England v SL, 1st Investec Test, Lord's, 2nd day June 13, 2014

Karunaratne's light flickers

Dimuth Karunaratne does not want for talent but a career-defining innings continues to elude him

In F. Scott Fitzgerald's seminal novel The Great Gatsby, Jay Gatsby stares long into the night at a single green light. On occasion, he reaches out and grasps at it, but catches nothing but air. The light is at the other end of the bay, where the love of his life lives. She is Gatsby's greatest desire, but when the story ends, she and he remain apart.

The green light shone brightly for Dimuth Karunaratne at Lord's. He had survived the early jitters visiting openers are entitled to in England, but made batting seem a breeze afterwards. His first shot of real dominance was crisp clip through midwicket for four - his favourite stroke. James Anderson troubled him most, but in the ninth over, Karunaratne stood tall and drove back past the bowler, on the up. Arms loose, feet moving, eyes locked on the ball, Karunaratne had begun to flow.

With each over that went by, Karunaratne grew surer. On this grand stage, with a full house in, maybe this was his chance to take hold of what eluded him. He could hardly have asked for a friendlier pitch. Next over, he cut a short ball from Chris Jordan. "Straight to the fielder, but he looks good here," Shane Warne said on TV commentary.

Moments later, Karunaratne hung his head for a second, then embarked on a lonesome trek to the pavilion. Another bright start. Another abrupt end. Another raid for the other end of the bay, only to be beaten by the current, borne back to where he began. No big score today.

Karunaratne has been in the team for more than 18 months now but before this match his place was the least secure in the top order. If Dinesh Chandimal had got runs opening in the second innings in Northampton, Karunaratne may not have even played. He has hung on with his string of attractive starts. In his last 12 innings, Karunaratne scored at least 15 on 11 occasions but only twice has he crossed 50. There is no common form of dismissal. Today he was caught behind but other times he has walloped balls to midwicket or seen his off stump uprooted.

Encouragingly for a Sri Lanka opener, Karunaratne's talent does not discriminate by climate or continent. From Hobart, to Galle, to Abu Dhabi and now London, he has sped away in the early overs, claiming key momentum against the new ball. Sadly, his weakness does not discriminate either. When runs were on offer in Chittagong in February, Karunaratne made 15 and 31. Kumar Sangakkara would clobber more than 400 - across two innings - in that match.

There is a murmur he should omit his loose strokes, if he wishes to succeed as an opener in Tests. "But this is how I play," Karunaratne would argue. On the surface, getting in and failing to capitalise is among batting's biggest sins, but so many young batsmen have been ruined by coaches who demand they become less than themselves. Sri Lanka's recent cricket history is riddled with such examples.

More than that, Karunaratne knows how good it could be. He understands what that elusive big score can achieve, not just for himself, but for the team. "When two or three wickets fall with no runs on the board, that's a high-pressure situation," he said after his innings. "If we are 140 for two, that probably means we're on top. If we're 70 for two or three, then that's a much worse position. The faster you score your runs, the sooner you surge forward. The more you score runs fast, you avoid follow-ons and we can reverse pressure. In this match, if the wicket turns, we can do that."

As he straddles the line between mediocre and efficient, Karunaratne has watched others come in, and embed themselves in the side. Kaushal Silva has ground his way to a long-term opening berth. Lahiru Thirimanne's productive Asia Cup has earned him the vice-captaincy across all formats. But there are no easy answers for himself. What is it that he must do to break through? To truly find his voice on the world stage? Another aggressive opening batsman, Kusal Perera, grapples with that question in the ODI team.

In a just world, Karunaratne might have more security than he has now. Sri Lanka openers are notoriously slow settlers at Test level - not least among those, his head coach Marvan Atapattu and chief selector Sanath Jayasuriya. But there are other young players in the squad seeking justice as well. Chandimal watches on from the Lord's balcony, not good enough to make the XI, when he has a Test average of 51.47.

If Karunaratne is not already at a crossroads, he will soon find himself at a parting of the ways. Along one path lie the husks of unfulfilled Test careers. In the last decade, the likes of Malinda Warnapura, Michael Vandort, Avishka Gunawardene and Tharanga Paranavitana have been tried atop the order, and discarded. Karunaratne is easily the most talented of the lot, but if he is to take the steeper road that would transport him to the heights his ability deserves, something else must be unlocked. Maybe only he will know what that is.

In the 12th over on day two, Karunaratne stood upright to punch Stuart Broad past point, then sat back to casually glance him for four. In those moments, whatever he is missing, it was easy to hope he finds fulfillment soon.

Andrew Fidel Fernando is ESPNcricinfo's Sri Lanka correspondent. @andrewffernando

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Rizwan on June 14, 2014, 9:09 GMT

    UPUL THARANGA should be recalled as opener for tests and for the World Cup - Also BHANUKA RAJAPKSHA , the former Royal College Captain should be given an opportunity at the top of the order .

    Kushal Silva looks a very safe opening batsman - shades of Sunny Gavaskar

    Sri Lanka should consider Thirimanne to open in the next test and include Chandimal in the middle order - Dimuth will always flatter to deceive - Malinda Warnapura , Paranavitharana , Van Dort et al failed to cement the opener position because they were just not test class .

  • Ranil on June 14, 2014, 8:38 GMT

    Well horses for courses, had the management been a bit brave & intelligent would have given Dilruwan, Dimuth's place. Would have been a valuable help to our pacers who wilted down gradually. I'm a bit surprised why such little insight was not available to Marvan & com. Hopefully they correct it in the second Test.Dimuth under these conditions is a walking wicket, he should have got out in the first over itself. That luck won't repeat in the second Test.

  • Dummy4 on June 14, 2014, 7:14 GMT

    Dimuth Karunaratne is a very good opener. But what was the hurry he had. Scoring 38 in 38 balls is not necessary in Test cricket. If he is so immature why don't the Coach or the Captain step in and advise him? SL has to build a substantial score and there has to be a plan for it. Dimuth did not show that he knew his responsibility. This is a very sorry state. Mr. Coach please advise your Batsmen how they should face a situation. What a contrast Silva was showing. Hope these important issues are taken note of.

  • Dru on June 14, 2014, 6:53 GMT

    Too many start and throwing away his wicket for a opener. He needs to tighten his technique and leave more deliveries outsidee the off stump alone. Even yesterday he was hanging his bat outside offstump too often.

  • Pasan on June 14, 2014, 5:46 GMT

    Good article andrew, specially wht you mentioned about the coach affect. I think Dimuth is the best man for the position by now. He must be given a extended run. He doesn't have a certain weak zone unlike tharanga ,Paranawithana or anyone. The only thing he misses is control. May be a good coach can fix that. Lets see in the future

  • Nick on June 14, 2014, 5:08 GMT

    Watching Karunaratne opening with Tharanga for SL A vs England Lions at the Premadasa in the 3rd Test, it was difficult to tell the two lefthanders apart. One had a white-handled bat and the other a black-handled one. Karunaratne made 11 and Tharanga 149, his second century of the series. At Dambulla in the 2nd Test Karunaratne made a fine 156 to Tharanga's 116. There's little between them. Karunaratne has the openers position with Kaushal at the moment, but he must convert his good starts, or Tharanga will get his recall.

  • Janaka on June 14, 2014, 4:31 GMT

    Suppose we have two conservative openers. We already have one, that's Kaushal. Then, they will leave the ball and will not play shots. That means, the ball will not get softer. Remember the days Sanath used to hit. More he hits, more scores the middle order can get. That's the point. Dimuth should play his natural game. He is important. But Tharanga is a similar player. He should be given a chance as far as I understand. Having an experienced opener is an important thing. You can first put those two in, and see how it works. Time to time, change them, so that Dimuth will not have a huge pressure for rescuing his team.

  • Janaka on June 14, 2014, 4:26 GMT

    Dimuth needs experience. But, we cannot let him fail far too often, because we want to win or at least draw matches, and opener is a key role. He did well yesterday. Good enough. But, you have to make it count. I think his strength is his aggression. But it has to be fine tuned with a proper technique. I still remember his Australian tour where he scored a fast fifty while others having no answer for the bounce. Being the opener is not easy. Marvan has to help him a lot. I would suggest to rotate him with Upul Tharanga.

  • Android on June 14, 2014, 3:38 GMT

    100% right guys good batsmen need to be patient with him ,how he handle pressure yesterday was great .

  • Dummy4 on June 14, 2014, 2:14 GMT

    He is a balance bat who must be persisted with. I feel this opening pair will do justice in time to come. Calculated aggression is a must in modern day opening batsmen.

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