Dimuth Karunaratne stands as Calm as Tall

Andrew Fidel Fernando in ESPNcricinfo, 17 August 2019, where the title runs “Karunaratne, a cool captain for Sri Lanka’s high seas”

The selectors are making strange picks, the board is trying to sack another coach, the sports minister is making serious overreaches, the XI changes from series to series, but from amid this chaos, which to many has seemed like the wreckage of a once-was cricketing power, Dimuth Karunaratne has eked out a small but significant patch of stability.

The selectors are making strange picks, the board is trying to sack another coach, the sports minister is making serious overreaches, the XI changes from series to series, but from amid this chaos, which to many has seemed like the wreckage of a once-was cricketing power, Dimuth Karunaratne has eked out a small but significant patch of stability.

He came to the captaincy at a time of extreme vulnerability. The team was at the start of a third leg of a Southern Hemisphere tour in which they had not won a single match after two-and-a-half months on the road. He also had a vastly inexperienced attack to call on, and a couple of key senior players were missing. Before his first series at the helm he seemed like a farmer who had inherited an operation where the crops had been burned, the barn was on fire, and whose fences had been torn apart, and yet somehow he managed to strap all his livestock to the same plough and had them pulling in the same direction. Sri Lanka became only the third team ever to beat South Africa in their own backyard. And they did it 2-0. This is the craziest result of the year. Of any year. Months later, you’re still expecting to wake up from the dream.

A middling World Cup as ODI captain followed, and unless you’re the kind of hyper-optimistic fan who goes to sleep in a Sri Lanka shirt and craps blue and yellow, a middling World Cup was the best that could have been hoped for. Through the course of it, Lasith Malinga was shooting verbal bazookas in every direction, and cardboard cutouts of some middle order batsmen might have scored more runs than the batsmen themselves, and yet, the team did not look anywhere near as directionless as they could have done. That Karunaratne was the fourth one-day captain in nine months was practically forgotten.

This has been an era of farcical and unprecedented turnover in Sri Lanka cricket, for coaches and captains, yes, but also for boards and sports ministers, but a few months of Karunaratne’s leadership appears, against all expectation, to have steadied the national team. In the ongoing Galle Test, a second-day middle-order collapse aside, Sri Lanka have done all the things expected of a determined Test-match outfit. They’ve hounded out the New Zealand batsmen who have looked uncomfortable. Those batting well, they’ve tied down and forced into corners. And where normally, New Zealand outfield Sri Lanka by such an extent that they may as well be playing different sports, Sri Lanka have arguably made more of the chances that have come their way, in this Test.

Now, for the first time in seven Test innings, Karunaratne has himself hit a half-century. It is far from one of his best. He was dropped once at least, and could have been stumped. He played the cut like it was an addiction, and missed probably half the time. But making tough runs such as these in the fourth innings of a Galle Test, is a vital pillar in any captaincy. Although his team won in South Africa, there was no substantial contribution from Karunaratne himself. His unbeaten 133-run stand with Lahiru Thirimanne has not only moved Sri Lanka almost halfway to their target, it is also their best-ever opening stand in the fourth innings of a Test.

“Both those knocks are invaluable,” said acting coach Rumesh Ratnayake at stumps. “We saw how well they bowled and how hard we fought to get this 133 runs. It wasn’t all from the middle of the bat. It’s just that they had something called ‘wanting to be there and wanting to stay there’. That was the talk from what Dimuth said before as well. Dimuth brings a lot of calmness to the team.”

If Sri Lanka go on to win this match – and there is no guarantee that they will, on what is still a surface that can throw up several wickets at once – Karunaratne’s 73 not out will have provided an excellent platform. It would be their third consecutive impressive chase, with both South Africa Tests having been won batting last as well. But Test chases are infamously treacherous, and a century of convention says there is no such thing as a reliable fourth-innings outfit. But then Sri Lanka have been finding consistency in strange places lately.

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Filed under Andrew Fidel Fernando, cricket and life, Hathurusingha, memorable moments, New Zealand cricket, performance, player selections, politics and cricket, Sri Lanka Cricket, tower of strength

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