By Champika Fernando
Another series loss and the prospects of a thrashing by the mighty South Africans in their own backyard loomed ominously on the horizon. Dimuth Karunaratne knew it was futile to talk of winning a match, leave alone the two-game series.
Teams with more acclaimed players have historically struggled in South Africa, a territory no Asian team has conquered over the years. But he wanted to do something to help his charges fight a good battle regardless of the result. He discussed this with Vice Captain Niroshan Dickwella and fostered a culture in which batsmen could express themselves and trust their instinct without fearing consequences. That freedom helped them make history, beating South Africa 2-0.
The 30-year-old Karunaratne shared his insights this week in an interview with the Sunday Times, explaining how he had influenced the players, created the necessary environment and his own aspirations for the future.
Q: Captaincy came to you at possibly the toughest time with the team having counted six losses in seven games. How big was your challenge as skipper?
A: This was totally unexpected but a great honour to lead my country, a privilege not many get. I was excited at the opportunity. At the same time, I knew the challenge ahead. We had been through a tough few months. Back-to-back series defeats had hurt the players badly and they were in their own shells. There was so much pressure from within and outside to do better. It was not the best place to be. I wanted to create the environment for people to share information and express themselves freely. So, on our way to South Africa from Melbourne, I had a chat with (Niroshan) Dickwella. We both agreed that we need a change in the team culture. We explained this to the team management in Durban and they responded well. The players were given more freedom on and off the field, extended night curfews and these did them a world of good.
Q: You spoke of team culture. How bad was the prevailing one?
A: It was very strict, almost like what you get in a school. Very restrictive. I know these rules were imposed for our own good due to various disciplinary issues in the past. But I don’t think one should apply these across the board due to ills of a few players. I don’t think we should try and stop the lifestyles of players because a few have misused it. Deal with those who misuse the freedoms they get but let others enjoy because they have a life away from cricket. Let cricket be played on the field and not off the field. This is really important and I didn’t see this during the last few series.
Q: Was it that bad?
A: I’ll tell you one good example that happened to me during the Australian series. After play ended, I went to my room and all I wanted was to relax. But the only thing that came to my mind was how I was struggling in the middle, how the bowlers were going to come at me and all of that. So even though the match starts at 10 am next day, I had already started playing it. By the time you go into the middle, you are mentally exhausted. Such was the pressure we were in. These are things I wanted to change and I managed to do so during the series in South Africa.
Q: You carried a depleted side to South Africa. There was no Angelo Mathews, no Dinesh Chandimal and three of the frontline quicks were missing due to injuries. How hard was this?
A: Of course, the team did not have the big names. In a way, this was a blessing in disguise. All these youngsters wanted to do was grab the opportunity. If you look at the bowling side, we had just Suranga Lakmal. The rest were new. I knew it was going to be tough but I told the boys to give it a good fight regardless of the results.
We didn’t plan for five days. We wanted to play one session at a time and to win those little sessions. If you take the New Zealand and the Australian series, we were nowhere near them. This was our first plan and I think we executed it very well. Players started to enjoy their freedom, started believing in their abilities and started trusting each other. The results took care of themselves.
Q: There were reports the team was divided into camps which was hurting Sri Lanka’s performances. How did you bring about unity?
A: This was very important. When the going was tough, the players struggled to cope with pressure and did not express themselves as freely as they should have. They grouped into little cliques and this wasn’t ideal. What we did in South Africa was to bring them all together, give them a sense of belonging. A WhatsApp group was created and we sent out a message to everyone in the team asking them to join for dinner. First day, we had about five people responding, the next day we had about seven. A few days later, we had everyone, including the support staff, joining for dinner. This, I thought, helped us gel as a team. We never discussed cricket during these outings.
Q: How did the team management,especially Head Coach Chandika Hathurusingha, respond to the changes you were looking to bring in?
A: They responded pretty well and, without their support, I don’t think we could have brought in the culture change within the dressing room. Hathu is naturally an aggressive person. What I told him was, if he is angry and wants to scold a player, don’t do that. Instead, I asked him to tell me so that I could pass the message across to the player. He responded well and became more of a friend. When this happened, the players started to enjoy the freedom.
On the other hand, there has always been a distance between players and officials. This could probably be due to the culture we are coming from. We are reserved and like to maintain that distance. I want us to be like the Australians– free with them and treat them more like friends and family rather than children and masters in a school.
Q: What did you tell the boys before the Durban Test?
A: I wanted them to enjoy the game without worrying about the final outcome. I wanted them to smile and feel relaxed and not to put pressure on themselves. There will be mistakes, like dropping catches, etcetera, but I wanted to give them good vibes and not to run down a player when a catch is dropped or when he gets out to a bad shot or a misfield. Because, if that happens, we will lose the player for the rest of the match. What I did and wanted others to do was to back him instead, and this worked. We talked of the positives rather than the negatives. Yes, we did discuss areas where we went wrong but all of that was done in good faith and players took it well.
Q: Managing players is an important aspect of a captain. How did your manage your troops?
A: I have played under four captains and I know exactly what they did right and where they went wrong. So I had a fair idea of what I wanted to do. I rallied everyone around me and got their views in every important decision I made on the field, no matter whether they were seniors or juniors in the side. Sometimes, I almost gave into their requests when placing fielders etc.
Q: How did the pressure of captaincy affect your own game? (Karunatne had scores of 30, 20, 17 and 19 in two Tests)
A:To be honest, it did have an impact on my own performances during the series. But it was not the only reason. Captaincy entails a lot of responsibilities and I was not used to these. I had to do all that, like team meetings, selections, planning, facing media etcetera. So a lot of my time wad dedicated to these intricacies. I was a bit nervous facing media with everything that was happening around us–the allegations of match-fixing, our own performances, the Board issues and so on. Besides those, I think the blow to my neck during the Australia series was haunting me a bit. My foot movements and reflexes all slowed down a bit. So all these definitely had an impact on my own performance. But, at the end of the day, what was important was to win and we did it in such dominant fashion.
Q: t one point, Sri Lanka were at 226/9 with 78 more runs still needed to win. Did you ever think we could pull off a sensational win?
A: My gut feeling before the start of the fourth day’s play was that we would do something special. But when we were nine down, I thought it was all over. I was still happy because we had fought a good battle and to lose by a small margin against South Africa was no mean deal.
So before Vishwa went to bat, the only thing I told him was to try and protect his wicket. I can’t tell him to do things that I, as a batsman, failed to do in the middle. After all, he was the least capable batsman in the side. But I knew if Vishwa can hang in there, KJP (Kusal Perera) could do the job because he can easily collect 12 to 16 runs in an over without much trouble. It was an unbelievable chase and hats-off to the two players for taking us through. I complimented Vishwa’s knock more than Kusal’s because, if not for Vishwa’s bravery, it would have been a different story altogether.
Q: You are someone who loves to compare yourself with peers and to try and improve your game to get ahead of them. As a captain, did you try to emulate someone?
A: No. All I wanted was to focus on the team and make the changes I thought were required to become a competitive team. But as a player, I have always had an idol. That has helped me improve my own game. I have an idol and make plans to surpass him. Once I achieve it, I get another Idol. The cycle continues.
Q: What if you can’t achieve your goals?
A: Everything around me was a dream for me as child. I never had any of these (pointing towards the beautiful house and the SUV in the garage). When I was a child, I wanted a bicycle and I bought one. Then I wanted land to build a house. I wanted to buy a car. After some time, I went for the brand I like. Sometimes, it takes time to realize those dreams but that really keeps me going. I have never given up on my dreams.
Q: Your dream in cricket?
A: I never had any dream of captaining Sri Lanka and I had the honour of leading the side to a historic win in South Africa. But, as a cricketer, I have set myself some targets. In Test cricket, I am looking to score 10,000 runs and 20 to 25 hundreds. I know it’s a huge challenge, given my age, but it’s not impossible. Also, I would love to play 100 Test matches for the country. I like to earn a spot in the ODI team.
Q: Despite solid performance as a Test opener, why do you think the selectors have repeatedly omitted you from the ODI side?
A: I went out of the ODI side with an injury during the 2015 World Cup. My style of play may be different to that of some of the top ODI cricketers in world cricket at present. You take India, Australia or England, they play lots of T20 cricket around the globe and that has helped them to be very aggressive in their batting. But if you look at our side, we do not have players like that. So our approach has to be different. If we started to hit the ball from ball one, like some countries do today, we are in for trouble. Because if we lose wickets up front, it will be difficult for us to go for a big score. This is why we need someone who can bat through the innings. If you take great Kumar (Sangakkara), his strike rates was between 60-70 until the 40th over of the match and only then did he start to accelerate. But the advantage was that, when he was batting, other players could bat around him. I think this is the approach we need to follow rather than trying to do what other teams do.
Q: Your best Test innings so far?
A: I think it was the 85 runs I scored against Australia at Sydney Cricket ground against the world’s best seam attack in Mitchell Johnson, Mitchell Starc, Peter Siddle and Jackson Bird. I had never faced such an fearsome bowling attack in my life before and neither had I played in front of a such a massive crowd exceeding 50,000 people. I must thank Mahela (Jayawardene) for the words of encouragement he gave me at that time. He said, “Don’t worry about being dropped. Even if you fail, just play your game”. That really helped me construct that innings. I just went out and expressed myself. I was not worried about the reputations these fast bowlers carried. I played my game and the result was 85 runs off 100 balls. That little thing Mahela told me really helped me and this is the freedom I gave the boys in South Africa.
Q: Are you looking forward to the county stint you have got?
A: England is a place where I have struggled the most. Even to date, I don’t understand how to adjust to those varying conditions. So when Mushtaq Ahmed offered me a contract, I was thrilled to accept it. If you look at it from a purely financial perspective, I don’t think I have the best deal but my intention was to gain experience.
Q: Kusal Mendis is probably the best young player in the world but has been through a rough patch. How did you motivate him?
A: One thing I kept reminding him was that he scored over 1000 Test runs last year, only behind Virat Kohli of India. I don’t think he has failed in Test cricket. He is one who has done a lot for the country during his short career. Besides his batting, his fielding at slip is outstanding. I don’t think anyone can take catches with such control in that position like Kusal. He is very flexible. His problem is he has confused his Test cricket with two limited-over formats. He has not done that well in limited-over formats. On the other hand, he has been attacked heavily on social media. He was worried about those comments and it put pressure on him. I could see it from his body language. We all know how talented he is but he lacks confidence and temperament. Given his age, he has matured a lot as a cricketer. But he has been under tremendous pressure. So I kept reminding him of the player he is and all that is needed is one good innings.