A square drive like honey from a jungle hive; a pull so languid he is still playing the shot after the ball has been fetched from the boundary. And then, suddenly, wafts outside the off stump, bizarre dismissals when the team is in a tough spot - all of which indicate that after 12 years and 29 full Tests, we still don't really have an answer.
Where does the bad luck end, and where does Upul Tharanga begin?
Take his dismissal today. The last time India toured Sri Lanka, Kumar Sangakkara (who, by the way, has been among the loudest, longest Tharanga advocates), edged R Ashwin to slip twice in this final Test, modelling the orthodox fashion for a left-hander to get out to a top-quality offspin bowler. But Tharanga is not orthodox. He blocked out four of Ashwin's first five balls, and his outside edge was beaten by the other one - each of these being outstanding deliveries. But when, on the final ball of the over, Ashwin sends down short, legside filth, Tharanga taps it directly into the lap of KL Rahul at short leg. Rahul was already cowering expecting the batsman to unfurl a savage pull. But like a winning lottery ticket floating into an open shirt pocket, there he stood, having helped dismiss the batsman. Perhaps you could say he is unlucky to have been caught by a fielder who had not meant to catch him.
But where does the bad luck end? Where does Tharanga begin?
This dismissal comes after he had played such a quintessential Tharanga knock in the previous match. His drives were so pretty in the first innings, you almost wet yourself watching them. He picked length with such alacrity, it was as if the bowlers had given him a detailed rundown of where they would put every ball. He had made 64 of the sweetest runs that could be made, when, jumping out of his crease, he hit the ball to a close fielder, and though he dived back into the crease in time, his bat bounced and he was given out. He was unlucky the ball did not hit the stumps sooner, while his bat was still grounded. He was unlucky to become, perhaps, the last batsman ever to be dismissed in this fashion, with the rule change due to take effect in October.
But then, where does the bad luck end? Where does Tharanga begin?
And what does one say about his first-innings dismissal in the Test before that? Against Zimbabwe, at Khettarama, Tharanga had produced a half-century of such rare beauty, Renaissance painters would have chopped off their own limbs and thrown themselves off buildings in jealousy. His first five boundaries had come off his first nine balls. While he was at the crease, Sri Lanka were sailing. Then, when he'd stroked 71 off 107 balls, Dinesh Chandimal played a straight drive, the bowler got fingertips to ball, and Tharanga, his bat held uselessly in his wrong hand at the non-striker's end, attempted to make his ground with his back foot, and was found a few centimeters short.
Where does the bad luck end? Where does Tharanga begin?
It is not as if this is merely a recent trend. Nor is it restricted to specific moments only. The line between misfortune and his own flaws are blurred on a macro scale as well. In 2014, for example, Tharanga top-scored in Mahela Jayawardene's farewell Test at the SSC, hitting 92 and 45 to set up a victory. Then, bizarrely, he found himself axed from the squad for the very next match, in New Zealand. His fans will present this as some jailable injustice. His detractors will say that if your spouse flirted as hard and as often as Tharanga's outside edge on seaming decks, you would set up covert cameras and quietly hire a divorce lawyer. His combined average in England, New Zealand and South Africa is 24.15.
Is he this blinding talent that is constantly checked by blameless adversity? Is he on a career-long quest to tick off every bizarre dismissal?
Sri Lanka need a consistent, experienced batsman so badly now and, at 32, Tharanga is running out of time to make the transition from promising player to run machine.
The problem is, will the bad luck ever end? Will the age of Tharanga ever begin?