In a top-order studded with some of the finest batsmen of today, Upul Tharanga tends to get overlooked. Against New Zealand, however, he gave another demonstration of why he remains integral to Sri Lanka's World Cup plans. His batting doesn't have either the flash of Tillakaratne Dilshan or the smooth adaptability of Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene, but his gutsy 70 on a challenging track was pivotal to the victory.
It was a grab bag of an innings, which included inept wafts outside off, classy cover drives, his favourite cuts past point and an unintended tap to the off side as he was withdrawing his bat from a pull. The initial period was particularly patchy, a mix of getting beaten by a big margin outside off and some sparkling boundaries.
Though 193 was a tiny target, batting under lights in Dambulla is never easy, as India had found out in the tournament's opening match. "There was a bit of movement early on, there's not a lot of swing but a bit of uneven bounce, and a bit of seam movement." Sangakkara said. "Actually the slower bowlers like [Scott] Styris and the spinners were a bit harder to score off than the fast bowlers, the ball kept holding on the wicket, there were pieces coming off the wicket as well."
However, New Zealand's hopes evaporated after Tharanga's 84-run stand with Sangakkara, who after some starting trouble played some of the most eye-catching strokes of the match. "I thought Upul batted really well. I struggled to get to grips with the wicket early on," Sangakkara said. "I was watching how Upul batted, and whenever he played a shot it was as if the wicket was absolutely flat, so I kept trying to watch him and see what he was doing and bat accordingly."
The partnership entertained the home fans, who came in decent numbers to create a lively atmosphere around the ground, unlike in the first match where hardly any spectators turned up. There were men on stilts twirling rings of fire, adding to the party mood, which wasn't dampened even by the fall of Sangakkara and Jayawardene.
Capitalising on a Styris drop at first slip, Tharanga scored his fourth half-century in seven innings, cleverly working the slower bowlers around to keep Sri Lanka on course for a bonus point. With 60 runs needed off six overs for the extra point, Sri Lanka opted for the batting Powerplay. Thilan Samaraweera showed off some innovative footwork, but Tharanga perished attempting a big hit.
Angelo Mathews followed for a golden duck, and there was a bit of drama towards the end as Sri Lanka promoted Nuwan Kulasekara and Rangana Herath ahead of Chamara Kapugedera in an attempt to quickly score the runs needed for the bonus. Both didn't succeed, and it was a cool Samaraweera who led them to a three-wicket victory, a final margin which hides the one-sidedness of the contest.
Sangakkara said that it might have been a better tactic to send in the bowlers ahead of Mathews, and was disappointed to have missed the icing to the victory. "When you get an opportunity like this to get a bonus point, in Dambulla that might be a really important factor later on, unfortunately we weren't good enough to get the bonus point."
He was happy though that the team had won chasing under lights in Dambulla. "It's tough out there but it does our confidence a world of good." For that, he'll have to thank his opener. Tharanga spent plenty of time yo-yoing in and out of the side after his debut in 2005, but displaced Sanath Jayasuriya from the opening slot after last year's Champions Trophy and has since kept out the 41-year-old, who still harbours ambitions of playing a sixth World Cup. More performances like this, and Jayasuriya could well be confined to the television studios when the global tournament comes around next year.
Siddarth Ravindran is a sub-editor at Cricinfo