Here's to Herath
Rangana Herath has grabbed the spotlight with both hands this week. It is an unfamiliar position for him. In contrast to the near-deification bestowed on Sri Lanka's stellar cricketers, Herath has slipped gently into the national consciousness. I can't help but feel that suits his style.
HMRKB Herath - he follows the Sri Lankan tradition of having almost as many initials as there are letters in your surname - comes from Kurunegala, a city that sits amidst coconut and rubber plantations, surrounded by hills, including the elephant-shaped rock that gives the city its name. A 14th-century capital, Kurunegala is an unhurried city of past glories. These unflashy beginnings are reflected in Herath's approach.
A short, stocky man, Herath cuts an innocuous, almost inconspicuous, figure. Whereas the Sangakkaras and Jayawardenes of this world are instantly recognised, Herath could stroll into his local market without causing a stir. It is the same on the cricket field. A murmur of expectation might go around the ground when Abdul Qadir or Dale Steyn, both in their own ways explosive performers, take the ball. When Herath saunters to the crease, it's almost as if someone has strolled into a Sunday afternoon game, hoping to get a bowl.
Herath may look as if he is going to lob up a few harmless deliveries, more in hope than expectation, but he is a skilled and intelligent campaigner. Batsmen continue to underestimate him, and pay for it with their wickets. Ask New Zealand. You don't end up taking five wickets for three runs by accident. Those figures are freakishly good, out of place in a schoolboy's daydream, let alone the T20 World Cup.
Although he emerged in 1999 with a mystery ball, it is his mastery of old-fashioned virtues that has given Herath his success. Line and length, flight and dip are his weapons, married to subtle variations of pace. He is more Anil Kumble than Muttiah Muralitharan. He doesn't turn the ball square, or have the endless variations of Ajantha Mendis, variations that seem to confuse the bowler as much as the batsmen. But, as he proved by comprehensively out-thinking Brendon McCullum, Herath is a bowler out of the top drawer. And, for all the modesty of his demeanour, it would be foolish to doubt his competitive spirit. In his arm-waving, clenched-fist celebrations in Chittagong, he allowed his inner competitor a rare trip to the surface. Not even Qadir, who has talked of the red mist descending when he was hit for four, has had so much fire in his eyes. Perhaps it was an expression of frustration that he had been overlooked for the opening matches.
Leaving aside the fripperies of T20, Herath has performed in the hardest, least forgiving form of cricket. With 217 wickets in 51 Tests, he has become Sri Lanka's third- highest wicket-taker, after Murali and the tireless Chaminda Vaas (who managed to go one better than Herath by having more initials than there are letters in his surname).
In truth, Herath's career did not get going until Murali retired. There is no shame in playing second fiddle to the greatest spin bowler the world has seen, but it must have been a long and frustrating apprenticeship. When Murali retired in 2010, Herath was already 32 years old, late in the day to be handed the chance to establish yourself as your country's first-choice spinner. He must have known he had limited time to make his mark. Herath responded with a string of match-winning performances against South Africa and England.
Astonishingly, he was the highest Test wicket-taker in 2012, in the old days, when Sri Lanka still played Test cricket. He took an astounding 60 wickets in ten Tests, at an average of 23.61, and an economy rate below 3. He had gone from second string to world-beater. It was a remarkable achievement. If it was a relief for Herath, it was equally vital for Sri Lanka, desperate after Murali's retirement to find someone else who could win Tests.
My favourite memory of Herath is at the Gabba in 2012. I was sitting behind the bowler's arm when Matthew Wade smote a Nuwan Kulasekara delivery towards the long-on boundary. The ball seemed destined to drift over the ropes. Down beneath me on the outfield, Herath launched his diminutive body into the air, and flung out a short left arm as far as it would go. At the zenith of his jump, back arched to wring every millimetre out of his small frame, the trajectory of the ball and his outstretched fingertips intersected. He rolled to within a couple of feet of the boundary, ball firmly grasped in that magical left hand. Herath had broken Australia's opening century stand.
He does have the happy knack of making his most telling contributions in important situations, whether it be qualifying for the T20 semi-finals or bowling Sri Lanka to their first Test win on South African soil.
But what I treasure most about that catch at the Gabba was Herath's response. He glanced at the ropes, then trotted back to his team-mates, with a classically Sri Lankan smile on his face. There was nothing flashy or arrogant in his celebration, just the content look of a man who knows he has done his job. Rangana Herath may not sing his own praises, but there are plenty of people who will.
Janaka Malwatta is a poet, doctor and cricket lover who lives in Brisbane. He tweets here