NZ v Sri Lanka, 1st Test, Christchurch, 3rd day December 28, 2014

Karunaratne's day of self denial

Sri Lanka's left-handed opener likes nothing more than to play his shots, but after paying for some impetuosity by being dropped he has marked his return with a new-found steel

Dimuth Karunaratne had to bide his time to latch into rare bad balls, but manage to resists his natural instincts © Getty Images

When you're young and impetuous, waiting makes little sense. Patience is a game for men who have seen years slip through their fingers. The millennial generation, of whom Dimuth Karunaratne is a full-blown, card-carrying member, is the epitome of youthful impudence, many say. Obnoxious photos of food, 140 characters, reality TV stars, and ADHD.

So far in Karunaratne's career, he has been a study of millennial defects - as injudicious with his strokeplay as with some of his tweets, for which he has occasionally got heat. On the tour of England this year, he was posting up pictures of his shopping, then going out, hitting a crisp 30-odd, before gifting his wicket away.

That he has plumes of talent has never been in doubt. When he's outside off, whipping balls through midwicket, sun on his back, he looks a serious menace - that player who can draw the venom from opposition attacks inside a few overs. But when he falls on his own flashing sword, it doesn't sit well with the team. "If you get in, you have to go big," is the mantra preached by Angelo Mathews - an old soul, though he and Karunaratne are close in age. So although Karunaratne had made key contributions to the triumph in England, he was cut loose for a time, sent to the bottom of the staircase, where A team tours and domestic tournaments marked his climb back into the side.

There were times on Sunday when Karunaratne eyed the gaps on the leg side. In previous tours, he has been flitting across his crease, creaming length balls outside off in the arc between square leg and mid on, then hanging back to slash past gully, when the bowler went wider still. But today wasn't a day for the rapier, he had decided. It was a time for grit, a time to reach back through the generations for virtues that are derided in the age of hit-and-giggle. It was a day for self-denial.

His battles with Trent Boult, who had made brutally short work of him in the first innings, made for riveting stanzas of play. In the morning, Boult began like he had on the second day, swinging it wide, then bringing each successive ball closer to the stumps, like an incoming tide washing closer and closer to a sandcastle. Karunaratne watched most of those go past, over after over, spell after spell, in a trance, like they were a W.D Amaradeva ballad on loop, or reruns of M*A*S*H. When Boult dug in his bouncers, Karunaratne rose on his tiptoes to ride them out: the willpower to survive overriding the instinct to hook.

When he left the field, and Hagley Oval rose to applaud him off it, Karunaratne acknowledged the attention almost begrudgingly, head largely bowed, the smirk wiped from his lips.

That throughout the day New Zealand fielded almost immaculately, with ball magnets for hands and limbs stretching like elastic, meant that even the few poor balls delivered, could rarely bring four. When their new-ball banana-swing did not work for them this time, freezing the flow of runs was the hosts' strategy - one geared exactly at attacking batsmen like Karunaratne, who has a history of being bored out. On Sunday it was the overs seen out, not the balls sent to the fence that lifted Karunaratne. When he dead-batted a swinging ball, or defused a short ball, a smirk would break out. In the end, only a searing Boult delivery, angling in to pitch on the stumps, then straightening to clip the top of off, could remove Karunaratne as the sky grew dim late in the day.

"The light was a bit low at that time, and it was a bit difficult to bat because Boult was bowling beautifully. He bowled me two bouncers, and I didn't see them. I had the bad light in my mind, and that's why I was frustrated at the time. I wanted to bat through the last overs, then refresh and bat tomorrow as well. Unfortunately, that couldn't happen."

When he left the field, and Hagley Oval rose to applaud him off it, Karunaratne acknowledged the attention almost begrudgingly, head largely bowed, the smirk wiped from his lips. It wasn't the strut of a young peacock who has just proved wrong the snipes. His demeanour was that of a man who felt his team needed fifty more from him. The hundred - a long-awaited maiden effort - was celebrated with similar restraint.

For his 152, Karunaratne faced 363 deliveries, many of those from two of the very best bowlers in the world. He batted for over eight hours, most of those with grey skies overhead and a still-juicy pitch underfoot. Innings from the trenches rarely bring wins in Test cricket, and a draw is unlikely in this game, because the forecast is good.

The team will cast their thoughts back to Headingley. The truth of their situation is that it is more dire than even in that game, and they are missing their fourth-innings ace, Rangana Herath, in any case. But at least a glimmer of hope remains, because on day three, a young man's old-world tussle has given Sri Lanka a reason to battle on.

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