Does Upul Tharanga deserve a place in the Sri Lankan ODI team?

No cricketer in recent history has divided Sri Lankan fans on their opinions.

There is no figure in Sri Lanka Cricket who polarizes opinions as much as Upul Tharanga does. With the retirement of both Sangakkara and Jayawardene, Tharanga has turned out to be an enigmatic figure, whose inclusion in the team brings no real noteworthy performances from his side, while his time in exile provides his fans more than enough pretext to clamor for his comeback, thanks to the youngsters who are firing blanks.

Upul Tharanga was brought into the national team as a partner for Sanath Jayasuriya and later made his second comeback as a replacement for the him. The left hander’s career has been plagued by a procession of loss-in-forms and awe-inspiring comebacks. For a man who averages 33.17 with the bat with the experience of 180 ODIs under his belt, the many comebacks he has made represent a dire, eerie problem either with himself or with those who hold power.

After impressing early on in his career with centuries in New Zealand and England, Tharanga stuttered during the 2007 World Cup, briefly after which he lost his place in the side. After being in and out of the side, Tharanga made his comeback under Sangakkara’s captaincy in 2009. An excellent world cup in 2011 was followed by a dry run in 2012, which also prompted Mahela Jayawardene to open the innings pushing Tharanga down to the middle order. Kusal Perera’s rocket powered emergence made life difficult for Tharanga and since then despite scoring 174 not out against India in 2013, he hasn’t had a consistent run with the national team.

Where do Tharanga’s numbers place him?

It is outright baffling to have a well-experienced batsman out of an inexperienced team that is struggling to win matches. But who is to blame? Is Tharanga, as some of the fans claim, being prejudiced?

ODI has seen a sudden paradigm shift, chiefly due to the advent of T20. What was required from batsmen in ODIs a decade ago is completely different to what is expected from them now. Hence, batsmen, who would have been a liability 10 years ago, have become a salient part of the team, while batsmen who were once the lynchpins of their teams have become redundant. It will be difficult to appraise Tharanga’s career without acknowledging this fact.

In the past, teams needed batsmen who had the ability to concentrate on end; batsmen who could prevail over duress and bat longer. Big hitters were a luxury and even having a couple of such batsmen in the lineup made a team look formidable. Fast forward, big hitters are no more a luxury. They have become a necessity. Having too many run grafters has become a burden for teams in an era where even 350 has become chasable.

Tharanga averages 33.17 with the bat at the strike rate of 73.64. Of all batsmen who made their debuts after 2000 and have scored in excess of 5000 runs, Tharanga’s strike rate is the lowest. Only Mohammed Hafeez averages lower of all batsmen who made their debut after 2000 and have scored in excess of 5000 runs.

A higher strike rate in cahoots with a lower average or a lower average with a higher strike rate is tolerable. A batsman with a higher strike rate and a poor average maybe impactful and could find himself a place in the side by virtue of being a potential match-winner- example: Sanath Jayasuriya. A batsman with a slow strike rate and higher average can play the role of an anchor in the team, which too is limited only to a couple of batsmen, at the most, in a team. But what does a team do with a player who has a lower strike rate and a lower average?

The fact that is hidden behind Tharanga’s centuries

Upul Tharanga has scored 13 centuries in his career thus far. Although it is easy to be beguiled by such a humongous number, dissecting this number helps us decipher another facet of his batsmanship. 12 out of these 13 centuries have come batting with the top three. The average number of wickets that will have fallen when Tharanga reaches his century is 2.15. In other words, Tharanga scores centuries only when the top order does well. The reverse is not true since the top has done well even when Tharanga failed.

The presence of Sanath Jayasuriya, TM Dilshan, Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene has helped Tharanga immensely. With them, being the seniors, absorbing pressure, Tharanga managed to pilfer runs under their shadows. Now that, none of those players are in the team, Tharanga cannot be expected to take up responsibility and he has repeatedly failed when thrust with the same.

The continual inconsistency

A graphic based on the number of runs scored in each innings by eminent Sri Lankan batsmen. *

The major reason for Tharanga often being dropped is his lack of consistency. Of the 172 innings he has played, 110 of them have produced less than 30 runs each. Tharanga has failed to get past 20 in 89 of the innings. This amounts to almost 64% of his innings being under 30 and 51.74% being under 20 runs. Only 36% of his innings have produced runs in excess of 30.

In comparison, Sangakkara has scored more than 30 in 48% of his innings whereas Mahela and Dilshan have scored more than 30 in 41% and 54% of their innings, respectively.* This clearly evinces the fact that despite being experienced Tharanga is a man who can be a hit or a miss. To rub salt on the wound, even when Tharanga hits the right chord, his innings don’t turn out to be match-winning, so much as they turn out to be innings forged under the auspices of another batsman. At the risk of sounding rude, it could be stated that Tharanga, thus far, has enjoyed a piggy-back ride on Sri Lanka’s well-experienced top-order.

Still it could be argued that Tharanga could do better than most of the youngsters in the team. However, stats clearly show that Tharanga might not have a suitable role to play in a modern ODI team. He is neither a hard hitter nor a technically sound batsman and hence, has to pay his price. He might still score runs, and that could only turn a paltry 200 into a respectable 250, but that is not going to help the cause of the team in any way.

It is true that cricket is not won on papers. But to have any on-field success, it is imperative to have a winnable team on paper. Upul Tharanga might help Sri Lanka save face; coat the stains with a layer of paint. He could very well patch Sri Lanka’s torn shirts. But, Sri Lanka needs to build a team that, at least, has the potential of winning matches in the future. We need batsmen who have answers to the questions modern day cricket asks. Upul Tharanga’s stats, unfortunately, show that he has no answer to such questions.

Tharanga’s presence may not help us win matches. At least in his absence, Sri Lanka can try and mold a team that could win matches consistently in the future. A player, who fulfills the fangled demands of ODI, should be allowed to establish himself in the team at the expense of the experienced Tharanga who doesn’t fit the modern narrative.

*TM Dilshan’s innings before he started to open the innings for Sri Lanka have been ignored.