kaushal Silva and Dimunth Karunaratne during nets session at Sri Lanka © AFP
Kaushal Silva and Dimunth Karunaratne during nets session at Sri Lanka © AFP

When a team heads to play Tests, the squad is expected to be strong and composed, that reflects on the performance as well. The opening pair is usually expected to build up a base, that builds thr platform for the team. Sri Lanka had such a pair, in the opening slot over the past few years, but after veterans like Tillakaratne Dilshan, Kumar Sangakkara and Tharanga Paranavitana have faded away from the picture, the conundrum regarding their openers have remained unsolved. If we rewind back to the time frame between 2010 and 2013, Sri Lanka had found answers in a reliable opening pair like Dilshan and Paranavitana. Today, they have Dimuth Karunaratne and Kaushal Silva as their openers. And their recent home performances, against Australia, have been poor and taken Sri Lanka a step behind. FULL CRICKET SCORECARD: Sri Lanka vs Australia, 3rd Test at Colombo

The phase of 2010-2013

Paranavitana and Dilshan have juggled with different partners, at the start of the innings, yet they somehow maintained consistency be it with Upul Tharanga, Sangakkara, Karunaratne, Lahiru Thirimanne and Mahela Jayawardene. In the Test series against India in 2011, Dilshan and Paranavitana held on to a steady 55-run stand for the first wicket, and the latter was hailed for his century in first innings as well. In the same Test at Galle, the duo continued their run and put on a 96-run opening stand. Even as Dilshan dominated attacks, Paranavitana was stable and continued to score quietly.

Now let’s move to 2011. The same pair, in England, were unfazed by the conditions where the ball swings and seams. They put up a 93-run opening partnership. The stand laid the foundation for the team as skipper, Prasanna Jayawardene scored a ton and the team posted a mammoth total of 400.

The next Test saw an unexpected turn. Dilshan and Paranavitana’s double-century-stand set the base as the final touches were laid down by Jayawardena and Prasanna. The match was a draw, but their double century-stand had meant that Sri Lanka had found the perfect opening pair. This pair played 29 innings with 1,188 runs at a commendable average of 42.42. While Paranavitana played his last Test in 2012, Dilshan continued.

This time he found a new partner in Karunaratne. This was, of course, nothing in comparison to the above pair with their highest being an unbeaten 46-runs stand against Bangladesh at home in 2013. Sri Lanka, during this time, tried everything to find a reliable opening pair. After the retirement of Dilshan, from Tests in 2013, Sri Lanka entrusted the responsibility on Kaushal and Karunaratne.

Let’s have a look at some of the opening pairs for Sri Lanka during this phase:

P Y I R H A O SR 100s 50s
Tillakaratne Dilshan, Tharanga Paranavitana 2010-2012 29 1188 207 42.42 305.5 3.88 2 9
Tillakaratne Dilshan, Dimuth Karunaratne 2012-2013 10 216 46* 24 58.4 3.68 0 0
Tharanga Paranavitana, Lahiru Thirimanne 2011-2011 8 184 56 26.28 94 1.95 0 1
Tillakaratne Dilshan, Lahiru Thirimanne 2012-2012 5 118 70 23.6 27.1 4.34 0 1
Dimuth Karunaratne, Tharanga Paranavitana 2012-2012 2 95 93* 95 20 4.75 0 1

The period of 2013 to present:

Kaushal and Karunaratne began their dream run in December 2013 at Abu Dhabi as Sri Lanka found their lost rhythm back. They posted a 57-run stand against Pakistan, although the match ended in a draw. The saga continued when the duo achieved their first century stand against Pakistan, while leading their side to victory by nine wickets. Kaushal was the stand out performer, scoring 95. They achieved their second 100-run stand against Bangladesh, once again away from home and thereby winning by a huge margin.

Until July 2015, the run fest between these batsmen continued. Things turned upside down for them after this. From double digits, the numbers depleted to single digits. During that time frame, Sri Lanka lost to Pakistan and India at home, finally finding consonance against West Indies. However, top-order’s poor form continued with the bat against West Indies as well but the bowlers played their part and so did the middle-order. The hosts managed avoiding another defeat in familiar conditions.

It is quite obvious that if the top-order fails to perform, the onus of scoring the runs and bringing that necessary control to the innings comes on the shoulders of the middle order. Sri Lanka went through all that. Sri Lanka kept trying different pairs in the opening slot. This time they went in with Karunaratne and Kusal Mendis against New Zealand. This experiment did bring success, but New Zealand batsmen cut the edge above Sri Lanka.

After constant failure in Test cricket, Sri Lanka decided to carry with the same duo (Karunaratne & Kaushal). While they were in England, the misery continued and despite efforts from middle-order, a strong England side found their way to victory on home soil. Kaushal was exceptional in the first Test but was unable to carry forward that score in the precarious conditions. Karunaratne can provide the start, but has been unable to convert them into big sores.

Let’s have a look at the openers who still/ have built and need to create their own records:

P Y I R H A O SR 100s 50s
Dimuth Karunaratne, Kaushal Silva 2013-2016 39 1,243 124 31.87 452.3 2.74 3 4
Kaushal Silva, Upul Tharanga 2014-2015 9 276 79 30.66 98 2.81 0 2
Dimuth Karunaratne, Kusal Mendis 2015-2015 4 183 71 45.75 71.4 2.55 0 2

Sri Lanka have comeback home to host a three-Test series versus Australia. This was the moment Karunaratne and Kaushal could turn their fortunes around. They were up against the No. 1 Test team, who were back into the Test arena after thrashing New Zealand at home. Sri Lanka, who were still pondering upon the 2-0 loss in England, were determined to put up a good show. In the first Test at Pallekele, skipper Angelo Mathews won the toss and elected to bat, Karunaratne and Kaushal were up Mitchell Starc and co. The romance with single digits did not end as both the openers failed again.

Once again the onus fell on Mendis, who scored a century; Mathews, chipped in with with valuable scores of 54 and 47. Sri Lanka, courtesy their spinners, won the first Test as Australia’s woeful record against spin continued to haunt them.

In the second Test at Galle, the same script was written all over again. The Sri Lankan openers failed as their spinners turned the game on its head. The Lankans won a series against Australia for the first time in 17-years. They have an unassailable lead of 2-0 in the ongoing series.

Recent heroics by Chandimal and de Silva in the third Test at Colombo have again rescued Sri Lanka from 26/5 to 355. Even veteran Herath did his job at the tail but the openers’ fortunes have still not changed. They have been unable to apply themselves out in the middle. They have not stayed at the crease for long either.

It is not that they are incapable, they have ability, talent to excel but somwthing holds them back. They do hold 1,243 runs and lead ahead of Dilshan and Paranavitana in terms of the best openers, but Sri Lanka needs to go beyond the age old story.

How long will Sri Lanka move ahead without the help of their openers? Will Karunaratne and Kaushal make most of their chances, or will Sri Lanka stick to the hit and trial method which they have always stuck with? They need to find answers soon. If they seek to improve in Tests, the openers will have to lead the charge sooner than later.

(Shruti Hariharan is Content Writer with CricketCountry. You can follow her on Twitter at @Shruti_2890)