Sunday, 28 December 2014

Cometh the hour; Cometh the man

Sri Lanka vs New Zealand, 1st Test, Day 3, Christchurch

Dimuth Karunaratne averages 30 in Test cricket. It is not an average between a bunch of centuries and half centuries and a series of single digit scores. It is an average of a numerous 30s, a seldom half century and a few low scores. An average doesn't necessarily give an idea how many runs a batsman will score in a particular innings, but for Dimuth it does. He almost always get a start, gets to 30. He bats like he's in the form of his life, middling it off the pads and off the hips, cutting and square driving like a hundred is only a few deliveries away. And just when you feel like no one's going to stop him, he gets out. But when ever he does, he gives you the feeling that one of these days, he's going to dig in, hold his composure and go on to make a big hundred. Today was that day.

At the start of the 3rd day in Christchurch, Sri Lanka were 84 for no loss, following on, and still trailing New Zealand's first innings score by 219 runs. The ball was 35 overs old, the atmosphere was cloudy and overcast, and Trent Boult and Tim Southee were running in from either end fully charged. Kaushal Silva got a brute that nipped away from him at chest height, to which he got a feather of an edge. The world's #1 Test batsman at the moment could only manage one run, before he too nicked one behind to the keeper. In a matter of minutes after the start, Sri Lanka were 2 down for 94. An innings defeat loomed in the distance, with 3 days of cricket still left to play. That's when Dimuth Karunaratne decided to play the innings of his life, yet.

He left the ball on line. Anything along the fourth stump line was left for the keeper to collect. Anything on the pads, were whipped through midwicket for runs. When teased with width outside off, on a length and on the full, he calmly refused. Anything short and wide, he latched on for boundaries. The balls that attacked the stumps, he defended back to the bowler. He played as good as any Lara or Tendulkar could have played on a seaming pitch. He stonewalled like any Dravid or Du Plessis ever did. In a time when Sri Lanka have struggled to find openers who could play long innings, when they have run out of options for batsmen who have the temperament to bat for long periods under pressure, when batsman who can dig deep and bat out draws are only seen on television, when the Marvan Atapattus, the Asanka Gurusinghes and the Thilan Samaraweeras seemed to have been a thing of the past, Dimuth Karunaratne stepped up to the plate and delivered a knock that resurrected the old gritty Sri Lankan Test batsman. A knock that the team was crying out for, given the situation. By the time he was cleaned up by a peach of a delivery by Boult, he had spent over 8 hours at the crease, faced 363 balls, batted across four sessions and amassed 152 runs that ensured Sri Lanka wouldn't lose by an innings in the space of 3 days. Dimuth Karunaratne had arrived.

Dimuth Karunaratne's maiden Test hundred could not have come at a better time,
in terms of the context of the game, and the need of another solid opening batsman for Sri Lanka.

He was aptly supported first by Thirimanne, who batted with the sort of calmness and serenity associated with Sangakkara. Although he seems to have a problem getting past the 20s, his knock today was far more important than the runs. He too blocked away over a 100 deliveries, before he again fished at one he should have left alone, for the second time in the game. Angelo Mathews came in and batted like he can only be dismissed by suicide, like in the first innings. Mathews isn't the most skillful batsman in the Sri Lankan team. He's not even in the top 3 in that list. But he compensates for his limited skill with an extremely good temperament, the sort of mental toughness that made players like Steve Waugh and Graeme Smith in to world class cricketers even with limited technical ability. He continues to bat on, as Sri Lanka sit unstably on 295/5, still trailing by 10 runs, with only PJ to come in next from the batsmen.

Sri Lanka should have gone to stumps only 4 down though, all four of which were earned by the New Zealand bowlers. Kaushal and Sanga got two gems early on in the day, and Dimuth probably got the ball of the match. Thirimanne did get out chasing a wild one, but it was a crafty bowling change by McCullum to bring on Neesham at that stage that brought the wicket. The only wicket that was gifted was the one of Dickwella. Dickwella undoubtedly is one of the most talented and flamboyant young batsmen in the Sri Lankan circuit at the moment, but the reasons to play him as a specialist Test batsmen is a baffling one, specially when Dinesh Chandimal is warming the bench. A Test number 6 needs to be a batsman prepared to bat for long durations, in energy sapping conditions, partly supporting a senior top order batsman, or farming the strike with the tail. Dickwella is neither. If Sri Lanka are to seriously challenge foreign bowling line ups, they should be looking for a batsman in the mold of Mike Hussey, Paul Collingwood or  Faf Du Plessis, who have both the skill and the mental capacity to bat under pressure. For such a criteria, picking between Dickwella and Chandimal should be a no-brainer.

Although most would have expected Sri Lanka to fold and lose by an innings, and although one good spell from either end is all it takes for this game to be wrapped up during the first hour tomorrow, Sri Lanka have already done them selves proud by taking the game in to the 4th day. If Mathews can replicate what he did in Headingley earlier this year, and the likes of Kaushal, PJ, Dhammika and Eranga can bat around him, by taking session by session, Sri Lanka can still set up a significant 4th innings chase. If the three overs he faced were any indication of his technique, Tharindu Kaushal should be an able partner to Mathews for a few useful runs tomorrow. PJ is experienced and tough, and he will put up a fight before he goes down. Dhammika Prasad used to be his school's opening batsman and Shaminda Eranga has a first class hundred to his name. Sri Lanka have fought well for 4 sessions so far, and a couple more from here and they will feel they can take enough momentum from this game in to Wellington to force a win there. Sri Lanka do not have to win this game to come out of it proud, they do not even have to draw. They have already shown their fighting spirit that they continued to show through out the year, and what ever they do from here will only enhance it. But either of the former results, would be far more pleasing. 

Regardless of that result, the confidence gained by a hundred that might spark a long illustrious career for one Dimuth Karunaratne is priceless for the future of Sri Lanka cricket. In their hour of need, he was hero that Sri Lanka deserved.

Another long, hard grind awaits,
Until then,

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