Scoring a century at the Galle International Stadium is no easy task, especially against a quality bowling attack such as the Proteas which has probably three of the finest seamers at present. The 30-year old Dimuth Karunarathne has definitely come of age as the premier opening batsman in Sri Lanka, with a fine, unbeaten 158, a six-hour marathon to score 55% of Sri Lanka’s runs on the opening day of the first Test.
Karunaratne also became only the fourth Sri Lankan opener to carry his bat through a Test innings after Sidath Wettimuny (63* v New Zealand, 1983), Marvan Atapattu 216* v Zimbabwe, 1999) and Russel Arnold (104* v Zimbabwe, 1999).
World number one ranked, Kagiso Rabada was exceptional in his third spell in his first game in Galle, taking out Angelo Mathews and Roshen Silva in the space of three balls to leave Sri Lanka at 119/5.
He was well supported by the rest of the Proteas bowlers but Karunarathne looked like he was batting on a different pitch. On a day where none of the Lankan batsmen could decipher Rabada and co, Karunarathne proved that he is currently the best left-handed batsman in Sri Lanka, at least in Test cricket.
“My aim is to play big innings each time I bat. Our batting coach (Thilan Samaraweera) always told me to stay until the last wicket and not to get out. I didn’t do anything extraordinary, I just did what I always do, bat long. “ Karunaratne said after first day’s play.
Since making his debut in 2012, Karunarathne has always been an average player who fought hard to keep his place due to modest scores. Out of his eight centuries – Karunarathne has notched up six tons in the past three years which speaks of the maturity he has gained over the years.
He had a stellar 2017, fifth highest Test run-scorer with 1031 runs, but was dearly missed during the West Indies tour due to injury. Coming back into the lineup, such a world-class knock would not have been expected.
The selectors wanted him to get some runs under his belt before the Proteas’ series began, therefore he had to miss out his only sister’s wedding in order to prepare for this very day by playing ‘A’ team cricket in Bangladesh.
“This is probably one of my best knocks, I have played after New Zealand (152 in Auckland) and India (141 in Colombo), It sits on my top three.“ He rated his own magnificent performance.
Karunaratne has always put a premium on his wicket and has established himself as a batsman who goes onto score big hundreds. He is renowned for his leg-side stroke-making and his scoring only in the second innings but what happened on Thursday at Galle was a complete opposite as he played brilliantly on both sides of the wicket and scored his century in the 1st innings.
At 176 for 8, Sri Lanka looked like getting bowled out for less than 200. Stand-in skipper Suranga Lakmal (number 10) and Lakshan Sandakan (number 11) complimented the efforts of their opening batsman by occupying the crease and giving a fighting total of 287 for the hosts.
Sri Lanka’s tail has been wanting in the past, but on a perfect day for Test cricket, Karunarathne who had not got a lot of opportunities to bat with the tailenders, scripted the first instance in six years that a Sri Lankan ninth and tenth wicket has added 40-plus runs in a Test innings.
Karunarathne said, “The main idea was for me to take on the pace bowlers and for them (Lakmal and Sandakan) to face the spin, they both played very well. We know that they will tire in this heat, so the more spells they bowl the better chance we had of scoring runs.”
He scored on the back foot with ease on either side of the wicket and drove down the ground off both seamers and spinners. Even though he was suffering with cramps towards the end of the day, Karunarathne came down the track and slapped Dale Steyn through mid-off like he was facing a mediocre club bowler on his home ground, SSC.
He was excellent with the pull shot, accumulating 29 runs off his entire knock including a mistimed six off Dale Steyn when the South Africans were clearly using the short-ball tactic, with two fielders in the deep, “I just wanted to leave it (Steyn’s bouncer) but accidentally, I connected it well. When I was batting in Bangladesh, I was attacking the bowlers, I think that habit came to me then. I will have to be very careful next time and leave the bouncers. “
Karunarathne has no doubt given more than a hope for Sri Lanka to upset the world number two ranked Test team and avenge their defeat in 2014.