Ever since 2017 has begun, Sri Lanka have faced tough times in cricket. They have lost a Test to Bangladesh – their first loss to them at home – the situation worsened when they were beaten by Zimbabwe in the limited-overs series and that was followed by the resignation of then Sri Lankan skipper Angelo Matthews. Had Graeme Cremer’s Zimbabwe pulled off an upset in the one-off Test, which they almost did in Colombo, Sri Lanka would have been shattered to bits and pieces. The vulnerable Sri Lanka then hosted India and at the end of the series, the little confidence which was left in the hosts was also hammered by the No. 1 side.
As the Sri Lankan side, regrouped under a new captain in Dinesh Chandimal, their first assignment is the tour of UAE to play against Pakistan. Considering Pakistan’s combination of spin and pace, that strengthen their bowling attack, the touring party needed their senior men to utilise their experience there. Dimuth Karunaratne was one of those guys who have been around in the team for a while now. Having played 43 Tests since his debut in 2012, Karunaratne has been handy on the top everywhere but England and Australia.
Even during the India series, apart from the Pallekele Test, he put up fine-scores in Galle and Colombo Test. Team India piled up 622 runs in the second Test and that was followed by Sri Lanka bundled out for a mere 183 runs. Virat Kohli enforced the follow-on and the hosts came out to bat again. Battling against the vicious spin from the Indian duo of Ravindra Jadeja and Ravichandran Ashwin, Karunaratne batted for almost 400 minutes. A century from him and Kusal Mendis helped Sri Lanka to put up a 350-plus score before they lost the Test by an innings and 53 runs.
Even in a Test against Bangladesh, Karunaratne scored a century in the losing cause. There have been several instances when he manages to give the team a good start but the players after him fail to capitalise on that start.
Karunaratne has played more away Tests than in Sri Lanka and by now he must have a better idea of all the countries and their pitches. Prior to the first Test of the two-Test series, Karunaratne had played three Tests in the UAE, all against Pakistan, of course. The last time Sri Lanka toured the UAE for a Test series against Pakistan was in 2013-14. The first Test in Abu Dhabi ended in a draw before Sri Lanka won the Dubai Test followed by Pakistan squared off the series with the win in the Sharjah match.
It was an excellent bowling display from Sri Lanka in Dubai during that series. However, what made the difference was that the batsmen also chipped in well and that did not let the effort from the bowlers go waste. Karunaratne, on the top, played a huge role in the final innings when Sri Lanka chased a low total of 137 runs. A lot of teams, in overconfidence of easily chasing down such totals, go on to make grave mistakes. But, Karunaratne did not put a foot wrong when he came out to open for Sri Lanka in the fourth innings in Dubai. He batted for almost 200 minutes, remained unbeaten on 62 off 125 balls and led Sri Lanka to a nine-wicket victory.
The opening batsman, knowing the middle-east conditions quite well, made use of his earlier experience and fought against the likes of Hasan Ali, Yasir Shah and Mohammad Amir on the first day of the first Test on Thursday.
In the entire 2017, so far, Sri Lanka have suffered collapses on the opening day of the Tests they have played and they have never managed to make a comeback from there. A similar situation looked to haunt Sri Lanka when they left for lunch at 61 for 3. However, Karunaratne and Sri Lanka resisted the toughness and avoided a situation like that. They withstood Yasir Shah, survived Hasan’s reverse swing and against the odds, they managed to come on the top. The 100-run stand between Karunaratne and Captain Chandimal pulled Sri Lanka out of danger.
Before the tea, Hasan went on a rant with his reverse swing for seven consecutive overs; he drew an outside edge from Chandimal, and an inside edge from Karunaratne but a dismissal did not happen and a revived Sri Lanka that day went into tea with a wicket-loss in the second session. Although Karunaratne looked way too aggressive against his nature, he was responsible at the same time. He went more with his favouite leg-side flicks rather than big shots and he seemed happy as that worked for him and the scoreboard was being ticked regularly.
Karunaratne, who had his flawless game on, was run out for 93 and that score by a Sri Lankan batsman seemed like one of the best views for the country in cricket in a very long time. His wicket was basically Chandimal’s fault. When Karunaratne tapped the outside off ball to mid-on, he went for a single; a run which was there and it was an easy one for the two. However, Chandimal was busy looking at the ball and by the time he turned towards Karunaratne to react, the latter had already reached the other end.
For getting Karunaratne run out, now it is the skipper’s responsibility to have a big score on the board when they resume Day two. Chandimal has been doing the job well, so far, on the second day as he had brought up his ninth Test century. Karunaratne’s knock of 93 off 205 balls has put life into a near-dead Sri Lankan batting line-up. The foundation laid by the opener on the top is the primary reason for the other batsmen to do their job with less pressure on them.