Karunaratne relishes 'batting under pressure'
When Dimuth Karunaratne was out for a duck in his first Test innings, he was following in the footsteps of other openers in the dressing room. Batting coach Marvan Atapattu had also begun his career with a zero and the then-manager Charith Senanayake, who had awarded Karunaratne his Test cap, was no different.
But it was in the third day of that match that Karunaratne set up a trend that would define his Test career to date. Having failed in the first innings, Karunaratne redeemed himself in the second, hitting a run-a-ball 60 in a small chase. Sixteen Tests on, Karunaratne now averages 47.35 in the second innings, but 23.58 in the first. Only one of his seven 50-plus scores has come in the first dig.
"The way I see it, maybe I bat better under pressure," Karunaratne said, by way of explanation. "When there is a target, or there is something concrete to be achieved, maybe I take more responsibility. I have played a few more loose shots in the first innings, because there's no concrete goal. Maybe I was too casual. Even when I was going to school, I liked those concrete situations better. In the big matches, I preferred to chase, and I've taken responsibility in those situations."
Though a natural strokemaker, two of Karunaratne's better knocks have come when a Test needed to be saved. When Sri Lanka gave up a first-innings lead of 303 in Christchurch late last year, Karunaratne withstood waves of high-quality seam bowling to grind out 152 from 363 deliveries. In the Galle Test of this series, Karunaratne hit 79 from 173 balls, with Sri Lanka standing little chance of winning that match.
"Even in that match in New Zealand, we were well behind in the game, and I knew I had to bat for a long time, so that helped," Karunaratne said. "Once the situation becomes clear in the second innings, I think that effects me.
"I've talked to the coach about this, and what he said was that batting in the second innings was more difficult because the pitch does more, and there's more pressure. In this next match, I have something I want to try, which will hopefully help me concentrate harder in the first innings."
In the early portion of his career, Karunaratne had largely opened alongside Tillakaratne Dilshan. However, Sri Lanka have since found a far less flamboyant batsman to partner him at the top of the order. Since 2000, of Sri Lanka batsmen with more than 1000 Test runs, Kaushal Silva's strike rate of 40.76 is the lowest. Karunaratne said that batting with a cautious opener presents a mixed challenge.
"If the ball is moving around, Kaushal has does a great job," he said. "What I try to do in those situations is to get off the strike and let him bat. Once I do that, he plays the rest of the balls and it works well. But if we get a flatter wicket, if Kaushal rotated the strike a bit more, it would be easier for us, and for the team."
"I am naturally aggressive and am usually looking for scoring opportunities. If I was to close up an end as well, we would find it tough to win matches, especially in home conditions. You need runs for that. The Pakistan batsmen, for example, usually have a better run rate than us. They give themselves a better chance of winning the match that way. So my role is to rotate the strike and look to push the team forward. But I need to cut down the loose shots as well. Because Kaushal closes up one end, I've got to try to score at the other."
Karunaratne said that although Kumar Sangakkara's unavailability for this match increased the burden on the remaining batsmen, Sri Lanka should not dwell on Sangakkara's absence. Upul Tharanga has replaced Sangakkara in the squad, and appears likely to play on Friday.
"Only the Sangakkara name goes out of the team, and we can't depend on him forever. He's only playing two more matches, so we should take more responsibility.
"It's a good chance for us to prove ourselves, because the series is at 1-1 and Upul has played well in the practice match. He's also a good player, and we shouldn't put too much emphasis on Sangakkara not being here. The game plans are the same, only Sanga is missing. We can learn how to play without him."
Andrew Fidel Fernando is ESPNcricinfo's Sri Lanka correspondent. @andrewffernando