Dimuth Karunaratne played a characteristically well-compiled innings before Ben Stokes hauled the game back in England’s favour on Day 2 in Colombo. Patrick Noone looks at the stand-out performers of a topsy-turvy day of Test cricket.
To paraphrase a cliche from another sport: it was a day of two halves in Colombo. After England lost their last three wickets somewhat limply in the morning session, Sri Lanka set about chipping away at the 336-run deficit with an assuredness that has not always been present during this series. Danushka Gunathilaka departed early for 18, but a 142-run partnership for the second wicket between Dhananjaya de Silva and Dimuth Karunaratne meant that Sri Lanka – briefly – were on top in this match.
The pair are two of the most reliable members of Sri Lanka’s top order; it is more than three years since a century partnership was put on for the second wicket involving neither Dhananjaya nor Karunaratne. With the pair batting in tandem, England were momentarily short of ideas, unsure how to break the partnership that appeared to be laying a platform for Sri Lankan superiority.
Karunaratne in particular was excellent. Proactive against the spinners, leaving just two of the 88 balls he faced while adopting a more watchful approach against the sole seam threat of Stuart Broad as 18 of the first 21 balls he faced from him were dots. There was an element of fortune at the start of Karunaratne’s innings when he was dropped by Joe Root in the slips, but that was the only time England would find his outside edge in his entire innings.
They say the best players make the most of opportunities such as dropped catches. Karunaratne did not let it phase him and played a ‘normal’ innings by his recent standards, attacking 28% of the balls he faced. He is sometimes thought of as something of a throwback in the modern game. There is a perception of him as an old-fashioned opener in comparison to some of the more eye-catching dashers in Test cricket; a cross-country runner in a world of 100m sprinters. But this year, Karunaratne has actually been the most attacking opener in world cricket.
While he might not play booming lofted drives or reverse sweeps for six, Karunaratne’s patience to wait for the bad balls and then his ability to punish them have been enough to provide him with a reliable method of accumulation. His solid technique allows him to find scoring areas all around the ground, preventing him from getting bogged down. Today’s innings was a case in point, with his 83 runs spread remarkably evenly around the ground with boundaries scored in every area besides the ones behind square on the leg-side.
So, he’s an attacking batsman who finds ways to score all around the ground, but what has probably aided the accepted wisdom of him being something of a blocker is not so much the amount he defends, rather the quality of his defence. Today’s innings was only the second instance this year of him being dismissed playing a defensive shot. That’s two dismissals from 287 defensive shots played. No other opener in world cricket can boast a defensive record comparable to that – Dean Elgar is the next in the list with one dismissal every 123 balls, significantly lower than Karunaratne’s 143.5.
Adil Rashid was able to breach that defence, becoming the first spinner in 2018 to dismiss Karunaratne when playing a defensive shot. His is a key wicket in any circumstance, but today it proved fatal as it became the second of nine wickets to fall for just 67 runs. It was Rashid who removed both dangermen, having dismissed Dhananjaya before the tea interval, but it was Ben Stokes’ unbroken spell of 10 overs, 3 wickets and 30 runs that swung the game decisively back in England’s favour.
The first innings of the first Test in Pallekele was where Stokes recorded his shortest average length in an innings, banging it in at 132.97kph, 10.7m from the batsman’s stumps. Today, he was slightly fuller at 8.6m but his average speed was cranked up to 136.04kph. It was quick, hostile, game-changing bowling that was too good for Angelo Mathews, Niroshan Dickwella and Dilruwan Perera. All three of the wicket-balls to those batsmen passed the stumps in a 18cm corridor of uncertainty. Even accounting for Dickwella’s left-handedness, Stokes found the ideal area to target with both his line and length.
Stokes looked understandably exhausted by the time he was finished; a ten-over spell in temperatures in excess of 30°C is going to be tough at the best of times, let alone when you’re breaking your back to bowl bouncer after bouncer at the batsman’s ribcage. England have had more obviously skilful bowlers than Stokes and few would argue that he can currently be considered among the greats. But when his side need something, anything, to wrest the game back in their favour, there are few in the world game better equipped to make that happen. His reputation as the man for the big occasion has only been enhanced by today’s performance
The momentum is firmly with England now after long periods of the day where it looked like Sri Lanka would comfortably pass their first innings total and put the visitors under serious pressure. While the pendulum swung from one side to the other as the day progressed, the one constant was the sheer willpower and endurance of the force of nature that is Ben Stokes.
Patrick Noone is an analyst at CricViz.