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Match Analysis

No control, no problem: Crafty Dimuth Karunaratne conjures his own luck

Despite a relatively low control percentage among elite top-order batters, he has made 2021 his own with limited resources

Dimuth Karunaratne punches one away, Sri Lanka vs West Indies, 1st Test, Galle, 4th day, November 24, 2021

In 2021, Karunaratne has now hit 854 runs, which puts him at No. 3 on the year's run-chart, behind Joe Root and Rohit Sharma  •  AFP/Getty Images

The first ball he faced in the second innings, Dimuth Karunaratne makes a mistake. He doesn't quite account for the turn Rahkeem Cornwall would get from his offbreak and edges it. But the ball falls short of gully.
Luck? Maybe. This guy's always lucky. What's he got on his side? A rabbit's foot? Witchcraft?
In Cornwall's next over, the first ball, he makes another error. He tries to hit Cornwall inside out, but is through the shot early, and just chips it over short cover. It begins to seem like another one of those typical Karunaratne innings, in which he isn't batting so well, because not long after that, he's hit on the pad by a straighter Cornwall delivery, and because he has played no shot, West Indies review the not out decision. The ball's going on with the arm, but it's not turning in, and as such, not hitting the stumps. Karunaratne survives again.
A few overs after that, Cornwall beats Karunaratne's outside edge with a ball that leaps off the surface. And then, Karunaratne misses a sweep, is hit in line with the stumps, and although West Indies appeal, they don't review. This time, they should have. Wait. This is uncanny. Was this guy a Mandela-level human rights champion in a former life? Did he save orphans from a burning building in his teenage years? Why does the universe have such a hard-on for him?
But take a step back, and you begin to see that this is the pattern that so many Karunaratne innings take. In the first innings, he was dropped at slip on 14 and scratched around desperately - particularly against Cornwall - in the first session. Even on day two, when he was already batting on more than a hundred, he seemed a supremely uncomfortable starter. On day four, he made a worse start than Oshada Fernando and Angelo Mathews - the only other Sri Lanka batters to last more than 30 deliveries. But then, he outscored both of them (Mathews was not out). There's been a lot of that lately.
In 2021, Karunaratne has now hit 854 runs, which puts him at No. 3 on the year's run-chart, behind Joe Root and Rohit Sharma. What is special about his record this year, however, is his average of 77.63; no one else with more than 400 runs is close (Root's average - the closest - is 66.13). And yet, if you look at the control percentages, Karunaratne doesn't fare especially well. Root has been in control of 86.9% of the balls he has faced this year. Mominul Haque, the only other batter to have hit more than 400 runs and averaged over 60 in 2021, has been in control of 86.6% of his strokes. Karunaratne, meanwhile, has a control percentage of 82.1. This doesn't seem like a huge difference, but among elite top-order batters, 4.5% in control is substantial.
And yet, there are the runs. All those runs. His last five Test innings are basically a fantasy. A 75 when Sri Lanka were trying to draw a match in Antigua. A 244 in a drawn Test on a flat Pallekele track, followed by 118 and 66 in a Test that Sri Lanka won. And then, here, 147 off 300 in the first innings, and now, 83 off 104 in the second. Note the difference in those strike rates (49 in the first innings, 80 in the second).
"When he started off, he was a good player, but now he's turned into a great player"
Angleo Mathews on Dimuth Karunaratne
When Sri Lanka were trying to get a foothold in the game, Karunaratne was watchful and conscientious. When they needed to race to a big lead in the second dig after losing much of day three to rain, he was proactive. You expect a captain to always do what is right for the side, but in 2021, he has also been good at doing what is right. Besides this recent run of scores, Karunaratne had also hit a January hundred in the second innings in Johannesburg, when Sri Lanka were trying to save a Test.
Mathews, who has played with him since Karunaratne earned a cricket scholarship for the same Colombo school, after having excelled for a smaller school, put it this way: "I've been with him since he started playing for college as well. We go back a long way. He's improved tremendously. When he started off, he was a good player, but now he's turned into a great player. He'll definitely end up in the top three or four run-scorers for Sri Lanka. He's found his rhythm, and he's not been complacent. He's hungry for runs. The way he applies himself on a wicket like this is amazing."
Karunaratne is perhaps not the kind of batter whose innings you'd ever call "masterful". Those adjectives are reserved for the Kane Williamsons of the world, or the Virat Kohlis, Joe Roots, Babar Azams, and Steve Smiths. No one is suggesting he has that kind of talent. No one is saying his name should be taken in the same breath.
But despite what the control percentages say, regardless of the nerviness of his starts, although he frequently looks like he doesn't belong, in 2021, you can't argue with those numbers. Karunaratne has had the kind of year in which he has put his arms around a modest top order, lifted them onto his back, and carried them to competence, when they have so often seemed clueless without him, such as in that terrible home series against England.
Is he lucky, or does he make his own? Does he squeeze every run out of a limited technique, and by international batting standards, pretty average hand-eye coordination.
He was a caretaker captain in ODI cricket for a while, and Sri Lanka kind of did alright. They are not a world-beating Test side, but in the series he's been in charge, they've suggested they aren't terrible either. Getting the most out of limited resources kind of seems like his thing.

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