"When it comes to stats, I love to compete with other players"

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How Dimuth Karunaratne uses other players to get ahead

He loves getting stuck into his stats, comparing himself to his peers, and trying to improve his game that way

Andrew Fidel Fernando  |  

Dimuth Karunaratne is a nerd. This is probably not how he would describe himself. Perhaps he has never been accused of being a nerd before. But get past the fact that he is a successful sportsman. Forget the jock stereotype that goes with the job. He may not wear thick-rimmed spectacles and have trousers hitched up to the nipples, but knowledge, to him, is power. And when it comes to batting, there is no such thing as too much knowledge. This, at least, is what he once thought.

Sat on an armchair in the lobby of a Colombo hotel, an indoor water feature gurgling in the background, Karunaratne doesn't just bemoan the general apathy among cricketers toward data-driven analysis - he seethes about it.

"Players are asked to analyse their own games as much as possible, but most people don't do it." Laid-back and affable in general, he is bristling right now. "Actual analysis isn't just coming and looking at the footage. What's the point in that? You have to use those stats more intelligently. Work out the weak points in your game. What are the strengths of the opposition? That's analysis. How do you get the game to a stage where you are playing to your strength and the bowler is being forced into his weakness? That's analysis."

He is staying at the hotel through the duration of one of Sri Lanka's domestic provincial tournaments, just weeks after his blockbuster batting performance against South Africa. Over the course of two bowler-dominated Tests in July, Karunaratne scored more than twice as many runs as the next-best batsman. In the first Test, he outscored the entire opposition XI, making 158 not out and 60 in a match in which the next highest score was 49.

"Dean Elgar and I have played the same number of Tests, basically, but I know his average is better than mine. His stats are better. If I catch up with him, then maybe I'll be able to find someone else"

That performance signalled his bona fide arrival as a top Test batsman, propelling him to seventh in the world rankings. He is behind only Joe Root out of the top-order men about to play the series in Sri Lanka. To crack the top ten, Karunaratne had been stringing together good scores for a while. There was the 196 in Dubai last year, which founded Sri Lanka's victory in a see-saw Test. There had been a fraught second-innings 126 against Bangladesh in a losing cause. The best of the lot was his defusing of Ravindra Jadeja and R Ashwin - the two top-ranked bowlers in the world at the time - on a dustbowl to shame all dustbowls, at the SSC - in an innings lasting over six hours and yielding 141.

Karunaratne will take us through how vital analytical inputs have advanced his Test batting, and also how too much information might have sometimes been to his detriment. But first, let us further establish his cricket-nerd credentials.

When he began to play senior domestic cricket for the Sinhalese Sports Club (SSC) a decade ago, the senior opener in the team was domestic run machine Tharanga Paranavitana, who would go on to play 32 Tests for Sri Lanka. So Karunaratne opened up his web browser, bookmarked Paranavitana's ESPNcricinfo profile page, and made it a point to check in virtually every week. He made note of Paranavitana's first-class average after each round of domestic fixtures, and worked out how many runs he himself needed to score every week in order to match the senior batsman.

"When it comes to stats, I love to compete with other players," he says. "I did that since I was playing for school. Angelo Mathews was the star player in the St Joseph's College team, and I really wanted to perform more than him. I opened the batting, so I didn't know how many runs he would score later. But I was desperate to score more.

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"When I came to the club level, it was Para that I compared myself to. I saved his profile and looked at the stats. I wanted to be prolific, just like him. Then once Para left the scene a little, I started targeting Kaushal Silva. He'd also scored a lot of hundreds, and he was the next star in our club. I really wanted to get near the number of hundreds Kawwa had made.

"Now, it's Dean Elgar. The two of us played Under-19 cricket around the same time. We've played the same number of Tests, basically, but I know his average is better than mine. His stats are better. If I catch up with him, then maybe I'll be able to find someone else. Someone who's higher up.

"The ultimate goal is to make 20-25 [Test] hundreds, but you can't just get there. You have to go step by step. I keep someone as an idol."

Karunaratne logs batting information like a computer. He remembers each of the many improvements in his game since arriving at the top level, and delves in almost forensic detail into the many little epiphanies that have chiselled his cricket.

His consistently aggressive approach to opening the batting, for example - despite the fact that Sri Lanka has been the most difficult nation for openers for much of his career - well, that one came out of a Mahela Jayawardene input. "Mahela's thinking was amazingly clear. I had a hundred-run stand with him in Sydney in 2013, when we were battling a first-innings deficit. Those days a lot of my scoring shots were through midwicket, and Nathan Lyon was drifting the ball into my pads and turning it away. I asked him: 'Mahela aiya, should I hit it through there?' He said, 'Of course. That's your strength. Don't worry about the team situation.' Then I hit about four fours off Lyon through there."

"I went to Kusal Mendis and said, 'Look, the two of us have this issue. I'm opening and you're at No. 3. If we're both failing, we are losing two batsmen for nothing in the first innings. How can the team make 300?"

Meanwhile, from Kumar Sangakkara - basically the patron saint of left-hand batsmen - Karunaratne gleaned a wealth of technical information. "The way he taps his bat, and all his initial movements - they are all there for a reason," Karunaratne says. "He changes all of this based on the country he is batting in. If he goes to England or New Zealand, he doesn't tap his bat. He keeps it up high. So I asked him why. 'The ball moves here,' he told me. 'When you tap the bat, your hands try to follow the moving ball. When you play like this, with the bat nice and high, you end up playing only the balls that you need to play. You can leave the rest.'

"And then when he plays spin, he opens up his grip a little, so that he can play spin better through the off side. I told him that some of my shots, especially through certain regions, didn't have much power. He said: 'Yeah, I've had that problem too. Don't worry. Just open the face a little bit. Then you can transfer the full flow of the shot into the ball.'"

There was more advice from seniors and coaches: Tillakaratne Dilshan told him how to manipulate the field when spinners are on. Thilan Samaraweera taught him how to hunker down and get through tough spells. Mostly, though, it is numbers that have defined him.

Numbers brought to his attention, following his first successful year at the first-class level, that he was getting more starts than virtually any other batsman in the league, but failing to convert these into big scores.

"My captain at the club, Thilina Kandamby, put it in my head that I was wasting starts," he says. "So I went back and looked at my scores, and compared them with the other top batsmen. I saw that even though we were making a similar number of runs in the season, they were getting there with a few good innings. I was getting a lot of half-decent scores and getting out."

"Chandi [Dinesh Chandimal] and I are the ones who are interested in stats, so whenever there's a group, we start talking about it. Maybe the players around us will develop that love also" © Getty Images

The realisation prompted him to work intensively on batting endurance, and he quickly became a reliable producer of mammoth innings. It was a 150 not out for Sri Lanka A in South Africa that hoisted him into the national side in 2012. At the Test level, five of his eight centuries have yielded scores north of 140.

More recently, Karunaratne has attempted to patch up other weaknesses. "Last year, me and Dinesh Chandimal got hold of our analyst," he says. "We thought why not get him to review pretty much everything about our performances over the last couple of years? Innings splits, opposition bowlers - whom we have scored against, whom our team-mates have scored against, what kinds of situations, all of that.

"I realised during all this that Kusal Mendis and I had not been very good in the first innings. He'd hit one 190-odd against Bangladesh, and that was holding his first-innings average up. So I knew I had to make a change. I went to Kusal and said, 'Look, the two of us have this issue. I'm opening and you're at No. 3. If we're both failing, we are losing two batsmen for nothing in the first innings. How can the team make 300?'"

Another round of introspection followed for Karunaratne. He honed in on a major first-innings failing - a lack of conviction in his strokemaking. He began committing to his strokes - particularly his attacking ones - and the runs began to flow. That 158 not out against South Africa had come in the first innings, but most importantly for Karunaratne and Sri Lanka, those runs came at a brisk pace, his strike rate higher than 71.

Much as an attention to detail has enhanced his game, however, there had also been a time when his zest for information had diminished him.

I ran into Karunaratne at a restaurant and mentioned that James Anderson has an excellent record in Asia. He immediately battered me with questions. "Really? Where has he got those wickets? What stage of the innings? New or old ball?"

Of all Sri Lanka's Test series wins over the last five years, none perhaps was as sweet as the 3-0 pummeling of Australia in 2016. It was a rocking month on the island. Rangana Herath claimed wickets by the bellyful, Kusal Mendis produced one of the great Test innings, Dhananjaya de Silva thumped a six to open his account in Test cricket and then swashbuckled his way to a series-high run tally, and captain Mathews even reviewed like a sane person.

Karunaratne's scores in that series, meanwhile: 5, 0, 0, 7, 7, and 22.

"I had no clue how to get out of that rut," he says. "Sometimes I got out attacking. Other times I got out defending. There was no one to get advice from, and no one whom I approached for advice. I felt like I wasn't doing anything different. Nothing helped. I was totally lost."

Two months later he was picked for the Sri Lanka A team - a demotion in reality, but for him a welcome chance to return to the runs, and he did so in emphatic fashion, hitting 131 in the first innings of that series. For a batsman who was forever running numbers through his head, and constantly sizing up the challenge the opposition would pose, this innings was a revelation. He realised that every time he came back to the A team level, he ended up making easy runs. And yet every time he went back to Tests, he struggled. Sri Lanka A coach Avishka Gunawardene, who had also coached Karunaratne at SSC, noticed this too.

The pair considered the problem and came up with a definitive answer. "He's always been a player that likes a lot of information," Gunawardene says. "Even when I was coaching him at SSC, he was like that. But I think sometimes he is thinking about all of that too much. He wants to know exactly what the bowler is doing but forgets what he has to do to bat well. When players like him fail at the top level and come back to me, it's very rarely a technical issue. It's almost always a mental thing."

So Gunawardene proposed a fix. Cocoon yourself, he said. Take in the information but block out the noise. Karunaratne took this on board.

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"So I thought about how I go from the hotel to the ground, and I realised I was listening to everyone else on the bus," Karunaratne says. "Someone says Mohammed Shami swings it like this, or Mitchell Starc moves it off the seam like that. When I went in to bat, whether that was actually what the bowler was doing or not, that was the ball I was playing. If I'd heard about the inswinger, I'd play the inswinger.

"I changed everything. I put songs on my headphones on the way to the ground. Before anyone else went to the middle, I'd go to the pitch, do my pre-match preparation and come. And this year it's been really successful. No matter who I face, my routine is the same now. Nothing changes."

Well, apart from his numbers. Where he had averaged 31.43 until the end of that Australia series, he has averaged 46.05 since. If that doesn't sound like an outstanding average, remind yourself that Karunaratne is an opener. And that there is no place worse to be one than Sri Lanka.

None of this is to say, by the way, that the nerd in him has been quelled. He is still a hound for information. Sometime in the last fortnight, I ran into him at a restaurant and mentioned that James Anderson, whom he would face in the coming weeks, has an excellent record in Asia. He immediately battered me with questions. "Really? Where has he got those wickets? What stage of the innings? New or old ball?"

Karunaratne on his way to a career-best 196, against Pakistan in Dubai in October last year

Karunaratne on his way to a career-best 196, against Pakistan in Dubai in October last year © Getty Images

In true nerd tradition, he insists that team-mates develop his enthusiasm for numbers. "Chandi and I are the ones who are interested in stats, so whenever there's a group, we start talking about it. So I'll say, 'Machan, you saw those numbers on your career, no? Out of your hundred innings, this is how you have scored.' When we talk stats then maybe the players around us will develop that love also. Maybe they will get interested. At any time you have Wi-Fi now, so you can look all these things up. That's how I got interested, anyway."

Much of what Karunaratne says sounds like wishful thinking. Not every player wants to seek out every minuscule detail about their own career. Nor every detail about their opponent. As far as professional cricketers go, Karunaratne is probably in a tiny minority - a cricketer who looks first to the numbers for solutions, rather than a childhood coach, or a trusted advisor.

"Why I don't score runs in the second innings in a match is the next thing," he says. "In the first, third and fourth innings of a game, I average over 40. So why not in the second (where he averages 17.84)? I don't know. Am I too tired after fielding in the first innings? Is it a mental thing? I don't know. That's the next thing I'm trying to find out.

"If anyone can think of a reason, they can tell me."

Andrew Fidel Fernando is ESPNcricinfo's Sri Lanka correspondent. @afidelf