In a team, that has been low in confidence and has been struggling to get back to winning ways since their senior players retired more than a year back, the presence of players such as Asela Gunaratne makes a lot of difference on the field and as well as in the locker room. His positive approach to the game, which was witnessed in the recently ended one-off Test between Sri Lanka and Zimbabwe, acts as a catalyst in terms of boosting the confidence in the team. Despite fighting a hamstring injury, Gunaratne persistently faced 150+ balls and scored a match-winning 80 runs. While three wickets fell on the other end, nothing affected Gunaratne’s concentration, who finally received support from Dilruwan Perera down the order and the two led Sri Lanka to an incredible four-wicket win in Colombo.
The loss in the One-Day International (ODI) series at home against Zimbabwe was a major drop-down for Sri Lanka and that indeed affected their performance in the Test series as well.
When Zimbabwe flew to Sri Lanka, they were yet to even register a win against the hosts at their backyard. Two weeks later, Zimbabwe had an entire series victory to their name on the Lankan soils. They went on to get an excellent start in the one-off Test played at Colombo. They piled up 356 runs in the first innings and the fact that they score so many runs was itself a remarkable effort. Then they earned a 10-run lead after restricting Sri Lanka at 346. With less than two days remaining, they set up Lanka a target of 378 runs.
At stumps of the Day four, Zimbabwe had successfully cleaned up three crucial batsmen from the top-order – Upal Tharanga, Dinesh Chandimal and Dimuth Karunaratne. With four spinners in the line-up, the visitors were anticipated to bowl out Sri Lanka on the final day and clinch a historic maiden Test win in Sri Lanka. At the end of the fourth day, Angelo Matthews and one-down batsman Kusal Mendis were batting for Sri Lanka. Zimbabwe needed six overs to make a vital breakthrough on the final day. Zimbabwe’s go-to man and captain, Graeme Cremer removed set batsman Mendis. Another few more overs later, Matthews was out and that dismissal brought Gunaratne out in the middle.
Prior to this Test, Gunaratne had played just four Tests; out of which two were against the same opponents. As he was quite aware of Zimbabwe’s bowling attack, at the same time it was a golden opportunity for him to announce himself as an important member of the Test squad. When he joined Niroshan Dickwella, Sri Lanka needed another 185 runs with half the team already back to the pavilion. He had his intention very clear. He was not there to help Sri Lanka draw the Test. He was there to win the match for his country.
In the morning of the final day, when Chandimal told Gunaratne that he has to score a hundred, no matter what, in order to help Lanka win the game. To which, a confident Gunaratne had replied, “No Chandi, there won’t be a reason for me to get a 100. I’ll get 70 and win the game.”
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With that statement of his, he had already won his skipper’s, heart. Regardless of the eventual result, he had become a trusted member in Chandimal’s diary. Gunaratne’s faith in himself and not wanting to score a hundred only testifies how mature he is as a batsman and more importantly, as a team player. While at such situations, several players aim for a century, but Gunaratne sought for calculated and careful innings that ensured a victory for Sri Lanka. The fact that he scored only six boundaries in his 151-ball knock illustrated his statement.
He not only played his part well, he supported wicketkeeper-batsman Niroshan Dickwella. After the match, Dickwella revealed that he kept on talking to Gunaratne in between the overs and that helped him score better.
“Talk to me all the time, and make me score runs’,” Gunaratne was quoted as saying by ESPN Cricinfo.
“I think what he meant was he hasn’t scored a big Test innings, where I have. He just wanted me to tell him how to handle situations. Sometimes when the game was going a certain way, he wanted me to keep advising him. Occasionally, I’d tell him not to go for certain shots. In the end, he stuck around and scored,” the all-rounder added.
Gunaratne nursed a hamstring; was away from the field during Zimbabwe’s 2nd innings but still pulled off a near flawless innings when Sri Lanka wanted one from him. He not only batted beautifully, he even ensured his partners were comfortable in the middle with him and at the end, all his efforts did wonders for Sri Lanka. If Zimbabwe recorded the highest ODI chase on the Lankan soils, a Gunaratne-inspired innings helped Sri Lanka do something that was never done before – it was the first-ever time when a 300+ score was chased down successfully in Sri Lanka in the fourth innings.
Regardless of his recent heroics, the fact that he is yet to set a mark against a big side cannot be avoided with the home series against India just around the corner. However, you cannot just write him off too. His knock in Colombo defined his character as a cricketer and that will be handy during the four-Test series against India. The skipper Chandimal has been ruled out for the first two Tests, Gunaratne’s presence down the order at No. 7, now will be the key for the hosts all the more now. Along with a responsible batsman, he proved his skills as an all-rounder by picking wickets at the right times.