Tharanga packs a mean willow

The opening batsman has firmly entrenched himself in the Sri Lankan team and promises to be an asset for years to come. A report by G. Viswanath.

Just 21 — which means he was approaching only his fifth birthday when Sanath Jayasuriya was capped by Sri Lanka — the left-handed Upul Tharanga has cut and carved half a dozen centuries in limited over internationals and one Test century.

Comparisons with his opening partner Jayasuriya have come thick and fast, but, at least to begin with, Tharanga has kept the statisticians busier than the `Man from Matara' actually did.

His six centuries in one-day matches have come in 31 appearances, whereas Jayasuriya scored his first hundred in his 71st match, when 18 days shy of completing five years in international cricket.

Tharanga has been in the vanguard of Sri Lanka's success in its first two outings of the qualifying phase of the ICC Champions Trophy — against Bangladesh and Zimbabwe — scoring splendid hundreds. He has shown a remarkable appetite for runs, combining stout defence and aggressive qualities.

Tharanga settled in even as Jayasuriya and skipper Mahela Jayawardene fell early and the Zimbabwe bowlers had their tails up.

Doubtless, the presence of the accomplished Kumar Sangakkara (80, 86 balls, 7x4) steadied the Sri Lankan innings. Left-handers have on most occasions been a nuisance to right-arm bowlers and the well-settled Tharanga and the strong-minded Sangakkara meant double trouble for the Zimbabwe bowlers. The outcome of their resolute effort was a 165-run stand, when Tharanga departed from the scene, after making 110 in 2 hours and 38 minutes with 13 fours and a six.

The `Man of the Match' for the second time in four days, Tharanga said: "When I get 30 or 40, I want to convert it into a big score. Luckily things are happening for me at present and I hope to carry on in the same vein. I am a naturally aggressive batsman and I got a lot of balls in my area. I have also learned a lot batting with Sanath.''

Sri Lanka's tally of 285 was straightaway a match-winning aggregate and this pleased Jayawardene. "The qualifiers have been a good preparation for us. We played to a game plan and it worked out, but we are not considering ourselves as favourite for the title.

There are other good teams as well and as a captain I am happy with our performance. Sanath and myself have not had a good knock in this event so far, but we can rectify that as the tournament progresses,'' said the Sri Lankan skipper.

Clearly Zimbabwe was short in the bowling department. Gone are the days of Heath Streak & Co. The young off-break bowler, Prosper Utseya, given the additional responsibility of captaincy, simply doesn't have the ability to compete against established combinations. Leg-spinner Tafadzwa Kamungozi, 19, caught the eye in his first three overs, but like Utseya, he was punished later by the batsmen.

Skittled out for 85 in the previous match against the West Indies, Zimbabwe's work with the bat was marginally better this time, but at no time did it pose a challenge. Hamilton Masakadza and Brendan Taylor showed resolve to make 30 each. The Sri Lankan attack was without left-armer Chaminda Vaas and conceded 18 wides. Jayawardene lamented that this was a concern.

But victory by 144 runs ensured Sri Lanka's passage into the tournament proper of the Champions Trophy.

The Scores

ICC Champions Trophy Qualifying Match, Sri Lanka v Zimbabwe, October 10, Ahmedabad. Sri Lanka won by 144 runs. Sri Lanka 285 for seven in 50 overs (Upul Tharanga 110, Kumar Sangakkara 80, Marvan Atapattu 33 not out) beat Zimbabwe 141 in 42.3 overs (Hamilton Masakadza 30, Brendan Taylor 30, Lasith Malinga three for 25).