Sri Lanka v South Africa, 3rd ODI, Pallekele July 26, 2013

Inconsistency haunts Tharanga...again

Some days, Upul Tharanga bats so well, his innings seem like a dream. Other times, he falls asleep at the crease. It is a vacillating pattern he must arrest immediately, with the team's batting future at stake

When Upul Tharanga made his debut for Sri Lanka in August 2005, his was one of the more remarkable tales in international cricket. Eight months earlier, his family lost their home in the Boxing Day tsunami, that claimed thousands of lives in his home town of Ambalangoda. Only 19 then, Tharanga had played a match in Colombo the day before, and was setting out for home when he had news of the disaster. When he returned to his neighbourhood, he found "nothing was there".

Tharanga took three months' leave from the game, as he and his family began piecing their lives together, and found a friend in club teammate Kumar Sangakkara, who gave him money and equipment to help set his cricket on track again. Upon his return to the game, he caught the selectors' eye and had an international hundred one month after making his debut. Next year, five more ODI tons made him one of Sri Lanka's surest long-term prospects. Tharanga has rarely lived up to that promise since.

Serene and unyielding in full flow, but cagey and hapless all too often, few other batsmen have stretches of good form as fragile as he. Slim rewards from January's tour to Australia had him left out of the side for four months, but on his return series, Tharanga struck a scintillating 174 that raised hopes he would own Sri Lanka's troublesome second-opening spot for some time. Since that innings, he has made 7, 6, 11, 43, 3 and 5. The 43 could so easily have been 0, had he not been dropped early at second slip.

His latest innings, in the third ODI, was a fumbling, frustrating, familiar mess. Groping endlessly at balls outside off stump as the seam bowlers worked the channel, Tharanga edged a boundary between the keeper and slip, and made one run from his remaining 22 deliveries.

How blinding a difference from his innings in Kingston just over three weeks ago. That day, Tharanga caressed the ball so languidly, he seemed to be batting in slow-motion fantasy. He cut so late, yet drove and pulled so powerfully, it seemed no delivery imaginable could ever get him out. Tharanga had begun Sri Lanka's innings in a graceful trance, and finished with devilish fury, plundering 66 from his last 22 deliveries to punch out unbeaten, with a strike rate of 109.4.

Tharanga also has 13 ODI hundreds - only three fewer than Sangakkara, and Mahela Jayawardene who have both played in twice as many ODIs. How to reconcile that record with the batsman who eats up Powerplay overs, then routinely presents his wicket to slip, thanks to an incurable technical malady, which is almost untenable in the age of two new balls. This pained effort against South Africa bore a resemblance to his 20-ball torture for two runs in the 2011 World Cup final, that sucked the wind from Sri Lanka's sails and set India off apace. Some days Tharanga bats so well, his innings seem like a dream. Other times, he falls asleep at the crease.

It is a vacillating pattern he must arrest immediately, because at 28 now, and with eight years of international experience behind him, Tharanga is perfectly placed to ease the coming loss of Sri Lanka's senior batsmen. No one who sees him on his best days will doubt he is capable of greatness, yet he is now two innings away from having his place in the side roundly questioned, again. Sri Lanka have already tried two other opening combinations this year, and there are talented others in the domestic circuit capable of catching the selectors' fancy.

"We're not trying to chop and change our openers too much because we're trying to have the same combination and give the players a good run," Angelo Mathews said after the match. "Upul has shown in the recent past, when he got a big hundred, that he can bat through the innings. Unfortunately he couldn't do that in the first three matches, but I'm sure he'll come to the party in the next two.

"As batsmen we have to be consistent, and apart from TM Dilshan, Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene, we aren't among the runs for long. If we want to win a lot of matches in the future, we can't just leave it to the seniors. We all have to contribute."

Tharanga now approaches a fork in his career. If the inconsistency that has ruled his career so far cannot be vanquished, he may forever be banished to the cricketing purgatory so many talented men have known before, when they have flourished yearly in domestic cricket without earning a recall. But if he can discover a route to the sustained batting success he promised in his youth, Sri Lanka will be some way to solving the crisis that rushes towards them.

Andrew Fidel Fernando is ESPNcricinfo's Sri Lanka correspondent. He tweets here

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • RAJ on July 27, 2013, 16:04 GMT

    I posted a comment 2 years ago and wish to say it again, Tharanga after the English tour some years back where he did very well as not performed at all. Take his number of games he as played 170. He scored little over 5000 runs.Average at 30 . Can you consider him as an opening batsman? I play cricket @ age 60 even now because I love the game and I am sure I can get him out . He is a passenger in the SL side. I feel very sorry for him. He had Tsunami issue and had a drug problem too. He used go and bat after taking drugs.I read about this in SL news paper.If SL selectors think of playing him for the WC, I feel sorry for our side. I need to say one more thing, hats off to Sanga and Mahela for what they contribute to the side on & off field and the charities they do. These are 2 real ambassador's of SL from whom others should learn.

  • ESPN on July 27, 2013, 15:02 GMT

    Kusal perera is far better player than tharanga .. Need to gv him more chances than tharanga

  • Dummy4 on July 27, 2013, 13:36 GMT

    If you study Thanrangas record he has been more consistant when he bats lower down in the order.His performance in Australia at no 6 or 7 saved the side on many occasions.

  • Dummy4 on July 27, 2013, 11:09 GMT

    tharanga is too vunerable when the ball is swinging to open the batting, perhaps they should groom him to be a finisher.

  • Chatty on July 27, 2013, 11:03 GMT

    Htc-Android: It is a good point to make. However, we need to look at other openers too - how they perform against fast bowlers vis a vis spinners. There are two reasons why Upul would potentially get out to fast bowlers. 1. Because he is bad against fast bowling. 2. He is the opening batsman who faces the fastest and best of the bowlers all the time. Without controlling for the second factor, the first statistic does not mean anything.

  • mark on July 27, 2013, 11:00 GMT

    why Tharanga's this weakness can not be corrected?when u have so much advance technology, so many coaches (batting,bowling field and main coach etc...).. Is he not getting the help or does he lazy to correct himself...its surprise and cant believe that this common error has not been resolved with the help of available resources...a batsman with 150+ ODI matches including 13 centuries is not a joke.. he has serios batting ability as well as some weaknes as everyone does.. so what big issue in getting him corrected...I cant understand.. so nobody wants a good player to be protected and make use of him for the betternes of the team & country..? May god help him and give him wisdom...!!!

  • Vishwaksena on July 27, 2013, 10:26 GMT

    kusal perera & tharanga are likely to be openers for sl in wc 2015 so should give perera a longer urn before taking on a call on him , tharanga had been given enough oppurtunities & can be called upon as a replacement whenever needed . Sl should also get mahela to open if they find a strong middle order batter who is atleas half of mahelas class ,since mahela would score more runs opening & lays out a gerat platform for people like matthews & perera to come in & smack a few .

  • Dummy4 on July 27, 2013, 10:15 GMT

    I think we need two technically correct batsm en should open the innings. With two new balls in use it is important not to loose any wickets in the first 10 overs regardless how runs we scored. As mentioned by wolverine if mahela and sanga can bat at 4,5 a youngster can bat early and get valuable experience and ssnga's and mahela's experince will be valuable in the middle overs.

    not to loose wickets in first

  • Vihanga on July 27, 2013, 10:10 GMT

    I changed my mind.... Tharanga shouldn't be dropped. He should move down the order. I say he should take MJ's spot at 4 while Jayawardene opens with Dilshan. Dilly is due for a big innings.He's not the type that stays out of form for long patches. When he gets back in form he'll make it big. Good luck SL and better luck Tharanga.

  • Dummy4 on July 27, 2013, 9:51 GMT

    Android, the stats also point to the fact that pace bowlers open an innings, with the ball still new and the most able bowlers the opposition has coming hard at the batsmen. Few teams have consistent opening pairs, I think the stats are misleading. However if Theranga came in at 6, he would probably be able to play with more freedom against the older ball, against spin or pace.

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