SL in NZ 2015-16 December 8, 2015

Karunaratne relishing senior role

Dimuth Karunaratne - "We don't have greats in the team anymore, so it's up to us" © Getty Images

A 27-year-old opening batsman, 23 Tests in, and still developing the guts of his technique may reasonably expect a senior's arm around his shoulder and a wise word from time to time. For three years, since his debut in late 2012, Dimuth Karunaratne got that from the greats he used to share a dressing room with.

But now, only 12 months after winning his way back to the Test side, Karunaratne finds himself dishing out advice. It is his arm around someone else's shoulder now; his war stories team-mates are listening to.

Such is the dearth of experience in Sri Lanka's top order, that Karunaratne is a relative old hand in the batting unit. Of the others on tour, Udara Jayasundera is yet to debut, Milinda Siriwardana has played only two Tests, and Kusal Mendis - at 20-years-old - has had one Test outing, and 11 senior games in total.

Among the batsmen likely to play in the first Test, Karunaratne is among just three batsmen who have played Tests in New Zealand before. Having faced down Tim Southee and Trent Boult's new-ball spells before, Karunaratne knows his team-mates will look to him to set the tone, and provide direction.

"There's a little more responsibility on us now," he said. "The players who have batted here before - myself, Angelo Mathews and Dinesh Chandimal - will have to take that on. We don't have greats in the team anymore, so it's up to us. And there are also some very new players, who we have to motivate. We've got to pass on what we know. There are two potential opening partners for me on tour, and I've told them that it's not as easy to bat here as in Sri Lanka - every ball can pose a threat."

Karunaratne was once a talented dasher, regularly moving into the 20s and 30s with a spate of boundaries, before giving up his wicket playing one stroke too many. He has only recently developed the Test-match temperament to go with his skill - his 152 at Hagley Oval's Boxing Day Test, having been the first of his three important Test hundreds in the past year.

"The last New Zealand tour was all new, but now I have a little experience here," he said. "I've got some idea of how to play on green tops, and what the bowlers will try to do. Just because I scored last time, that's not a guarantee that I will do well, but I've been working hard on leaving the ball and playing close to the body. The first 15 overs are always going to be tough, but after that you can look to build your innings.

"I've learned that the later you play the ball here, the more successful you can be. The ball moves only a little bit - not a huge amount. Playing the ball under the eyes and close to the body is key, and you also have to score maximum runs from the wider balls. You have to get big value out of the bowlers' mistakes as well. If you don't do that you can get stuck, so it's a balance."

Karunaratne is realistic about his technique, however. A bottom-hand dominant batsman when he entered the team, Karunaratne has opened up new scoring areas over the past year, but admits he might have to pare his game back given the conditions and bowling in New Zealand.

"Last year when I was here, I knew I was very strong on the leg side, so I waited for balls on the legs. Now, I've got a bit more confidence to play on the off side, but also with that, there is the fear that you can make a mistake playing those shots. Boult especially will try and get me out behind the wicket on the off side - that's where he bowls. In the nets I've tried to go for shots on the offside, but to be honest, I did miss a few there as well. I've got to keep all that in mind and try to play straight. I've targeted just surviving in that first 15 overs. After that it gets easier."

On form Karunaratne appears Sri Lanka's best batsman. He hit 180 against West Indies in the most recent series, and was the pick of Sri Lanka's batsmen in the tour-match in Queenstown, where he hit the top score of 93. He ranks Southee and Boult as the "top new-ball bowlers in the world", but feels he is ready to take guard against them again.

"We've been playing a lot in home conditions this year, so it can be a bit of a shock to the body when you come here and it's cold," he said. "When you spend some time at the wicket though, you start to feel that you can do well in these conditions, and that you can score runs. What I tried in the practice match was to stay in the middle to get that feeling. That really helped."

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

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