England v Sri Lanka, 2nd Test, Chester-le-Street, 2nd day May 28, 2016

Everyman Herath waddles into history

He became the second-oldest man to reach 300 Test wickets - and possibly the least fit - but Rangana Herath's story is the best of what sport has to offer

Just after lunch, when Moeen Ali was gunning for a double-ton, he made a waddling dartboard out of Rangana Herath. Angelo Mathews, Sri Lanka's brick wall on the last tour, had begun to captain like one. Herath was one of seven fielders on the boundary, but it was him that Moeen picked on repeatedly. Moeen thumped the ball to Herath's left and ran an easy two. He sent it skidding to Herath's right and took another couple. At times it felt like Herath would be quicker if he rolled horizontally towards the ball. Just after lunch, when Moeen was gunning for a double-ton, Herath was a liability.

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There was a time when cricket was a liability to Herath. In the decade since his Test debut, his nation was besotted with mystery spin. For Muttiah Muralitharan, this was island love that ran deep, long and true. For Ajantha Mendis and his delicate fingers, Sri Lanka fizzed at first, then let infatuation slowly fizzle.

Through all this, Herath found himself perpetually on the fringes. He was in some ways the modern progenitor of the carrom ball, but easily the least subtle proponent of it. The extended pinky finger when he delivers it might as well have an unfurling banner attached.

So he subsisted on irregular A team tours, domestic matches in one of the most archaic first-class tournaments in the world, and on payment that was more like pocket money than a living wage. There was the job at a bank that he still holds dear; the brief stint in an English league that he still fondly remembers.

In the decade since his Test debut, Rangana Herath was line-and-length black-and-white in a technicolour age. He was a slow-bowling nation's surplus spin.

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One of Herath's great strengths has been the ignorance batsmen have shown towards his craft. He is a disciple of flight and dip, yet when the ball meets the pitch, the deviation is modest and such bite as he gets is slow, not leaping and fizzing. Murali left top orders broken, of course. But even bowlers such as Graeme Swann or Saeed Ajmal have inspired more fear and reverence from opposition, who labelled them "world-class spinners" or "genuine matchwinners". Herath has more wickets, with less fast-bowling support than both, but is more often awarded only second-rate appreciations. He is a "tough customer" and a "wily operator" they say, and though he is "always at you", he might not quite be "incredibly difficult to play".

And Herath guards his secrets like a magician, even if he is not everyone's version of a spin-wizard. "Just tried to put the ball in the right spot," is all the explanation he ever gives. But if he doesn't get extravagant turn, it is the batsmen he manoeuvres around the crease. They draw forward to the round-arm ball that drifts. They jam bats down on the dart at off stump. They play back to the lazy slider on the pads. They dance to Herath's beat, though mostly they don't know it, and hypnotically they are lured into traps, over cliffs.

The selectors have not always understood this either. When long, wicketless spells come, they begin to doubt. Even after he became Sri Lanka's most-consistent matchwinner since Murali, they have been quick drop him. In July last year, Sri Lanka left Herath out and failed to defend 377 in the fourth innings, against Pakistan. Upon his return in the next Test, he claimed 7 for 48 in an unbroken spell, and defended 176 from India.

In a 17-year career in which only 68 Tests have been played, Herath has had several downfalls. Among them has been his own selectors' seeming ignorance of his craft.

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Like his action, Herath's appeals are generally gentle. He turns on his heels, holds out his arms like wings on a biplane, and backpedals towards the batsman. Other spinners have demanded wickets of umpires. On the hunt, Murali's eyes used to implore. Herath has rarely yelled at teammates, and perhaps has never asked the question when he has felt it shouldn't be out.

When batting, he has been no different. In 2014 at Lord's, he even famously walked when the match was there to save, and he wasn't even out. Team-mates will say that though he is quiet, he is among the most generous in the dressing room. When he speaks about them in public, Herath bears this out. Like his action, so the man is gentle, keen and honest. Such virtues don't always help sportsmen out.

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Rangana Herath finally notched his 300th Test wicket © Getty Images

When the ball took the top edge of Steven Finn's bat and Herath took the catch, he became the 30th man to 300 wickets. He became the second-oldest to the milestone, and possibly the least fit to it as well. But why mire ourselves in such pathetic details?

If on some level sport is about the triumph of spirit over odds, if it is at all about life's trials playing out in microcosm, then who better than this kegful of a Kurunegala man to lavish with admiration? His are 300 wickets are wrung from dry circumstances, and wrenched from a mean-spirited system. They are prised from cricket's closed fist.

Let Herath waddle in the outfield as long as he likes, I say. Let batsmen take the twos. To watch him bowl is to see the best of what sport has to offer. And who knows when we will see his like again?

Andrew Fidel Fernando is ESPNcricinfo's Sri Lanka correspondent. @andrewffernando

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