CricViz Analysis: First Test, Sri Lanka v South Africa

A superb first innings century from Dimuth Karunaratne was backed up by another half-century on Day 2 in Galle. Ben Jones analyses the Sri Lankan’s success with the bat.

Whilst Sri Lanka may not have had the best time as a Test team in the last few years, they’ve developed a useful habit of winning Tests off the back of huge individual performances. Kusal Mendis’ phenomenal 176 against Australia in Kandy dragged his side to a total which even Steve Smith couldn’t chase down. Last September in Abu Dhabi, Rangana Herath’s 11 wicket haul against Pakistan was the decisive hand in a magnificent close contest, the left-armer managing to see the tourists home. Over the last two days in Galle, another performance has been added to that list.

At the close of play on Day Two, Dimuth Karunaratne has made 218 runs for once out in the match, his 60 in the second innings adding to a majestic unbeaten 158 in the first. As it stands, he’s made 42% of the runs in the Test as a whole. Sri Lanka are 272 runs ahead of South Africa on a tricky Galle pitch, and are surely poised to seal victory in the opening Test, a victory built on the foundations laid by Karunaratne.

On top of this, he’s had the statisticians and record-keepers shifting excitedly in their seats, as he ticked along in the second innings; for a brief time, it looked as though he was well and truly on track to record the highest proportion of a Tests total runs by one individual. The record (including extras) is held by a certain Donald Bradman, who scored 35% of the total in a contest between Australia and India, but Sri Lankan fans can still have their fingers crossed. In order for Karunaratne to claim that record, there would be need to be a maximum of 97 more runs scored in the match – though even with South Africa’s struggles on this deck, that does now seem unlikely.

Regardless of such quirks and footnotes, this has been a truly outstanding performance from Sri Lanka’s opener. His level of control with the bat throughout this contest has been remarkable. On a pitch which has seemed to confound all those with a bat in their hand, Karunaratne has been able to maintain his composure, in both the first and second innings – though it’s questionable whether the brief intermission for South Africa’s innings would have seen the surface deteriorate to any great degree. However, as shown below, he’s maintained very high levels of control with his shots compared to almost everyone else in the match.

Even more impressively, he’s done that not just by doggedly defending on a raging turner; he’s scored faster than anyone in the match, and has attacked more regularly than almost everyone else.

How did he achieve this? One aspect of his innings was the ferocity with which he scored when hitting against the spin. Playing Shamsi into the leg-side, he scored 32 runs from 28 deliveries, an excellent scoring rate of 6.85rpo. When being more cautious, Karunaratne opted to hit with the spin of Shamsi, scoring at just 3.17rpo through the off-side. The same pattern was true when playing Maharaj, though the Sri Lankan took the finger-spin on either way, scoring at 5.66rpo through the off-side and 4.55rpo through leg.

He also made a pronounced effort to play the spinners off the back foot. The average batsman in Sri Lanka will play 24% of their shots against spin off the back foot, but Karunaratne has played 32% in this Test. This may have been aided by poor South African bowling, misjudging their lengths in unfamiliar conditions, but Karunaratne exploited the opportunity with expert skill.

Given the abbreviated schedule for this section of the tour (2 Tests, 5 ODIs, and a single IT20), Karunaratne’s effort will have a disproportionately huge influence on the final outcome of the series. However, in a game where he’s made the two highest individual scores, and nobody else has passed 50, you could argue that his achievements have been worthy of winning many a tour, regardless of length.

Ben Jones is an analyst at CricViz.

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