal, Niroshan Dickwella and injured former skipper Angelo Matthews joining Karunaratne in forming the pillars of the batting line-up. Yet consistency is the real secret to being successful in Test match cricket and it has been an area where Sri Lanka have found tough to achieve in the past.
The signs were there in Dubai that Sri Lanka are on the right path going forward, and it’s thanks to the likes of the determined Karunaratne that things are looking far more positive this time around.