They are on the wane, declining rapidly, suffering a free fall since the retirements of some legendary names in the game. There was no stopping the Indian juggernaut when they landed in this country. Sri Lanka might have triumphed over them in the Champions Trophy, but this battle was fought in five days. This Indian team suffers off days in the sub-continent, but not a series of off days. They are no.1 for a reason and proved as much in the two Tests on this tour thus far.
But there is relief in pain. They aren’t all lost without hope. Just when darkness engulfed, they found light at the end of the tunnel in the form of their stable, solid, stubborn opener, Dimuth Karunaratne.
There has been talk in plentiful about how Sri Lankan openers have fared pathetically in the past few years. There is substance behind the criticism. Since 2015, their opening partnerships have averaged 27.24 with just two stands of 100+ in 53 innings’. Only West Indian and Zimbabwean openers have fared worse.
Filter these Tests to include just home matches and the average further dips to 20.09 which is even worse than that of Zimbabwe. There have been just five half-century parternships in 31 innings at home in the last two and a half years.
But Karunaratne has been an exception. He has been Sri Lanka’s mainstay opener in Test cricket for quite some time now. While he has this bizarre nature of sticking out his batting equipments only in the second innings, there is little doubting that he has been a solace amongst the ruins for Sri Lanka. Infact, the Islanders have played just 3 innings without Karunaratne as one of the openers since 2015. It kind of reveals his importance to this depleted Lankan outfit.
He was their pillar of strength at Galle, forging a defiant 97 in the second innings, with Lanka requiring a mammoth 550 to win. Surely the hosts couldn’t have won. But they could have saved the Test with a bit of help from the rain Gods, but that never arrived. Karunaratne, however, did his best to enforce a draw. He countered India’s spinners with sweep shots, through the line cover drives and neat footwork. It wasn’t audacious or eye-catching but it was effective.
At SSC, he was at it again, with Sri Lanka all but out of the contest. They were following on and in distress with India having made 622 in the first innings. They needed a confidence booster. That is all they could expect out of this Test after they had replied to India’s score with 183 in the first innings. Some inspiration to take away and apply on the next Test for a consolation victory. Sri Lanka’s best batsman of the year once again stepped up.
Day 3 was as poor as it could get for Sri Lanka until Karunaratne and Kusal Mendis turned it around with a stubborn 191 run partnership. It was mesmerising and quite against the run of events at Colombo till day 3. There was a lingering feeling that Sri Lanka did not have it in them to churn out a fightback until these two got together.
They took the game to day 4 and Karunaratne and Mathews even threatened to take it to the final day. But eventually they ran out of oomph. Not before Karunaratne had compiled a fine Test hundred though. He made 141 before falling to Ravindra Jadeja’s impeccable persistence.
It wasn’t that Karunaratne’s sixth Test hundred and fourth in the second innings of Test matches, mattered in the context of the game.
It did not.
Sri Lanka could barely have avoided an innings defeat with his steely knock.
But for a team shunned to the lower steps of the ICC rankings and lacking inspiration, Karunaratne was a relief. He was an angel to them, arriving right at the time of agony and instilling hope in the for the future.
It is strange that this stubborn left-hander has a way better record in the second innings of Test matches as against the first. He boasts of an average of 44.88 in the second innings of Test matches as against a 27.26 in the first innings. Two of his hundreds in the longest format have come with his team following-on. His average in the third and fourth innings of Test matches shoot up to above 40.
2017 has been pretty good for Karunaratne. He has 614 runs in 7 Tests at an average of 43.85 with two hundreds and two fifties. He needs to make it even better if his team needs to remain amongst the top tier Test nations in the World. As of now, he is their sole hope and relief.