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Inside Dimuth Karunaratne’s unique New Zealand preparation

230 days.

That’s the time that had elapsed between Test matches for Sri Lanka when Dimuth Karunaratne and his teammates set foot upon Christchurch’s Hagley Oval on Thursday, for the commencement of their Test series against New Zealand.

Such a hiatus is far from ideal for any international cricketer, let alone one that doesn’t feature for his country in any other format, as is the case of Karunaratne.

As such, Sri Lanka’s Test captain was made to get creative with his preparation for the series - and had an abundance of time to do so.

It led him to a stint with Endeavour Hills from October to early December, a once little-known club competing in Victoria’s Sub-District competition that rose to prominence off the back of an ambitious recruiting spree, of which Karunaratne was a part of.

“I came here [to Endeavour Hills] because we have a big break. In Sri Lanka we play first-class cricket, but it’s different, wickets are different,” Karunaratne tells The Sporting Landscape.

“Here it’s close to New Zealand, similar to New Zealand conditions. I always want to experience everything, I don’t mind if it’s league cricket or minor league it doesn’t matter. Every opportunity can make you better than yesterday.

“It’s really hard to play here because the bowlers are different kind of bowlers, different kind of wickets, different kind of outfields, different weather. It’s good to come here and play some games and get some experience.

“Every percentage if I can get something I think that will be helpful for my career.”

He played alongside fellow former Sri Lankan internationals Tillakaratne Dilshan and Lahiru Thirimanne, on a ground that was converted from a landfill site in the 1980s.

But Karunaratne would only manage four games for the Eagles, a number that could’ve been higher had immense rainfall not pushed back the start of the season by over a month. In that time he struck 254 runs at an average of 63.5, the highlight being his 115 against Yarraville.

He also made a one-off appearance in Premier Cricket’s Super Slam competition for Dandenong, smashing his way to 47-ball 72 at the top of the order.

The craziest part of it all? Karunaratne, Sri Lanka’s current Test captain, didn’t even captain Endeavour Hills. That task was left to the famed Dilshan.

In fact, Karunaratne has an interesting relationship with captaincy, in that he never saw himself as a leader, or aspired to captain his national team.

He reveals he even considered declining when offered the Test captaincy.

Fortunately for him, and Sri Lanka, he didn’t.

The fateful day would arrive following two heavy defeats under Dinesh Chandimal at the hands of Australia in 2019.

“I was like, do I want to take that [Test] captaincy, or do I want to give it to someone else?” Karunaratne recalls.

“Normally I don’t like the captaincy… If I do captaincy I can’t perform well as a batter is what I was thinking.

“I hate the responsibility at that time, but I think it’s a great opportunity to captain Sri Lanka and they have seen something from me to give me that opportunity. So I said ‘ok, I will do it.’

“[My] very first series I won the series in South Africa, [becoming] the first Sri Lankan team to beat South Africa in South Africa. I think that encouraged me a lot, so I can do something much better than the previous captains, and that kept encouraging me to keep the captaincy and play well, and it excelled me a lot in my career as well.”

His upturn in performance was stark, with Karunaratne averaging 36 with the bat before taking on the captaincy and over 50 after it.

“In my personal records I played really well when I got captaincy, I kept performing, because I knew I had to do it as captain, because I had more responsibility. Then I take the responsibility and keep performing well,” he says.

“I think I’m the one who’s got to finish the game, play as a leader, give an example, so that’s helped me a lot.

“That’s why I’ve been consistent… because I think the captaincy, it’s changed everything”

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He also cracked the 2021 ICC Test Team of the Year, and struck a memorable 244 against Bangladesh as captain.

“The first day we struggled a lot because the ball is moving,” Karunaratne said of his maiden double ton.

“Once I got past hundred - because I keep scoring hundreds and never a double hundred - I was thinking ‘ok this is the time I can get 200.’

“After the first day I was 160, 170 not out, so everyone wishes me ‘ok go for the big one, go for the record,’ something like that.

“Getting a 200 was something really exciting for my career because I’d never done it before, now I know how to get 200s, my target will be a 300.”

As ambitious as that sounds, it’s only the tip of the iceberg in what Karunaratne hopes to achieve.

“Before the end of my career I want to try and break the world record (Brian Lara’s 400 not out), it’s not easy but I think I can make it. I have that temperament, so I feel like I can do it,” he says.

“Once I get 250 in quick time, I think 400 it’s not a huge task, but you need the temperament, you need the fitness levels, and I think I have that, so I think I can make it one day within the next few years.”

In terms of long-term career goals, Karunaratne’s equally as bold in his ambition, but laments Sri Lanka’s scheduling, specifically their lack of Tests.

“I’d love to get 13000 [career] runs, that’s something that feels good when you play as a Test cricketer.

“Each year we only have seven or eight matches for Sri Lanka, so I don’t think I can get that target, but it’s also not impossible. If I play with good form next few years it’s a gettable target, but I’m feeling we don’t have much Test matches, because next year we have five matches, and the next five years we have only 24 matches, so that’s why I’m very concerned if I can do it.

“Achieving these milestones - 1000 runs in a season, 6000 career runs - is something really good as a player, so I want to pass the previous players and now I’m in the highest six Test run-getters of all-time for Sri Lanka, so I want to come top-four, that’s what I’m targeting.”

While Karunaratne himself is on the cusp of greatness, the Sri Lankan national team too is building something special.

“Yeah I think now we play lots of good cricket, we have the community, previously though it’s not easy, the players will only get a few chances, they have no trust in each other,” Karunaratne says of the national set-up.

“Now we’re slowly improving and playing much much better, as a team we gained some confidence, and that’s helped us to win matches.

“We won against West Indies, Bangladesh, and the wins give us a boost of confidence to improve a lot. As a team, white ball, red ball, we’ve been doing a great job the last few years.”

It could culminate in a World Test Championship Final berth against Australia at The Oval in June.

For Sri Lanka, the equation is simple: win both Tests against New Zealand. If they do, and India lose or draw against Australia in Ahmedabad, their place is secured.

“We still believe we can do it. We have a good team, we have done really well last few years,” Karunaratne says.

“The only thing is we played against Pakistan [in July], and the next series against New Zealand is in March - there’s a huge gap.

“It’s not easy to keep that fitness level, keep that form for seven months, so that’s why I came here (to Endeavour Hills), to play some cricket.

“Still, I believe we can be at the World Test Championship final.”



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