How good is Dimuth Karunaratne in Tests?

Courtesy: AFP

Earlier this year, South Africa’s Dean Elgar retired from Tests, eliciting discussions on X about the best contemporary Test openers. A few weeks later, there was another discussion on Sri Lanka’s greatest Test batsmen. Missing from both conversations was Dimuth Karunaratne, which was not at all surprising given his very low profile. This article tries to fill this vacuum by analyzing Dimuth’s performance in Tests to see how he compares to his contemporaries and where he fits in the pantheon of great Sri Lankan Test batsmen.

To begin with, Dimuth’s Test career has not been a smooth sail. His foray into Test cricket was rocky as the drier spell during his formative years would testify. To cope with the menace of the new ball, he had to first stifle his aggressive bent. He also turned his limited off-side play into a strength by forgoing drives on off to minimize edging behind. Yet, runs were still hard to come by despite announcing himself with a 152 at Christchurch, facing down the likes of Trent Boult, Tim Southee, and Neil Wagner in 2014. However, his career eventually gathered momentum around 2017 and runs started flowing off his bat. In the last few years, his batting has gone from strength to strength, qualifying him for comparisons to Sri Lanka’s all-time greats.

Accordingly, where does his attritional Test career place him? To answer this question, first, we will see where he ranks among Sri Lanka’s Test openers, followed by his position among all Sri Lankan Test batsmen. Next, we shall see how well he has done in comparison to the current crop of Sri Lankan Test batsmen. Finally, we will examine how his performance compares to his contemporary Test openers.

To that end, I will not be using batting averages as they don’t account for the batting difficulty that has varied across different periods. For example, the global Test average between 1990 and 1999 was 29.45 whereas the batting average between 2000 and 2009 was 32.02. Besides, difficulty also varies across batting positions. For instance, opening the batting is more difficult than batting in the middle order as openers have to negotiate the new ball. To illustrate, between 1990 and 1999, openers averaged 35.50 whereas numbers 4 to 6 averaged 37.57. Therefore, for the purposes of this analysis, I group batting positions into three, namely openers, number 3, and middle order. Openers and number 3 are self-explanatory, and the middle order consists of numbers 4 to 6. I left out number 7 since batsmen at number 7 have historically averaged lower and don’t feature in the list of top batsmen as a result. I separately consider openers and number 3 because opening the batting is significantly more difficult than batting at 3 as evidenced by the average of 34.47 of openers since 2015 as opposed to 36.58 of number 3s.

Consequently, to factor in the difficulty of scoring, I will be using a metric called Relative Batting Performance (RBP). RBP is a batsman’s average in a given position divided by the global batting average of batsmen batting at his position during his career times 100. Batsmen occupy different positions throughout their careers, so I consider the position a batsman has occupied the most as his batting position. For example, Kumar Sangakkara has batted 207 times out of his 233 innings at number 3. So, I consider number 3 as his batting position. He averaged 60.82 at number 3 when the global average at number 3 was 43.41. This gives him an RBP of 140. What this means is that he was 140% better than his contemporaries at number 3.

I consider the RBP across three different categories of venues to better study batsmen’s ability in different conditions. The first category includes venues all over the world, indicating a batsman’s overall performance. The second one includes Asian venues, illustrating a batsman’s ability against spin. The last category includes venues across the West Indies, England, New Zealand, Australia, and South Africa (WENAS), demonstrating performance in pacer-friendly conditions.

However, this method is not without its flaws. For starters, batting trends could change throughout a batsman’s career. To capture such a change in trends, the better way is to calculate the RBP year by year and then average the results. However, this reduces the sample size of some categories. For example, Sri Lanka played only 2 matches in a WENAS country last year and only one each in the two preceding years. It also helps to study batsmen’s performance country by country, but this is also rendered impractical by the small sample sizes of some batsmen.

That said, let’s start by inquiring where Dimuth’s RBP places him among Sri Lanka’s Test openers. To that end, let’s compare him to the Sri Lankan Test openers who average above 40 after 50 innings, namely Sanath Jayasuriya, Marvan Atapattu, and Tillakaratne Dilshan. Accordingly, Dimuth’s performance is 122% better than his contemporary openers, making him Sri Lanka’s greatest-ever Test opener and putting him ahead of Marvan Atapattu and Sanath Jayasuriya, whose RPBs are 120% and 117% respectively.

Nevertheless, considering the batting average as an opener, Dimuth sits third on the list with Atapattu and Dilshan occupying the first and second spots averaging 43.22 and 42.54. However, batting during Dimuth’s career has been tougher than during Atapattu’s and Dilshan’s. The global average for openers during Atapattu’s time was 35.98, while during Dilshan’s, it was 36.55. In contrast, the global average during Dimuth’s career is 34.59. RBP captures these different difficulty levels, putting Dimuth ahead of any other Sri Lankan Test opener.

If you consider Dimuth’s performance in Asia, it is 130% better, making him the best Sri Lankan opener in Asian conditions. However, Dimuth’s performance in WENAS countries makes him the second worst among openers as his RBP is only 90. Dilshan leads the way with his performance being 113% better. However, it is important to note that Dilshan has played only 15 innings as an opener in WENAS countries. This is a small sample size when compared to Dimuth’s 54 innings and Atapattu’s 37 innings.

When considering all Sri Lankan batsmen who have played at least 50 innings, Kumar Sangakkara expectedly leads the way with an RBP of 140. Dimuth’s RBP of 122 puts him in the 3rd spot, only below Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene. Remarkably, Dimuth’s performance is better than that of Aravinda de Silva, Angelo Mathews, Thilan Samaraweera, Atapattu, and Dilshan.

The retirement of Sangakkara and Jayawardene burrowed a deep hole in the Sri Lankan Test batting lineup. Sangakkara was the last to retire of the duo in 2015, and it is interesting to see how Dimuth has fared among his compatriots in the post-Sangakkara era. Since 2015, Dimuth has performed 126% better making him Sri Lanka’s best Test batsman in the post-Sangakkara era. He is also Sri Lanka’s best batsman in Asia with an RBP of 136. However, his RBP of 86 makes him the second-worst batsman in WENAS countries.

When comparing Dimuth to openers worldwide since his debut, his average of 42.06 makes him the third-best among openers with at least 50 innings. The Australian pair of Usman Khawaja and David Warner top the list with averages of 56.7 and 45.54. However, Dimuth’s career got off to a slow start and he didn’t reach his peak until recently. So, how does his performance compare to others in the last 5 years? His average of 51.34 makes him the second-best Test opener after Khawaja, who averages 52.04. This trend persists in Asian conditions as well as Khawaja tops the list with an average of 74.3 and Dimuth follows suit with an average of 62.12. However, in WENAS countries, Dimuth averages 32.31, putting him 15th in the list of openers with at least 10 innings.

To conclude, Dimuth is arguably Sri Lanka’s greatest-ever Test opener and the third greatest overall, having performed relatively better than the likes of Samaraweera, Hashan Tillakaratne, Aravinda de Silva, and Atapattu. In the post-Sangakkara era, he has been Sri Lanka’s best Test batsman, outperforming both Angelo Mathews and Dinesh Chandimal. Globally, in the last 5 years, he has been the second-best opener. However, his performance in WENAS countries has left a lot to be desired, pointing to his inability to grapple with pacer-friendly conditions. Nonetheless, with Tests scheduled to be played in England, and South Africa this year, he might be yet able to ameliorate his record there, which will boost his position among international openers further.