Suranga Lakmal had at least two years of Test cricket left. But the right-arm medium pacer decided, to hell with Sri Lankan cricket. He quit to join an English county for financial security, less stress and more freedom in his last years of professional playing career. A wise decision, many would say. Sri Lanka’s best [...]



‘Dejected’ Dimuth Karunaratne may follow Lakmal’s footsteps

Suranga Lakmal had at least two years of Test cricket left. But the right-arm medium pacer decided, to hell with Sri Lankan cricket. He quit to join an English county for financial security, less stress and more freedom in his last years of professional playing career.

A wise decision, many would say. Sri Lanka’s best longer format seamer during the last decade endured a hefty pay cut of US$45,000 last year, being demoted to the second category from US$100,000 the previous year. All-rounder Thisara Perera did the same early last year when news of a performance-based fee structure broke out.

Will he call it quits prematurely or continue to lead both in Tests and in ODIs

They weren’t the only ones affected. Many players, including several seniors, got huge pay cuts while some were promoted to higher ranks with little justification.

Dimuth Karunaratne’s similar sentiments a year ago when he was pushed to the wall by issues beyond his control. He lost US$ 30,000 as his annual retainer was reduced to US$ 70,000 from US$100,000 the previous year.

‘It took me nearly eight years to get into the $100,000 bracket,” said Karunaratne, Sri Lanka’s mainstay in batting. “I was always on the U$35,000 bracket but never grumbled. I didn’t know what I did to get demoted last year when I was playing my best cricket.”

To add insult to injury, he was unceremoniously dumped as Sri Lanka’s ODI skipper in May with no pre-indication or even valid reason, then thrown out of the ODI team altogether.

When they fought for their right to a fair assessment of their contribution in the granting of contracts, he and several other seniors were branded traitors. His fighting spirit is the reason for his on-field success. But even to him, what transpired off-field was too much to stomach.

It was the most difficult period of Karunaratne’s career. His commitment and contribution were not appreciated or recognised by the decision-makers. This hurt him so much that he considered many times to quit international cricket and look after his own interests outside of it. Those closest to him weaned him off this idea but the national Test captain hasn’t ruled out the option completely.

Karunaratne is among the top 10 Test batters (No 6) in world cricket today.

“If I get that same feeling of hopelessness, I will leave,” he said.

“Of course, I have goals. But is it worth going through the mill over and again to achieve personal milestones?”

Karunaratne has featured in 76 Test matches during his decade-long career. To achieve his personal goal of 100 Test matches, he needs at least three years. And getting into the 10,000-run club remains a distant dream. He needs 4,380 runs.

“Those were terrible times,” he says of the 12 months that completely demotivated him. “I don’t think the environment will be any better in the future. When you play in a foreign county, the stress is less and we can get pay equal to here. If the environment improves, of course, our priority is to play for the country. That doesn’t seem to be happening anytime soon. I am weighing my options, just like several others in the team.”

But even during his rough patch, he scored heavily–902 runs across 13 innings last year, behind only Joe Root (1,708) and Rohit Sharma (906). His fourth innings century against India a few weeks ago is an indication of class and maturity.

“When I go into the field, I leave everything else behind,” Karunaratne explained.

“That’s my greatest strength. I worry about nothing else. This is why I was able to score runs despite the mental trauma.”

“I am really proud of where I have come,” he continued.

“I know I am among the top players but what I want is for us to win matches and improve our rankings. We always say that it’s tough to beat India and Australia. I want the same to be said about Sri Lanka. We were among the top five sometime back and I want the team to get there but again I’m not sure whether we have got the right environment within us.”

Karunaratne admits the road to recovery is long and hard for Sri Lanka and believes players alone are not responsible for the decline in their performance–the weak domestic structure has led to this fall.

“Look at all the players coming through the Indian system,” he pointed out.

“Charith Asalanka is one of the best players in Sri Lanka but can we compare him to Sanju Samson in India. No, the gap is too big. They come into international cricket with lots of top first-class experiences behind them but we don’t have that. So this is why I say you cannot blame the players alone. Yes, we do take some responsibility but our system does not promote excellence.”

A series loss to Australia and the prospects of another thrashing from South Africa were looming when selectors headed by Ashantha de Mel asked Karunratne to take leadership of the longer format in 2019. While it was a challenge, he accepted it as leading one’s country is a dream for any player.

The team had immediate success when Sri Lanka recorded a historic 2-0 whitewash in a two-match Test series against South Africa in their own den. Countries with more acclaimed players have historically struggled in South Africa, a territory no Asian team has conquered over the years.

A few months later, he was elevated to the ODI captaincy in the hope that he would bring some sanity into a disunited team in the run-up to the World Cup in England. Sri Lanka could not turn the tables on the world’s biggest stage but Karunaratne not only led the team well but improved his own game before the change of selectors saw him axed.

“When you are sacked without a valid reason and a proper discussion, it shocks you,” he reflected.” After all, I am human. It has not been an easy journey for me. It was years of sacrifice and commitment. And when you are dumped, not only from captaincy but also from the team, that, too, without proper reasoning, it really hits you hard. They (selectors) only needed to initiate a dialogue and explain their selection philosophy and I would have respected it. But things did not happen that way and I lost my trust in the system.”

Karunaratne led his country in 17 ODIs of which Sri Lanka won 10. He scored 577 runs in those games at an average of 36.06, a decent record from a top-order batter. He has a strike rate of little over 74.

“They (selectors) have said my strike rate is low, but did anyone tell me to improve it?” he asked.

“No. My job was to bat through the innings and I did that for the team. There were times I’ve played run-a-ball innings. Besides, have those who replaced me done better?”

Karunaratne has no hopes of playing white-ball cricket again and will focus solely on the longer format. But he remains uncertain for how long that will be.

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