Even before the main round of the Champions Trophy has begun, a star has been born. What Upul Tharanga, the southpaw with the sincere smile and unassuming attitude has done so far, would have done even his more celebrated opening partner, Sanath Jayasuriya, proud. Two back-to-back centuries in the Trophy — 105 vs Bangladesh and 110 against Zimbabwe —have only reiterated his growing stature in limited-overs cricket. But even before this, consistent performances from the tour of England earlier this year have won over his captain and coach. Four centuries in his last 10 innings have all come in a winning cause.
But behind that calm visage is a story that has had more than its share of ups and downs for someone only 21. Tharanga, who got his first taste of international cricket during the 2004 under-19 World Cup, hails from a small fishing town on Sri Lanka's west coast, one of the innumerable places on the Lankan map that were savaged by that killer tsunami.
His family, fortunately, survived and Tharanga decided that come what may, he would not let the destruction he had seen get to him. “I do not worry about it (the tsunami) anymore. I was not the only one affected and so many others across the world fell victim to it. Fortunately, my family survived and I decided to concentrate on my cricket and not let what has happened affect me."
Tharanga announced his arrival with a century in only his fifth one-day appearance but quickly realised that international cricket was not all that easy when he travelled to India (Nov 2005), Australia (the VB Series 2006) and New Zealand. However, the willingness to learn and adapt in seaming conditions fetched him 103 in Christchurch and also won the admiration of his present skipper, Mahela Jayawardene. But Jayawardene seemed to expect it. "Upul is batting well and is doing his job. We are not putting any extra pressure on him as we have four other guys in the top order but we are pleased with his performance."
He said that Tharanga would develop with time. "He got an excellent hundred against New Zealand but struggled in Australia. But he worked hard and showed character to come back. He is learning fast and working hard on all areas."
For Tharanga, batting with Jayasuriya is something special. "I learn a lot from Sanath. The way he bats for even 10-15 overs, I am under no pressure at all," said Tharanga shyly.
His strike rate may not be as high as Jayasuriya's but he is definitely getting there. And, as Jayawardene put it, they balance each other beautifully. "Upul complements Sanath at the top. Both are aggressive and similar in nature. But Upul is steadier than Sanath. Still, batting with Sanath will always be a learning process for him."
Since making his ODI debut in the Indian Oil Cup in August 2005, Tharanga has appeared in 31 ODIs and made six tons after having reached fifty-plus on nine occasions, a particularly high conversion rate. He quietly agreed. "When I get 30 or 40, I'd like to convert it into a big one. At present, things are going my way and I would like to build on this. I am a naturally aggressive batsman."
No one would disagree.