Karunaratne’s patient presence

With tough overseas assignments on the horizon, Sri Lanka will rely heavily on Dimuth Karunaratne’s traditional approach to batting

Dimuth Karunaratne plays a shot

Teams rely on their opening batsmen in Test cricket to see off the new ball. An opener, having blunted the new ball, should also look to bat for as long as possible.

In the age of Twenty20s, smartphone addiction and fast food, the constant search for instant gratification makes this kind of patience and traditional approach to batting hard to find.

But Sri Lankan Test opener Dimith Karunaratne seems to be one of those rare few.

With three tough overseas tours coming up for Sri Lanka, Karunaratne has become a vital cog in a brittle batting line-up.

There is little doubt as to the talent of the Sri Lankan top and middle-order. It is their inconsistency and occasionally bewildering capacity for the bizarre and unthinkable that can have Sri Lankan fans scratching their heads.

In 2016, Kusal Mendis had the cricket world raving after his stunning 176 against a fiery Australian attack on a Pallekele pitch where only one other batsman passed 50.

But on the opening morning of the first Test against New Zealand in Wellington, he was out fourth ball after attempting to hoick Tim Southee over the head of short midwicket, only succeeded in smashing it straight to Ajaz Patel instead.

Sri Lanka were already struggling when Mendis arrived at the crease. His dismissal left them three down with just nine runs on the board.

In that same 2016 series against Australia, Dhananjaya de Silva was off the mark in Test cricket with a six, and in the third Test of that series, he scored a sparkling 129 after Sri Lanka had incredulously fallen to 26/5.

But against New Zealand at the Basin Reserve, batting at number-three, he edged a Tim Southee outswinger and departed for one.

Even Karunaratne’s own opening partner, Danushka Gunathilaka, has had problems with consistency. His was the first wicket to fall yesterday, and he has been in and out of the side in both the One-Day and Test formats.

It is perhaps a testament to Karunaratne’s patience and focus that his average in the fourth innings, often considered the hardest time to bat, is significantly higher than at any other time in the game.

Indeed, up until this year, Karunaratne was considered something of a second-innings specialist. His own Test debut, against New Zealand in 2012, almost epitomises this theory.

He scored a duck in the first innings, LBW to none other than Southee, but remained unbeaten on 60 in the second innings, as Sri Lanka chased their 93-run target without losing a wicket.

New Zealand are opponents against whom Karunaratne has historically done well against. Prior to this Test, he averaged 44 against them (up significantly from his career Test average of 37).

In 2014, with Sri Lanka following on in Christchurch after another disastrous first innings in which the left-handed opener again scored a duck, Karunaratne put his head down and scored a fighting 152 to spare Sri Lanka the blushes.

The innings not only forced New Zealand to bat twice after Sri Lanka had fallen hopelessly behind, it also put them on notice to be wary of Karunaratne.

On day-one in Wellington, it was more of the same old story from Karunaratne. Facing an attack he has thrived against, with wickets falling all around him, Karunaratne grafted and grinded his way to 83.

Panic or impatience did not set in, and the straight drives and cut shots — hallmarks of his play — were set aside until well after the lunch break.

With his former captain Angelo Mathews at the crease, he added 133 to right the ship and once again put Sri Lanka in a respectable position.

Karunaratne had his moments of uncertainty during the innings, and it wasn’t necessarily chanceless, but there was no wavering in concentration — no brain fades either.

This means his presence is no less than solid gold in a top and middle order prone to both of those errors.

The delivery that eventually undid Karunaratne was a quick bouncer from Neil Wagner. New Zealand’s short-ball specialist forced him to fend it down the leg side to wicket-keeper BJ Watling.

Even in his dismissal, it took a specialist battering ram to break through Fortress Karunaratne.

New Zealand, Australia and South Africa are all countries where surviving the new ball is a daunting task and patience is required. Sri Lanka will look to their most-patient of batsmen to get them through it.

© Island Cricket

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