Marathon-man Karunaratne buries his first-innings ghosts

Dimuth Karunaratne soaks in the applause as he walks off for 196 Getty Images

In being out for a duck in his maiden Test knock and then making an unbeaten 60 in the second innings of that match, Dimuth Karunaratne had set down the template to which the first few years of his career would roughly conform.

Consider his ten most-recent first-innings scores before the UAE series: 4, 25, 2, 25, 7, 30, 0, 24, 5, 26. Now take a gander at his returns from the second innings, across those very Tests: 16, 141, 97, 49, 126, 32, 50, 6, 43 and 88. There is something amiss here, right? Karunaratne plays most of his cricket in Sri Lanka, where almost without exception, run-making is significantly more difficult in the second innings than in the first. Yet, there he was, 42 Tests into his career, averaging only 26.71 in the first dig, but 44.10 when balls were turning out of the rough, and quicks were finding easy reverse swing.

But for Karunaratne, there was something unsatisfying about the timing of his big innings. They were hard-earned runs for sure, but Sri Lanka had often given up such substantial first-innings leads that his best work was of little consequence. His two most recent hundreds, before the Pakistan series, were a case in point: the very good 126 against Bangladesh, and the sublime 141 against India (perhaps the highest-quality innings of his career) could not prevent substantial losses.

Little surprise then that his batting in this series against Pakistan has felt like a breakthrough for the man. Not only was he by a distance the standout batsman of the series, hitting 306 runs at an average of 76.50, but in positioning his best innings at the front end of each Test, Karunaratne has seen his team make two strong first-innings scores that led to wins. The 196, it would turn out, had particularly far-reaching consequences. Not even a sub-100 score in the second dig could wipe out the advantage Karunaratne had earned with his nine-and-a-half-hour innings.

"I had got some good confidence during the India series, and wanted to continue that, but the one thing was that I've not been able to bat well in the first innings," Karunaratne told ThePapare.com, after Sri Lanka had swept Pakistan 2-0. "Before this series, when I analysed my batting, although I had batted well, I hadn't been able to provide runs that helped the team win. But in this series, I think because I did well in the first innings, the team had the strength to win. More than the Man-of-the-Match and Man-of-the-Series awards, the joy of being able to contribute to a win is in my heart."

That in Dubai, Karunaratne had not merely stopped at three figures, and instead progressed to a truly match-winning total is unsurprising. Of his seven Test tons, three have been scores of more than 150. Additionally, no opener has faced 300-plus balls in an innings on more occasions than Karunaratne over the past three years. He has produced four such knocks - one better than Alastair Cook and Azhar Ali.

"For me, my stamina is the key - I can bat longer periods," Karunaratne told Dunya News. "That is the main thing for my success. The team needs me to play a long time. If I play a long innings, the others can play their natural game. In Sri Lanka, we do a lot of fitness and gym work during the weekdays. In the weekends, I run on my own. Maybe that's the key. In this heat, it isn't easy to bat. But for the players and for the team, I have to sacrifice myself and bat longer. I'm not looking too much at my runs. I just need to bat on for a day or two days - whatever I can."

But if Karunaratne's runs put Sri Lanka ahead in each match, the onus still fell on the bowlers to capitalise on a strong first-innings score. Fielding a five-man attack through both Tests, Sri Lanka's bowlers outspun, and perhaps even outseamed, the Pakistan outfit - no mean feat given the conditions, Karunaratne said.

"After a really tough series against India, a hard-fought win like this gives us a lot of joy. I can't really put it into words. The bowlers put in so much effort. In this country, in this heat, I didn't think it would be easy to get 40 wickets. We have to be really thankful to the bowlers for dealing with tough conditions the way they did.

"The support staff have also sweated a lot for this win. You can see how happy everyone is, and that's the result of our effort. I think this win will put us in good stead for the next series, against India."