Karunaratne hopes to build on starts
When Dimuth Karunaratne fell to Abdur Rehman in the first over after lunch, he pondered his dismissal for a moment. There was nothing to challenge, for he had clearly hit the ball to slip. But he knew that once again, he had earned a start, seen through the nerves, and then fallen away when a substantial score called. The promise of his batting is clear every time he comes to the crease, but he is yet to produce a knock worthy of his ability, nor one that would put his place in the side truly beyond question.
Karunaratne has played 17 Test innings, but only in five of those occasions has he faced fewer than 25 balls. In all but six innings, he has crossed 15. He has appeared insecure outside off stump on certain occasions, particularly when the new ball seams across him, but only few batsmen can say they did not consistently flirt with danger early in their careers. Even when he has struggled, however, he is swift and confident when he does detect a ball in his range - a symptom of the strong, uncluttered mind that breeds resilient openers.
The few times he has breached 20 so effortlessly, it seemed as if he was heading towards a defining innings. His 34 in Sharjah was not among his most convincing innings, but even there, a whipped boundary through midwicket off Saeed Ajmal, and a square drive off Mohammad Talha inspired some confidence. Which is why when he left the field at lunch, the most arduous examinations had seemed to be behind him.
"I'm disappointed that I've not been able to convert my 30s into big scores," Karunaratne said. "No one wants to get out after getting a start, but sometimes I have bad luck. But I do try to convert my 30s into big innings, because I feel like if I get a big one, I will have the confidence to keep doing that."
During Sri Lanka's tour of Australia, Karunaratne consistently got very good balls in the first 15 overs, vindicating his comment about bad fortune. Even in this series, he has faced two fine deliveries from Junaid Khan. But the larger truth of his failures so far has been that he is the architect of his own downfall. Many times, he is a victim of ambition - playing the booming drive or rasping cut at one too many deliveries. His lowest score in this series has been 24, but in five innings, he only has one fifty - which came in a chase of 137.
Yet, aggression is also his strength. He has amassed mammoth scores for the A team, largely by taking risks and earning momentum. More encouragingly, he has been just as good away as he has been at home, as Karunaratne was the top-scorer in the last two away tours for the A team, to South Africa in 2012, and the Caribbean last year.
In Sharjah, he fell attempting to hit a full and wide delivery, and while it is easy to suggest he should have left that ball alone, it would have been just as simple to brand the delivery a poor one if Karunaratne had connected as he wished. The same could be said about the short and wide delivery to which he perished in the first innings in Abu Dhabi.
Karunaratne feels he must play a little more conservatively to find his feet in Tests, but more incisive judgement and a better understanding of his own game would also serve him well. Both of those qualities are largely borne from experience, which is why the selectors must consider him an ongoing investment. After all, there is no doubt he has earned his place.
"The reason I haven't been able to replicate what I've done for the A team is that there's a big difference between the A team level and this one. The best bowlers from each country are here in internationals. Also, when I've played at the top level, I've cut down on my scoring shots and tried to bat for a long time. Usually if I bat through the first hour or first session, I would have hit a fifty - so that's a change at this level. But I feel like if I continue to do what I've been doing, I can turn it into an advantage and succeed."
By a statistical measure, Karunaratne's tour of the UAE has been a moderate success so far. His tally of 190 is the third highest among Sri Lanka's batsmen, even if he has had one more innings than most others.
It is glib to compare him unfavourably alongside the newer Kaushal Silva, because not only is Silva a more seasoned domestic player, his cricket is also characterised by consistency. Karunaratne may suffer more lows in his career, but at his best, he is capable of the ravishing innings that ease the burden on the men batting around him. If Silva, Dinesh Chandimal and Lahiru Thirimanne are the anchors of Sri Lanka's future top four, the dynamism and stroke range Karunaratne offers might be the key in placing opposition bowlers in discomfort. His strengths are through the leg side, while the others are better off-side players.
For now, Karunaratne appears to have the raw materials to become a fine international opener. He is just lacking the adhesive that might bring his talents all together.
Andrew Fidel Fernando is ESPNcricinfo's Sri Lanka correspondent. He tweets here