Dimuth Karunaratne is now Sri Lanka’s fifth-highest-ever Test run-scorer. But his importance to Sri Lanka extends long past his volume of runs, writes Katya Witney.

In 2019, Dimuth Karunaratne was hit on the back of his head by a bouncer from Pat Cummins in Canberra. He collapsed to the ground and lay there for several minutes, the imagery was all too familiar. After being rushed to hospital and subsequently given the all-clear, he returned to bat the following day. He went on to score a half-century.

As a captain and an opener, that innings exemplified the kind of steel which has underlined his part in Sri Lanka’s Test resurgence over the last three years. Without Karunaratne, it wouldn’t have been possible.

In March this year, Sri Lanka were the only team who could upset the established order of Test teams to claim a spot in the World Test Championship final. They remained in the hunt until the final few balls of their first match in New Zealand. Had they won that match and had the other results they needed gone their way, their place at The Kia Oval in June would’ve been far from a statistical anomaly.

Sri Lanka’s quiet re-awakening has been built on a side with most bases covered. On top of the familiar names of Angelo Matthews and Dhananjaya de Silva, they have a plethora of young talent coming through. But, their turnaround can almost unequivocally be traced to when Karunaratne took over as captain.

He took the reigns shortly after that innings in Canberra in 2019, as series Sri Lanka lost 2-0. Less than a month later, they emerged victorious from South Africa, their 2-0 series win the first of any Asian side in South Africa. That’s not to mention the extraordinary events of the first Test match in Durban, where Kusal Perera’s 153 not-out engineered a one-wicket win thriller for the ages.

“We never expected to do it,” was his line after that series win.

In the Sri Lanka home summer of 2019, Karunaratne scored an imperious fourth innings century against New Zealand to seal a series draw against a side on their march to World Test Champions status.

Across the latest WTC cycle, Dimuth Karunaratne scored 1,054 runs – one of only nine players whose tally reached four figures. Of those above him, all played at least three more innings than he did. He sits atop the list of Sri Lanka run scorers, equal on centuries (two) with Dinesh Chandimal.

The innings out of those two centuries which most fittingly depicts Karunaratne’s temperament and how he should be remembered, was his lone effort in a losing cause at the Chinnaswamy. Under immense pressure from Jasprit Bumrah, Mohammad Shami and India’s triumvirate of spinners, he held out for 174 balls. The majority of his side failed to reach double figures.

That innings was ugly. Plays and misses, a treacherous surface on which India’s greatest ever bowling attack secured a victory inside three days. But it was definitive of who Karunaratne is as a player. Sri Lanka’s Test side is full of those who appear more naturally gifted than Karunaratne. Angelo Matthews, Chandimal, Kusal Mendis – all of these can flaunt their shots and superior aesthetic. But, by churning out a continuous flow of runs over the last few years, Karunaratne has elevated himself above all of them.

He now has 16 Test hundreds, his latest coming today (April 27th) on a flat (and that’s an understatement) pitch at Galle. Since January 2020, his Test average reads 55.34, only second to Usman Khawaja among openers in that timeframe. Of all batters, only Joe Root has more Test centuries in the last three-and-a-half years.

It’s a long way from where he started his Test career in 2012.

He made a duck in his first Test innings and, almost three years and 13 matches into his Test career, had not scored a century. But, after he finally crossed three figures in Christchurch, he definitively threw off the constraints of the wait. Two more centuries came the following year and, in 2017, he passed 1,000 Test runs in a calendar year for the first time.

Perhaps the most interesting Karunaratne stat is that six of his hundreds have come in losing causes. Only eight players boast more than that. The image he has of a lone stand in a somewhat inconsistent side making a stand embodies that of a leader.

At 35, Karunaratne’s career is in its final throws. He told reporters last month that he had asked the Sri Lanka selectors to step down as captain after the current series against Ireland is complete.

“In the next WTC cycle, you’ve got to do two years,” he said. “My preference is to hand over to a new leader after the next series.”

When he retires he will leave a hole at the top of Sri Lanka’s Test side that extends far beyond the runs they will miss. Only Sanath Jayasuriya, Arjuna Ranatunga, Jayawardene and Matthews have more Test wins among Sri Lanka captains. Given the context of where Sri Lanka were when Karunaratne took over, the heights to which he has taken them and the manner in which he has done it, he deserves to be remembered as one of their finest.