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Karunaratne produces narrative-changing knock

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Dasgupta: Despite loss, this Test should give SL hope and confidence (1:50)

Deep Dasgupta looks back at Sri Lanka's performance in the second Test in Colombo (1:50)

When play begins on day four, Dimuth Karunaratne is in the nineties, and he is tentative. Of that there is little doubt. Second ball, he is beaten by a Mohammed Shami ball that straightens. Four overs later, a similar Shami delivery beats another of his drives. At the other end, where Ravindra Jadeja is bowling, deliveries fizz past his inside edge, and make conniving lunges at his stumps. He taps one tamely to short leg, but is dropped. He flicks, he scratches, he survives, he fights. For once, it was not for his place.

So much of Karunaratne's past 18 months have been an exercise in dodging the drop. Having made one half-century in four innings in New Zealand in December 2015, he went to England, collected scores of 0, 7, 9 and 26 in the first two Tests, before hitting 50 and 37 not out in the draw at Lord's. While team-mates had the party of their lives against Australia last year, he averaged 6.83 across the three Tests, then scored heavily against Zimbabwe in the next series to ensure he was kept around. A bleak South Africa tour was absolved by his 212 for Sri Lanka A against the visiting England Lions, and later, scores of 30, 32 and 7 in the first three innings against Bangladesh was followed up by a fourth-innings 126 at the P Sara Oval.

At times he is almost pranking the selectors, who have gained a reputation for devouring careers whole. Just when Karunaratne has tied himself up with strings of low scores and the selectors having fired up their chainsaw, he blows a dustbowl-hundred in their face, and lopes off laughing. Just when they feel they have him cornered in an alleyway, he cloaks himself with a gritty half-century and they assault someone else instead. The likes of Kaushal Silva and Milinda Siriwardana have been cut down while Karunaratne has had a consistent run. Dhananjaya de Silva top scored against Australia, and only barely makes his way into this XI.

No one, however, can say that Karunaratne's dodging has not been artful. The century against Bangladesh came on an always-testing P Sara track, after Sri Lanka had given up a first-innings lead of 129. He was the only Sri Lanka batsman to hit a half-century at the Wanderers too, where the ball had basically leapt off a length and done mocking circuits of his team-mates before seeking out the edge of the bat and then a pair of hands in the cordon. His place had not been in question when he played his 152 in Christchurch, but with Sri Lanka following-on on a green deck, and Trent Boult and Tim Southee in smouldering form, there was adversity - the kind that seems to coax the best from this batsman.

It is possible that this 141 on a spin-bowling inferno was of even higher quality than that New Zealand knock. The ball here was basically turning out of the next district. Even off the straight, at times, it pounced and hissed and snarled. Against R Ashwin, the top-ranked offspinner on the planet, Karunaratne took 63 off 123 balls, playing intently for the straighter one, rarely failing to pick the carrom ball, and - crucially - refusing to let the balls that spat past his bat bother him. To the top-ranked left-arm spinner Jadeja, he gave a little more respect, and also two chances. But he had fearlessly reverse-swept Jadeja against the turn, in the first half of his knock. From him, Karunaratne collected 30 off 70. Through many challenges here - presented by the hopeless match situation, as well as the spinners and pitch - Karunaratne's positivity persisted. Only in those tetchy nineties, with a hundred already having been missed in this series, did Karunaratne's innings become laboured.

"It was a special innings that Dimuth played," captain Dinesh Chandimal said after the match. "As an opener we expect that kind of innings from him, so we're very happy with that knock on a very tough deck like this one. Of the innings that I've seen over the last three or four years, this was one of the best - both from our team and from the opposition. I think he always goes to the crease looking to score runs, and that must have helped him get these runs."

From the edge selector's abattoir to "one of the best" - it has been a narrative-changing year for Karunaratne. Less than six months after he was forced to play for his place in that Sri Lanka A series, he has now become Sri Lanka's most consistent batsman of 2017. With 614 runs at an average of 43.85, he is the third-highest run-scorer for the year. With some luck, and with seven further Tests to come before the year ends, it could turn out to be a long-awaited coming of age.

As it was in this innings, so it has been through his career. Karunaratne has flicked, he has scratched, and by some magic he has survived. But when he fights, it is not for his place.