What must it feel like to be Dimuth Karunaratne
? Let us slip on his gloves, put on that helmet, scratch out a guard, inhabit his world.
These are not particularly difficult shoes to walk in. There are no frills to the guy. No lavish backlift. No quirky set-up. Head down. A couple of taps. He's ready. In person, he's no different. After a tough innings, he'll talk to you about what he struggled with. When he felt vulnerable. That ball he should have hit through point, chee! Oh, and this one spell this bowler bowled to him, where he had no idea what was happening, and he can't believe he survived.
But say you were him. And you were charged with leading this particular Sri Lanka side, perhaps you'd be justified in feeling a little abandoned, no? First, by the seamers who seem to break down mid-Test more often on his watch than ever before. In Mohali, Lahiru Kumara went off with a hamstring strain on the first day and never returned to the bowling crease, which is something Kumara has done three times in the last three years. Once, in South Africa, Karunaratne lost two quicks mid-match, as well as a senior batter. Later in that series, he himself was hit on the hand by a nasty Anrich Nortje delivery, which broke bones. Through his own injury, he battled to a hundred
at The Wanderers.
Abandoned too, by batters who have more gifts than him, but whose careers have not panned out as they perhaps should have. Angelo Mathews, whose supernatural 2014 promised an all-time great career, is now a shadow. Kusal Mendis, more shots in his left thumb than Karunaratne has across his whole family, was waylaid by indiscipline and mismanagement. Kusal Perera has injuries, Dinesh Chandimal has a strained relationship with his own ability, Dhananjaya de Silva hasn't kicked on as he should have. These are all batters who should be pushing averages of 45 (50 in the case of Mathews and Mendis), 15 Test hundreds to each of their names.
Instead, it is Karunaratne, he of the flicks to midwicket, the non-boundary pushes through cover, he of the reluctant sweep, and the low control percentage
- this is the guy who has transformed a career that began so unremarkably - he averaged 32.05 over his first 30 Tests - into a potentially outstanding one. Forget Sri Lanka. Over the last few years, there has arguably been no more reliable opener around. He has 14 Test centuries now - three more than his closest team-mate. On the Sri Lanka run-scorers' list
, he has surpassed TM Dilshan, Thilan Samaraweera, and Marvan Atapattu. The men ahead of him: Kumar Sangakkara, Mahela Jayawardene, Sanath Jayasuriya, Mathews, and Aravinda de Silva. No one has made more runs for Sri Lanka with fewer resources at their disposal.
At the Chinnaswamy
, where he hit a fourth-innings hundred of staggering quality, battling what increasingly seems like India's greatest-ever attack, on an exceedingly treacherous surface, he played the classic Karunaratne innings. Luck? Yep. Man should have been caught in the first few minutes on Monday, but Virat Kohli let a low chance nutmeg him at slip. Plays-and-misses? Oh boy. There were passages of play that seemed to be made entirely of balls beating Karunaratne's bat. Top-edged sweeps, mistimed cuts, chipped drives, edges that fell just short of the slips, balls that hit his pads and raised appeals but only muted ones. He's done this before, guys. This is what Karunaratne hundreds look like. Not pretty. And not ugly either, by the way. Just pragmatic. A mortal treading into a galaxy of the divine, and somehow finding his own method.
Of the keys to his success, hanging back and committing late to the spinners is the main one, plus he also picks high-percentage scoring shots, so that even if he mistimes the ball, the chances of getting out are low. Karunaratne has a perennially low control percentage. But stats nerds, listen up: if there were such a thing as a playing shots with low wicket potential, he'd be one of the best on that front. We can't quantify everything just yet. In a Test that featured Virat Kohli, Rohit Sharma, Rishabh Pant, and Shreyas Iyer (who all faced a much worse attack), it was Karunaratne who played the best innings.
He needs team-mates to go with him, but often they won't. He needs bowlers to stay fit, needs coaches to be persevered with, needs administrators to recognise value, needs support staff who can catch young players up on how the game must be played.
Whether Karunaratne is remembered as the Sri Lanka captain who raged against the dying light until the darkness overtook even him, or the one who braced himself against a closing door until better players than him finally arrived to thrust it open, is unclear.
But that he will will his way to scores that he doesn't immediately appear to have the tools for. That he'll keep making space for team-mates to be better than they are. That he'll embody the fight that defined generations of Sri Lankan cricket, but has recently been abandoned by all but a few. This much, by now, we know he will do.
The rest isn't up to him. No matter how much he, and increasingly we, wish it were.