Sri Lanka v Pakistan, 2nd Test, SSC, 1st day August 14, 2014

Tharanga, Hitchcock horror or Eastwood western?

There are very few batsmen in international cricket who play each ball so differently from the next like Upul Tharanga, who continues to polarise fans with such an approach

The first moments of a Test are almost always absorbing, even if that match eventually becomes dull. There is so much information go be gained about the protagonists. Are the openers in touch? Does the bowler have rhythm?

Mostly, though, the first few exchanges reveal something about the living, breathing 22-yard unknown on which all of the action pivots.

This information is at a premium at the SSC, which is notorious for its featherbeds. However, it does occasionally produce good pitches. The bone-dry surface which it turned out for the Test against last month conjured a close finish, despite South Africa's ultra-defensive approach from day two.

But if spectators hoped to come to a swift judgment on the pitch by watching Upul Tharanga's opening exchanges with the Pakistan bowlers, they might have wound up at more of a loss than when the match began. Tharanga is gifted beyond a doubt, but he also has talent for high drama.

On Thursday, this was clear from the outset. The first ball of the morning - a full and juicy delivery from Junaid Khan - was pushed firmly through the covers, hands and feet moving fluently to the ball. Deliveries two and three were defended nicely, but then came a drastic falling away.

Ball four, pitched on a length and moving slightly away, was edged towards the slips but it fell short. The next delivery was a similar one, but this time Tharanga's shoes were sucked ino a black hole on the crease, and he barely neared the ball with his waft.

Junaid went fuller for the final delivery, swinging it a little and searching for that faint edge, only to find the batsman had suddenly moved into place and sent the ball screaming through cover.

Plays, misses and driven fours are common in the early moments of a Test, especially when a team seeks to take the match by the scruff, but only few like Tharanga play each ball so differently from the next. The result is disorienting.

Is this pitch good for batting, or is it a bowler's strip? Is the ball moving, or is the batsman just making it seem like it is? Has Tharanga been weighed down by a string of mediocre scores, or is he fighting his way back?

Through most of his 92, Tharanga played sublime shots, particularly through his favoured cover region. But he was also having his outside edge beaten by away-seamers, being cut in half by indippers, wafting at air when spinners turned the ball away from him, or chipping it just wide of the close fielders when it spun towards him. He has played like this before.

So many Tharanga innings are like switching between a Hitchcock horror and a Clint Eastwood western. One moment he is the blonde being brutally stabbed in the shower. The next, he is ice-cold, shooting up the whole saloon by himself.

It is normal for batsmen to go through dry months, then for fortunes to turn, and torrents of runs to follow. But Tharanga's form changes with the direction of the wind. Average deliveries are made to seem unplayable. Really good balls are smoked to the fence.

Not everyone can withstand such sudden peaks and troughs, but aside from natural ability, Tharanga also has zen in spades. Saeed Ajmal got the second ball of his 47th over to kick up from the rough, inducing a false shot that almost had Tharanga caught by short leg.

One moment Tharanga is the blonde being brutally stabbed in the shower. The next, he is ice-cold, shooting up the whole saloon by himself

Ajmal shot an "almost had you" smirk at the batsman as the fielders around the bat began to chirp louder. The bowler turned to his mark with a spring in his step. Yet, just when Tharanga could have been intimidated, he was slinking forward next ball, finding the pitch of the delivery, then caressing it past mid off.

"A lot of times, when you get tracks like this, you give a few chances," Tharanga said of the several close calls in his innings. "Saeed Ajmal was turning it today. What I did was just put it out of my mind, because that ball is already gone. Then I focused on the next ball."

Tharanga needed a score in this match. It was no surprise when the selectors brought Dimuth Karunaratne into the squad after the Galle Test. There had been a good chance Tharanga's return to the Test side after seven years would last only three games.

It is also no surprise that Tharanga polarises fans. Supporters point to his 13 ODI tons. "Not even Marvan scored that many, and he played many more innings," they say. Detractors draw attention to the many low scores, or that uncannily common form of dismissal: the nick to the keeper or slips. If a decent score follows in the second innings, he may soon get his chance again in ODIs.

Tharanga frustrated at the SSC, but he flourished as well. Sri Lanka would be staring at defeat without him. He is an easy batsman to like, for the prettiness of his strokes and the calm he exudes at the crease.

But he is also a man whose career perpetually seems at a crossroads. Given his experience and approach, he seems an ideal man to become Sri Lanka's long-term opener, but it is becoming increasingly difficult to predict which fork Tharanga will take from here.

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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Ted on August 15, 2014, 15:49 GMT

    At the end of 1st Day's play sum-up, Pakistan Commentator Rameez Raja valued Tharanga's inning very highly & he gave 7.5/10 for his batting & praised his well-timed elegant strokes played so frequently picking the gaps. Rameez said that he would give 10 out of 10 for handling the immense pressure imposed on Tharanga (obviously to keep his place within the extremely limited opportunity window given to him & further curtailed with last moment recall of Dimuth to the squad, threatening Tharanga's place in playing IX). This is an independent view from a knowledgeable outsider. Our Ranjth Fernando also had praised him.

    It was hilarious to hear some absolutely foolish comments from one of our commentators, trying to paint a picture of a batting paradise in the 1st two sessions, when it was visibly two-paced, with some uneven bounce! In a post-match interview with Kaushal, he said that it was really hard to time the ball, since it was two-paced & spinning strangely from the 1st session!

  • Ted on August 15, 2014, 14:39 GMT

    Great article Andrew. This is how Tharanga the "Clint Eastwood" performed since his rebirth in Test Cricket:

    Tharanga had scored 261 Runs from 7 ings @ Average of 37.2 with 2 big scores close to 100s! (Much effective than Kaushal Silva, who has managed an Av 31.5 during the same period). WHAT ELSE NEEDED to be done to impress the selectively blind.???

    It is really unfortunate to see the attitude of some selectively picky posters who are repeatedly targeting a player, who is clearly contributing VALUABLE RUNS @ a brisk pace essential to win even Test matches!

    When Tharanga contribute 86 runs & 92 valuable runs in his 1st & 7th innings after a SEVEN-YEAR LAY OFF, how could someone pick him for his batting abilities & thrash him with unreasonable criticism instead of a word of praise.? Especially at times when the rest of the batters clearly failed to thrive..?? Don't we need a positive stroke-making "Clint Eastwood" to deal with the Good-Bad & the Ugly in Test Cricket to Win Matches?

  • Andrew on August 15, 2014, 13:54 GMT

    No matter how harshly criticized, it is hard to ignore progressively visible positive side of Upul Thararanga's batting! His inning glazed with blazing cover drives, straight drives, cuts & glances picked at will, intercepting fielders (12 BOUNDARIES) was the best opener's inning that we saw since Dilshan retired from Test Cricket!

    Reconsidered for Test Cricket after Seven years, Tharanga has already showed his potential with TWO blazing innings (92 & 84) in just SEVEN innings, against world's best pace & spin of SA & Pak.

    It is worthwhile pointing out, NONE of the other OPENERS, Kaushal Silva & Dimuth have managed such scores since January this year, appearing in many more innings than Upul Tharanga.!!! After all, Tharanga is the only youngster among openers in SL, with a proven solid track record at international level (in ODIs). He has been a match winning player in ODIs. If given a long stay in the squad, he will sure to be a match winner in TESTS as well. It is up-to the SLC...!

  • Samantha on August 15, 2014, 13:00 GMT

    @ RAJSOMA: You must be talking about Kusal J Perera who had been unbelievably given THIRTY ODIs consecutively, despite repeated failures! This is a record for sure.. !

    On the other hand, Tharanga's ODI record is a blossoming success story studded with 5k runs @ Av of 34 & many records! He had been given the least opportunities in Tests (just 15 Tests before) for a player who had scored over 5000 ODI runs... This is a World Record too! So I think you have mixed-up the stats.

    You must be obviously talking about Kusal Perera's following record:

    Overall ODI Batting Av 25.8 from 32 matches yielded just 699 runs ODI Batting Av (without BD) 19.5 from 25 ODIs ODI in Eng & WI - 9 ODIs -21runs - Av 2.3

    Please look at the correct stats, before commenting on a forum :))

  • Kepili on August 15, 2014, 11:14 GMT

    @Kavum: Why are you reluctant to give credit where it belongs? U r trying to demean Tharanga's superb effort on that two-paced difficult wicket, which saved SL from being humiliated.! Tharanga has stayed at the crease for 5hrs & faced 179b and scored a blazing 92 with 12 Fours.! 11 boundaries came from perfect cover drives, straight drives, cuts & intentional glances intercepting fielders at will. ABSURD CRITICISM EDGES ARE COMMON AS FOLLOWS: Abdur Rehman to Silva, no run, better length now, comes forward to defend but isn't near the pitch, and it slides with the angle and it's a thickish inside edge that drops safely in front of short leg.

    Junaid Khan to Silva, OUT, here's the first one! He was pushing from the crease anyway, without getting forward, and gets a thick edge to the keeper.

    Junaid Khan to Sangakkara, no run, good tight first ball! Sanga was falling over to the off side and is lucky to get some inside edge on this.

    Junaid Khan to Jayawardene, no run, edged, and dropped!

  • Kepili on August 15, 2014, 10:02 GMT

    Tharanga showed his class beyond any doubt. Missing 2 Hundreds marginally within the space of 7 innings against 2 of the best bowling attacks in the world, stamped his class & potential to make big scores in the Test arena as well.! It is not an easy thing to do under severe pressure (ominously threatening with the sudden recall of the tried and failed opener Dimuth) without even allowing a slightest breathing space. Especially, when making an appearance after seven year lay-off.!!

    It is nice to see some positive approach from an Opener, after Dilshan's retirement. Kaushal / Dimuth failed to make such big scores with ample opportunities since January. Upul is a sweet timer of the ball, who accumulates bulky loads of runs for SL playing long innings, at a pace that NO OTHER SL OPENER can EQUAL. He has proved it by being the fastest SL to cross 1000 r & 2nd quickest to cross 5000 r in ODIs. IGNORING his PERFECT SHOTS & TRYING to BLOAT-UP a few edges COMMON to ALL FRONT ORDER is ABSURD!

  • Sinhhalaya on August 15, 2014, 6:36 GMT

    Tharanga for all his promise is all but hopeless. Of his 90 odd runs on Thursday (13), how many came from false shots or unintentional edges?? At his advanced age (for a sportsman) he should have weeded out those weaknesses to ensure that 90% of the time he is playing the right stroke. The other 10% margin we can give any international player for reasons of pressure, oversight or momentary bad judgement. Batting in home conditions he could have, should have and would have played a better inning for his team if he had his mental game in gear. Once Sangawardena retire(s), SL has no one to take up the mantle of batting champ. Mathews can only do so much and will crumble under the pressure of being a sole bulwark among a host of current mediocrities. Bring in an exciting young player like Sadeera or Bhanuka. Let then sink or swim. Their call.

  • Dummy4 on August 15, 2014, 6:17 GMT

    absolute fantastic article Mr.Andrew. With Mahela leaving test cricket , Dilshan is not there at the top , Sangakkaras retirement is around the clock Sri Lanka needs an experience , cool & talented batsman who could anchor the inning. He should be given a long run in order to get him self adjusted to the test environment.Wish his all the very best.

  • udendra on August 15, 2014, 3:35 GMT

    No problem. Think Tharanga has booked his place for another few matches (with failures).

  • Ruwa on August 15, 2014, 1:41 GMT

    @RAJSOMA, I don't think you've got your facts correct. Tharanga is an exceptionally talented batsman. His problem is that he's lacking test match practice. He has been playing for national side for many years but mostly in 50 over games. Test match approach is very different to ODI batting approach. Even the greatest players need to mater this to be successful. If you are an influential guy, please tell SLC to give him more test match opportunities, surely he'll be Sri Lanka's best opener.

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