I see you standing among them all
Standing so strong ,proud and tall
The world looks at you, but does not see
Everything you sacrifice to keep us free

              – Anonymous

Spare a thought for Sri Lankan cricket’s soldier, Frank Dimuth Madushanka Karunaratne. In Lanka’s most disastrous year in International cricket, this valiant, unflappable, staid opening batsman stood unruffled, serene and unmoved, refusing to budge from the crease, refusing to surrender without a fight, refusing to let his country down.

At Nagpur on day 1, he led another solemn fight, standing defiantly even as his mates disappeared back into the hut one after another. It has been the story of Karunaratne’s 2017. He has waged a lonely battle for a sinking ship. That he became just the second batsman (after Dean Elgar) to make 1000 runs in 2017 does justice to his fabulous year in whites.

If that isn’t enough, have a glance at his recent big contributions. At Galle against India, he made a rock solid 97 in the second innings as the hosts tried to save a Test. Sri Lanka lost eventually, making 245. The left-hander had scored a whopping 39.59% of the total runs.

In the next Test at Colombo, he made 141 in Sri Lanka’s total of 386, 36.52% of the runs coming off his bat. In Dubai against Pakistan, he made 196 in the first innings, breaking a streak of poor runs in the first innings of Test matches. That time he contributed 40.66% of the runs Lanka scored in the innings.

Overall, in 2017, Karunaratne has made 1000 runs out of Sri Lanka’s total of 5934 runs. His contribution has been 16.85% of the runs his team has scored in Test cricket this year. To put things into perspective, Virat Kohli, who averages a touch above 50 this year in Test cricket, has made 10.95% of the total runs India have made. Pujara betters Kohli and Karunaratne contributing 18.37% of the runs India made.

Pujara has had a terrific year no doubt, but so has Karunaratne. That he found no able ally is no fault of his. The southpaw has stood his ground, hit the hard runs and fought relentlessly for his team.

He made three centuries this year, becoming the second Sri Lankan opener after Tillakaratne Dilshan to make the three hundreds in Tests in a year. That Karunaratne achieved this in a year of debacles for Sri Lankan cricket makes his feat more gargantuan.

Take out the numbers for the most balls faced this year and Karunaratne stands out, having faced 2212 balls compared to Elgar’s 2162 and Pujara’s 2024. He has often been a victim of his teammates’ recklessness. Lacking support, Karunaratne has strived to achieve whatever he could but he sorely needs one of his colleagues to stand up and accompany him in his venture.

Resilience has always been his forte. He has been a vital component of the Lankan team in Test cricket ever since his debut in 2012. Since then, only Angelo Mathews has made more runs for Lanka in Test cricket. Mathews has 3509 runs as against Karunaratne’s 3120. That only Rangana Herath has played more Tests (47 compared to Karunaratne’s 46) than the opener since his debut is further proof of how important he has been to the Sri Lankan Test side.

He also has seven hundreds since his debut, a feat bettered only by Dinesh Chandimal in this time frame. He is also the 12th highest in terms of balls faced in Test cricket amongst all players since his debut. That Sri Lanka has been woeful in this time period makes his feat even more noteworthy.

The manner in which he has taken the sheen off the new ball and saved Lanka’s middle-order batsmen from the rampaging fast bowlers has been critical in saving the face of some of the more prominent names in the Islanders line-up.

It is worth noting that in the last three years Karunaratne has four innings’ of 300 or more balls faced, the most among every opener in Test cricket. It has also come under varying conditions – Christchurch, Galle and Dubai. His conversion rate has also gotten better this year, with three of his ten fifty plus scores converted to hundreds. Two of the four half-centuries were 93 and 97, further pinpointing to his penchant for scoring big. Before this year, he had only converted four of his 14 such scores to hundreds.

Only two other openers in the history of Sri Lankan Test cricket have 3000+ Test runs – Marvan Atapattu and Sanath Jayasuriya. Karunaratne joined this elite pair in 2017 and bigger feats await this resilient cricketer.

That Karunaratne could be Sri Lanka’s golden ticket to recovering from the debris they are in at the moment is further aggravated by recent history which has seen the presence of stable, ball-consuming openers helping the growth of Test teams. The towering presence of Graeme Smith at the top made South Africa a world-beating team from 2004-2012.

Since Smith’s retirement, the Proteas haven’t done as well in Test cricket. Andrew Strauss and Alastair Cook made England no.1 in Test cricket for a long period of time. A rock solid Azhar Ali made Pakistan a much more difficult proposition to beat in Test cricket in recent times. Kraigg Brathwaite’s emergence has lent solidity to a ridiculous West Indian Test team.

This isn’t to say Karunaratne alone would make Sri Lanka a better Test team. If that were true, the turnaround would have started much earlier. But his presence definitely enhances that possibility. For now, Lanka can just hope and pray that some of his other lily-livered teammates would stand up with him and show stomach for a fight.


*Stats as of Nov 24, 2017.

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