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Feature

Sri Lanka desperately need Dimuth Karunaratne to lead the charge of their building

The reason why we expect Sri Lanka will make something of the Tests against India is because in his own unobtrusive way, Karunaratne has made it so

Dimuth Karunaratne brought up his tenth Test century on the third morning, South Africa vs Sri Lanka, 2nd Test, 3rd day, Johannesburg, January 5, 2021

Dimuth Karunaratne's terrific second-innings century in Johannesburg is a reminder of his worth to the side  •  AFP via Getty Images

There is a stepdad-of-the-year vibe to Dimuth Karunaratne's leadership. When he got the job in early 2019, the Sri Lanka captaincy - never not a theatre of high drama - was in a particularly toxic place. Dinesh Chandimal had not merely been replaced as captain, but also been dumped from the team entirely.
In the previous four years, three others had led the side, on top of which Chandika Hathurusingha, the coach at the time, was not only facing serious heat from the board and the sports minister himself, but Sri Lanka's most senior player Angelo Mathews was also at an open war with him.
Karunaratne came like a light rain to tone down - if not quite extinguish - the fire. Just an affable guy. You know the type. A kind word here, an arm around the shoulder there. Not the fire-and-brimstone stepdad who will erupt when you tell him about the flunked exam. Instead, he'll peer over his glasses past his gardening magazine, bend an ear, let you figure your own life yourself.
What is clear is that Sri Lanka's Test team desperately needs Karunaratne in the picture, because remember what happens when he isn't? In January last year, he hit a terrific second-innings century in Johannesburg but picked up a nasty fracture in his hand during the course of that knock, and had to miss the upcoming England Tests at home because of it.
Sri Lanka have had some bad old times in the past few years, but nothing was more embarrassing than that series. On day one of the first Test in Galle, they were all out for 135, collapsing to some profoundly innocuous offspin from Dom Bess. It was like watching someone trip over their shoelaces before being gnawed to death by a hamster, which Bess is. In their last innings of that series, Sri Lanka failed even more abysmally - all out for 126, thus sealing a 2-0 series loss.
So what happens when Karunaratne comes back? They draw two Tests in the West Indies, win a series at home against Bangladesh and then beat West Indies 2-0 at home. Not the most challenging assignments in Test cricket, sure, but when the alternative is shameful capitulation, you'll take three wins and three draws from six Tests.
Karunaratne himself thinks - and his thoughts are not without merit - that Sri Lanka are building to something. Building. Not frantically keeping their noses above churning water; not lurching from disaster to elation. Building. Our guy has led the charge himself. Since 2019 - and in an era that has been notoriously unkind to opening batters - Sri Lanka have had seven century stands for the first wicket. No one else has had more than five. Lahiru Thirimanne has featured in five of those; Pathum Nissanka in two. Karunaratne in all.
Which in a roundabout way brings us to India, because while Karunaratne has hit hundreds against all but two of the oppositions he has faced, his best innings came against India - on the filthiest of filthy turners in Sri Lanka, the spiritual home of the filthy turner. He barely swept R Ashwin or Ravindra Jadeja - they shared 14 wickets between them in that match - but in his own unobtrusive way, he clawed to 141.
Whips through midwicket, cuts that look pretty good but somehow don't quite get to the boundary, drives that don't pierce the gap in the sense that a diving mid-off can get a hand to it but can't stop it completely and the funny-looking reverse-sweep to get out of jail when he hasn't hit a conventional sweep all game: this is the house Karunaratne has built.
In the past year, it has looked like a half-decent house actually, because his own batting form has coincided with a happy stretch for the Test side. He cracked 902 Test runs from 13 innings at an average of 69.38 in 2021. But, okay, most of those runs came against West Indies and Bangladesh. Playing India in India is a big step up, which means that 2022 is starting with probably the toughest assignment in all of Test cricket. Here is what he had to say about that.
"I have only played three Tests in India, and I wasn't able to make a lot of runs. I'm very determined that this series will be my best series in India. It's ok that this year starts with a really tough series. It's from the tough starts that you learn things about yourself. I've left my good 2021 aside, and am focusing on getting a good start this year and making it as good as last year. Contributing to a team win is what's important."
Read that quote again. Because it's concentrated Karunaratne. There is an awareness of his failings. An acceptance of less-than-ideal circumstances. A grim determination. Stepdad of the year.
There is some expectation now that Sri Lanka will make something of this Test series. Karunaratne knows that. And he expects it himself. And the big reason why he, and we, expect it is because in his own unobtrusive way, he has made it so.

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