Sri Lanka are a long way away from regaining their glory days, but in Dimuth Karunaratne, they seem to have found a man who could take them to their desired destination. On Sunday, Karunaratne made his first hundred since becoming skipper as Sri Lanka beat New Zealand by six wickets. Calm, assured and intelligent, he earned his team its first points in the World Test Championship.
Appointed captain with little notice while in Canberra, Sri Lanka flew straight to South Africa for what is one of cricket's toughest assignments. Despite having a second string bowling attack, his side created history by becoming the first Asian nation to win a Test series in South Africa.
He had not played an ODI for more than four years when appointed captain for the World Cup that followed. He was considered the man who could bring Malingas, Mathews and Thisaras together. At home he has earned a nickname as 'Clive Lloyd of Sri Lanka.' He did a commendable job during the World Cup as Sri Lanka finished sixth having gone into the competition ranked eighth.
During the Galle win, he was quite different from most recent Sri Lankan captains. Last time Sri Lanka were in Galle, Lahiru Kumara was sent home for breaching curfew. This time a lot of rules were relaxed and players had to decide what was the best time for them to go to bed.
Kumara seemed to be enjoying the new found freedom. He bowled with fire, clocking 150kmph at one point. Rarely has a Sri Lankan touched those speed marks at home since the days of Dilhara Fernando. Kumara gave Sri Lanka much needed breakthroughs as well despite being sparingly used.
Karunaratne had also urged batsmen to play with more freedom, to go for shots if something is in their range. Kusal Mendis and Kusal Perera both perished in a bid to finish the run chase in a hurry, but in the post match media briefing the captain assured that he is not going to have a go at a player, if he gets out trying to be aggressive. Perera may have failed to click in Galle but when he does, he is capable of pulling off some sensational wins. Durban 2019 is a case in point.
It doesn't mean that Karunaratne was all about attacking. He had measured up his options carefully. When Sri Lanka lost to England 0-3 at home last year, the spinners were given the freedom to attack. Fields were set in such a way, that the opposition was given the chance to take risks and score boundaries. That backfired as England's tail stitched some valuable stands in all three games.
This time he has been more cautious. With no Rangana Herath and Dilruwan Perera, he has to work with young spinners and been keen to give them protection. It may be boring to watch but certainly the plan is working.
He has also seen the larger picture. With Herath gone and no one staking claim to fulfill his big shoes, Karunaratne has convinced the authorities that they need to prepare sporting wickets in order to keep the seamers in play.
In any other time, a Test match against New Zealand in Galle would have been played on a rank turner. But this was a sporting wicket. That's why Sri Lanka were able to chase down a target of 268 successfully. Before this, the highest successful run chase in Galle had been 99. Matches also hardly last full five days in Galle.
Tougher times are ahead for Karunaratne. Sri Lanka Cricket (SLC) and Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) have a good working relationship and PCB has urged SLC to help them resume Test cricket at home. The teams are supposed to play a Test series next month and moves are underway to play the games in Lahore and Karachi rather than Dubai and Abu Dhabi. A high profile SLC contingent visited Pakistan a fortnight ago and are impressed with what they saw. They are likely to give the green light for the tour.
Soon, the ball will be in Karunaratne's court to decide what he wants to do. The last time SLC tried something similar, most leading players dropped out. Captain Upul Tharanga was unceremoniously removed from his job as SLC sent a second string side.
Next couple of weeks will be a tough one for Karunaratne. That's why a lot of people don't enjoy the thorny crown called Sri Lankan captaincy. The last six Sri Lankan captains have lasted less than six months. What lies ahead of Karunaratne will be known soon.
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