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Karunaratne's master-class at Galle

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Dimuth_Karunaratne_Sri_Lanka_Cricket“If you take a Test match, I think there’s lot more pressure in the second innings than the first one. I believe I absorb the pressure very well, which is one of the reason for my success in the second innings. Also, when batting in the first innings, there’s not much pressure, so I tend to play much freely. Because of that, I think I make a lot of mistakes.”

Sri Lankan opener Dimuth Karunaratne was frank in an assessment of his Test batsmanship in an interview with the Daily Mirror exactly a year ago. He was aware of his issues in the first innings and spoke openly about them.

He wasn't just good with words and sharp in judgement. Karunaratne did the hard yards behind the scenes and has quickly conquered his first innings woes in Test cricket. Playing catch-up cricket has often turned out poorly for him in the past despite his second innings heroics. The southpaw, aware of this flaw, has turned it around pretty well.

Since the interview, the opener has racked up two hundreds and three half-centuries in the first innings of Test matches at a much better average than before. Interestingly, the two hundreds both took 300+ balls, a trend more like Karunaratne's second innings batting.

It is here that the southpaw stands out among modern day Test openers. A gritty opener in the mould of yesteryear Test batsmen, Karunaratne's forte is occupying the crease for extended periods. The runs would come.

 

In Dubai last year, Karunaratne weathered the Pakistan bowling attack for over nine hours, playing out a whopping 405 balls in the process of scoring 196. Dinesh Chandimal’s 62 was the next highest score in that match. His ability to stand tall and grit it out for a long time puts him in a different class than the modern openers who rely on short, fierce cameos to make an impact.

 

It is surprising that Sri Lanka have hit upon a handy opener in these times. The Island nation is among the worst nations when it comes to opening the batting in Test cricket recently. Since 2014, their average opening stand lasts a mere 26 runs. Yet, Karunaratne scored 132 more than that at Galle, even as his team lost all ten wickets against the visiting Proteas on Thursday.

The South African bowlers wrecked havoc on a turning surface but Karunaratne, unfazed and concrete among the ruins, racked up an unbeaten 158*, his second ton in the first innings of Test matches in the past year. That the next highest score was 26 tells the whole story.

But even more important is that Karunaratne occupied the crease and frustrated the Proteas. He lasted 222 balls. Lakshan Sandakan's 55 balls was the only other Lankan to face more than 50 balls in that innings.

 

Karunaratne isn't averse to such lengthy knocks. In his 50 match Test career, he has faced 200+ balls in a stunning 10 innings. This, in modern times, is a revelation. To put it in perspective, an opener like Gary Kirsten had 22 such knocks in his 101 match Test career. The Lankan has almost half of that number in almost half the number of games. Considering the different eras that the two played in, Karunaratne is an outlier.

 

Of his eight Test hundreds, four are above 150. When he stays in, he fights to get the team out of any situation, which is a fine quality to have in any batting line-up. He missed the tour of the West Indies last month and the gaping hole was evident, as Sri Lanka failed to stitch together useful opening partnerships in his absence.

In the South African series, Karunaratne was back and how! Not for a moment did he flinch when Tabraiz Shamsi and Kagiso Rabada ran through their middle-order with tricky spells. Undaunted and rock solid, the southpaw weathered the storm to notch up his eighth Test ton.

It isn't like the innings is a career changing one for the opener. He has arguably played better knocks in his 50 match Test career. But with his return to the national side, Karunaratne has ensured Sri Lanka have the freedom in the middle-order to express themselves. That wasn't evident as Rabada ripped through them in the first innings, but when the middle-order does click, Karunaratne's ability to go the distance would do the Lankans a world of good.

If anything, his partnerships of 48 and 63 with the no.10 and no.11 batsmen ensured Sri Lanka had a strong foothold in the match early on. From 176/8, it lifted them to 287, and formed the impetus that would drive the Proteas to get too cautious in their first innings. As the two match series pans out, his valuable contributions from the top could form the platform for Sri Lanka's totals, particularly in the absence of Dinesh Chandimal.

 

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