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December 4, 2012
As Australia ponder the output of their Test openers, Sri Lanka have an opening conundrum brewing of their own. In ODIs, Sri Lanka are so awash with talent, they routinely play four capable openers in the XI, yet in Tests there has been a dearth of men with technique and mettle to chisel out a long-term role atop the batting order.
Sri Lanka's last tour of Australia in 2007 was Marvan Atapattu's swansong, and his long-time partner Sanath Jayasuriya played his final Test not long after. Though Tillakaratne Dilshan has advanced Jayasuriya's legacy in the years since, Sri Lanka have not found a bona-fide successor for Atapattu, though several have been trialled.
Tharanga Paranavitana has had a steady spell of opportunities since his debut in early 2009, but while he has shared Atapattu's penchant for collecting ducks, his career has also been frustrated by middling scores and a limited range of strokes. At times he has been defensively capable, but mentally tentative - particularly susceptible outside off stump, where his powers of judgement have been found frail.
Paranavitana had appeared to overcome a slow start in Test cricket when he made hundreds in back-to-back matches against India in 2010, but has not crossed triple figures in 39 innings since. Sri Lanka rightly acknowledge that their domestic competition does not produce opening batsmen who can find immediate success in Test cricket, but with 32 matches now behind him, the team may have hoped Paranavitana was further along in his development. In 2012, he has played 10 innings and made only one 50, averaging a shade below 30.
Perhaps partly in the hope of spurring Paranavitana's stagnating output, Sri Lanka have taken a spare left-hand opener to Australia. Dimuth Karunaratne got a Test debut when Dilshan sat out the first Test against New Zealand through injury, and a sparkling unbeaten half-century in the second innings of that match earned him a place in the squad to Australia a day later. Sri Lanka are unlikely to displace Paranavitana early in the series, but Karunaratne's presence will serve as a statement to Paranavitana that he cannot subsist on the selector's largesse for long.
"Dimuth has been around for a long time and when he got his opportunity in Galle he showed his potential," Mahela Jayawardene, Sri Lanka's captain, said ahead of the series. "It's healthy for everyone to have some sort of competition in order to push ourselves to keep improving."
Jayawardene has seen both men develop at first-class level: they open together for the Sinhalese Sports Club, where Jayawardene also cut his teeth. Though Karunaratne and Paranavitana will compete for a spot in the XI in Australia, they have been earmarked as potential long-term openers when Dilshan retires from Tests. Karunaratne's aggression has complemented Paranavitana's more circumspect approach in their time together at SSC, and Jayawardene suggested the synergy they have established in domestic cricket may help ensure a successful partnership in years to come.
"What we're looking into developing for the future is to try and get a combination that will be there for a while. It's very important that the two guys are comfortable and understand each other's game, because the start makes a big difference.
"I think Dimuth adjusted pretty well to international cricket. He knows his game quite well, which helps him. International cricket is always going to be a big step up for anybody. We've said to Dimuth that the first six months will be a honeymoon period after which the other teams will analyse you and then it will get tougher. He has got a good head to handle all that. Tharanga is another guy who I've played with quite a bit and who has had that same kind of commitment. We need to make sure we help them develop."
For the moment, Paranavitana's place is the only one in any sort of contention in Sri Lanka's top seven. Jayawardene believed Paranavitana's inability to make his position his own despite the extended run is not down to flaws in technique.
"It's about consistency. From time to time we've had chats with him and the coaches have been working with him. I think he's got the technique, but it's the mental approach that he sometimes makes mistakes with. Technically he's very sound, but he needs to approach certain situations differently. He needs to work hard at that.
"It's a tough position. Openers always will always have tough times. That's not just in the Sri Lankan team, that happens in other international sides as well. You need to show authority and feel confidence about that position. That's where everything is being set up for the rest of the batting order."
Andrew Fernando is ESPNcricinfo's Sri Lanka correspondentFeeds: Andrew Fidel Fernando
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
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