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