Competence is the new excellence, as Sri Lanka's openers buck an ancient trend

Karunaratne, Thirimanne will face stiffer challenges, but returns are not to be sniffed at

Lahiru Thirimanne is congratulated by his captain Dimuth Karunaratne on reaching a half-century  •  AFP/Getty Images

Lahiru Thirimanne is congratulated by his captain Dimuth Karunaratne on reaching a half-century  •  AFP/Getty Images

Okay, so let's get the caveats out of the way. Dimuth Karunaratne and Lahiru Thirimanne have had some flat pitches to bat on recently. In the second innings at North Sound, and in each of the innings they've had together in Pallekele, there's been little bounce, less carry, no turn, no puffs of dust, no shin-high grubbers, barely any seam movement. On top of which, they have not even had the usual uncles yelling insults from the stands while guzzling their seventh beer at 2pm, which should, by rights, be a mandatory feature at every Test in Sri Lanka (could a bio-bubble not have been created for them? Or for the stray dogs that amble in front of the sightscreen, annoying batters? Shame).
But this Sri Lanka team being this Sri Lanka team (seventh on the Test rankings, remember), and so prone to tragicomic collapse have they been, that even soft wins are still wins. So what if Bangladesh are missing two of their best bowlers, in Shakib Al Hasan and Mustafizur Rahman? No one can say that this from Sri Lanka is not competence. Not only did Karunaratne and Thirimanne put up 209 for the first wicket - the first opening stand north of 200 for Sri Lanka in almost 10 years - they've also become the only Sri Lanka pair ever to produce three consecutive century stands.
In an era in which Sri Lanka opening pairs have tended to stumble at the merest hurdle, the bar so low that one guy even had to be suspended in 2018 because he was unable to resist going on an overnight bender in the middle of a Test match, this commitment to bare-minimum adequacy is almost stirring.
That Karunaratne is a serious player who rarely lingers in a lean patch has been observed over a few years, but the true surprise in this partnership has been Thirimanne, who - don't fall off your chair - now has scores of 70, 76, 55, 39, 58 and 131 not out in his past six innings. For so long he was almost business-like in the manner in which he redirected balls in the channel to a pair of hands in the slips, like a traffic cop dutifully waving cars from a busy intersection into an empty lane. He's made a few minor technical changes, he says, and suddenly he's leaving well, covering what modest seam movement he has encountered, leaning into crisp drives, and finding scoring shots in between the boundaries, which had at times also been a challenge for him.
When he hit a hundred against England earlier in the year, you wondered if it was just a blip. Now, with 638 runs to his name for the year, at an average of 58, it is a full-blown Thirisurgence/Thirinewal/Thirivitalisation (take your pick). So stark has been the change, that it's even difficult to work out where exactly Thirimanne has become stronger - his Test innings used to produce so few runs, it was hard to work out which his scoring areas were.
"I was just looking at some of the stats on the TV today, and his are great to see," said batting coach Grant Flower of Thirimanne at the close of day one. "I think it's just a hunger to score runs. He's worked hard on his game and taken no short-cuts. He was netting with us during the LPL while everyone else was playing that.
"And he's very fit, and he's got a very sound mind. On the mental side of things, he's very good. I think they have all come together. Hopefully he carries on."
That this pair will face far sterner Tests than they have in their last two innings almost goes without saying - the moving ball has been a weakness for both at various stages. Although Karunaratne is frequently an excellent player of spin, Thirimanne is yet to prosper against high-quality spinners on turning tracks. But between the start of 2015 and January this year, Sri Lanka's opening stands averaged 28.32 - ninth in the world, behind even Zimbabwe's opening partnerships. Since these two have come together in this stint, they've averaged 77.83. For now, competence is enough.

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