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