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At last something for Tharanga to smile about

New-look India take on Sri Lanka in the opening match of the Indian Oil Cup in Dambulla

Charlie Austin
Charlie Austin

Upul Tharanga: something to smile about at last © Getty Images
Sri Lanka last played a one-day international seven months ago on December 26, a day blackened in tragedy on an apocalyptic scale by the surging tsunami waves that destroyed communities all around the Indian Ocean. It is therefore fitting that a young man that suffered more than most on that terrible day, Upul Tharanga, is poised to mark Sri Lanka's return with an international debut.
Tharanga's probable selection as Sanath Jayasuriya's new opening partner has brightened an emotional tsunami-wrecked year. It won't, unfortunately, repair the crushed walls of his family home in Amabalangoda, a small fishing town on the west coast, and it won't bring back all the belongings and memories that were dragged out to sea in the debris-laden backwash. But it will bring a smile to all his loved ones and celebration in his recovering hometown.
Fortunately, Tharanga and his family cheated death. Like Dick Whittington and so many budding first-class cricketers in Sri Lanka, he had left the countryside to build a career in the city. He'd joined Nondescripts Cricket Club and lived in a small room next to the club's gymnasium. On Boxing Day he was safe from the waves that reduced his home to a salty pile of debris. His family escaped too and now live with kind relatives.
His father's fishing business was severely affected and it may take many years for financial security to return. Tharanga's pockets were so empty after the tragedy that his mentor and friend, Kumar Sangakkara, dipped deeply into his own wallet to give him the tools to rebuild his life: an English willow bat, canvas pads, gloves, a helmet and more besides. Since then he has used those tools with dazzling success and is now poised on the brink of every Sri Lankan schoolboy's dream.
Sri Lanka have been searching hard for a reliable opening partner for Jayasuriya in recent years. During the past 17 months no less than five have given it a shot. But the main two contenders, Avishka Gunawardene and Saman Jayantha, shared the bulk of the opportunities and failed to stake strong claims. Both fired with an unacceptable inconsistency for a team that aspires to sitting at the top of the ICC's ODI rankings and the search moved on. As Tom Moody told reporters: "The opening slot as been a revolving door and time has now come to shut the door."
Moody has not seen a great deal of Tharanga, a wispy left-hander blessed with natural timing, but he has seen enough to be impressed: "To me he is a young exciting player who is a natural striker and someone who times the ball well. He suits the opening position in one-day cricket because he is a natural shot-player as does not need to go searching for the ball and he is also athletic in the field."
Tharanga's name first caught the eye during the Under 19 World Cup last year when he cracked 117 against South Africa and then 61 in 42 balls against India in the next game. Then, after a successful tour with the Under 19 team to Pakistan, Sri Lanka's cricket board sent him to play league cricket in Essex, where he starred for Loughton Cricket Club. He soon graduated to the A team and after accomplished performances against West Indies A earlier in the month he was selected for the national squad last week.
"I'm looking forward to the challenge and can't wait to play if given the chance," Tharanga said modestly when asked about his call-up. "I am completely devoted to this game and my ambition is to cement a place in the Sri Lanka team." Sri Lankan fans hope he is able to as well because a new top-class opener is essential to the side's long-term health. Just as importantly, after such a harrowing year, he deserves a good break.

Charlie Austin is Cricinfo's Sri Lankan correspondent