Herath's 'modesty' at odds with stats
Among the current Test crop, Rangana Herath is perhaps cricket's least likely athlete. Barely 5'7" with a physique better befitting a shopkeeper, at a glance, or at first meeting, no one would guess he was 2012's most successful bowler.
He has piled up 60 wickets at 22.03 this year, and with only one more Test to play before year's end, he will remain atop the list. His name may barely register in a conversation about the best bowlers in operation, but he will not be irked by that. It is not that Herath takes no pleasure in personal achievements; he knows his international tally by heart, and has a firm eye on the Test bowler's rankings, where he is fourth. But he is aware of his own limitations - sometimes to a fault.
Despite having surpassed Graeme Swann's 2012 haul with a second-innings five-for on a barely helpful Hobart surface, Herath named Swann the premiere spin bowler in the world in the lead-up to the Boxing Day Test, citing Swann's consistency over the past two seasons. The numbers do not bear Herath's modesty out.
It is almost natural to wish to apply a caveat to the volume of Herath's recent riches, given his seemingly pedestrian method. He does not impart a great deal of spin on the ball, and he lacks Swann's height or Saeed Ajmal's trickery. He is said to be the father of the carrom ball, but in that, he is like Buddy Holly or Nikola Tesla - the man whose genius inspired a swathe of better presented, more successful imitators. He removed David Warner with that ball in Hobart, but even Herath does not seem taken with the delivery, especially in Tests, where it is often out of sight. As such, it is difficult to reconcile Herath's harvest with the apparent skill on display, and the most obvious criticism to hurl is that his plunder has been reaped on a buffet of turning home tracks.
Though that may be true, the others high-up on the wicket-taker's list have also played on pitches that suit their bowling. Swann has played 14 Tests to Herath's nine, and has also bowled in two more Tests in Asia than Herath. Three matches were in the UAE, where Ajmal and Abdur Rehman so brutally laid bare England's susceptibility to spin. He played twice in Sri Lanka, before taking on West Indies and South Africa at home. And the four Tests in India to finish the year were largely on tracks even more tailored to suit spin than is normal in the subcontinent.
James Anderson and Stuart Broad are also in this year's top five, but they have played more Tests and have significantly higher averages, and although Vernon Philander has also only played nine matches, New Zealand, England and Australia are hardly daunting destinations for bowlers of his ilk. Only Saeed Ajmal, who has played six Tests, all in Asia - and whose haul in the three-match series against Sri Lanka was identical to Herath's - can hope to claim parity with the left-arm spinner on statistical grounds. It is also worth noting that in three fewer Tests, Ajmal is 21 wickets shy of Herath's tally.
Herath may not lack in awareness of his own game, which he has built upon the pillars of flight, dip and subtlety. He has filtered those qualities almost to a formula that spin bowling coaches might buy by the bottle, to gift to a burgeoning generation of youngsters more occupied with the mystery and variation that is valued in Twenty20 cricket. But Herath has not yet mastered self-belief, and if his numbers are anything to go by, it is time he began counting himself among the world's best.
In his first match in Australia, he has already achieved what Muttiah Muralitharan could not in five attempts; a five-wicket haul. Yet in the first innings in Hobart, Herath's bowling was defined by its restraint. There was little turn on offer, but perhaps such rigid service to economy and accuracy does not befit Sri Lanka's primary match-winner. He prefers to have men on the fence throughout his spells as well, but he has been effective across all formats when batsmen have tried to attack him, and past evidence suggests he will become even more of a threat if batsmen are tempted to hit him aerially. For now, though, he remains unambitious when the pitch is still ill-suited for spin.
"Whatever the situation, you have to react to it," Herath said. "In Australia in the first day and second day, you need to bowl a bit tight and help others. Especially the fast bowlers - not like in Sri Lanka. That's how wickets behave here. When I got some assistance in the second innings, I got five wickets. There's something different in the first and second innings."
In the four matches Sri Lanka have won since Murali's retirement, Herath has thrice delivered the game's most telling contribution. During the recent series against New Zealand, the captain Mahela Jayawardene nominated Herath the second-best Sri Lankan bowler he has encountered in all his years in the game. With 41 wickets in 2011 as well, Herath has made more breakthroughs than any other bowler in the last two years. At the MCG, if he can play like the bowler who owns that record, perhaps a pace attack lacking penetration will have less to do, and Sri Lanka could be that much closer to that maiden Australian win.
Andrew Fernando is ESPNcricinfo's Sri Lanka correspondent