ICC Cricket World Cup 2011 / Features

From support act to lead role

For many years Rangana Herath was the ideal foil for Murali, but over the last four years he has become Sri Lanka's strike bowler

S Rajesh

August 22, 2014

Comments: 10 | Text size: A | A

Since the beginning of 2011, Rangana Herath has taken 119 wickets in 15 home Tests, an average of almost eight per match © AFP

When Muttiah Muralitharan retired from Test cricket in July 2010, it was feared that Sri Lankan cricket would endure a slump for the next few years. They still had batting giants like Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene, but what about their bowling? With Murali gone, there were serious question marks about their ability to take 20 wickets and win a Test.

In the last four years, Sri Lanka have answered that question reasonably well, with a 10-13 win-loss record in 40 matches, including wins in South Africa and England. The only country where they have been blanked out during this period is Australia, where they lost 3-0 in 2012-13. The bowling has withstood the absence of Murali remarkably well, thanks largely to Rangana Herath, who has played 35 out of the 40 Tests, and taken 189 wickets at an average of 25.74. Herath's tally works out to 37.6% of the total wickets taken by Sri Lanka's bowlers during this period, which isn't far off from Murali's percentage of 41.6% of the total wickets he took in the five-year period from 2005 to 2009 (255 out of 613 wickets in 40 Tests).

In the four years since Murali's retirement, Herath is one of four players to have won six Man-of-the-Match awards in Tests, the highest by any player - the others are Stuart Broad, Mitchell Johnson and Sangakkara. Among those four, two of them - Broad (46) and Sangakkara (39) have played more Tests than Herath. And since Murali's retirement, Sri Lanka haven't won a single Test without Herath - in the five matches when he hasn't played, they've lost once, to India, and drawn four times.

Clearly Herath's career has taken off in the last four years. In the 15 Tests he played with Murali - mostly in the mid to late 2000s - he took only 39 wickets at an average of 45.46, while Murali himself nabbed 90 wickets at 24.85. In the early part of his career, there were a couple of long breaks too, when he found himself out of the Test team: after playing only three Tests in 1999-2000, he was out for almost four years, from July 2000 to March 2004, and he was also out for 30 months between October 2005 and March 2008.

Since 2011, though, he has firmly established himself as Sri Lanka's go-to bowler - often in all conditions - and one of the best spinners in world cricket. His home record has been astounding - 119 wickets in 15 matches, or very nearly eight per Test - but he has also been reasonably effective overseas, taking 12 in three Tests in Australia, and winning Sri Lanka their first Test in South Africa with a match haul of 9 for 128 in Durban.

Rangana Herath's Test career
Period Tests Wickets Average Strike rate 5WI/10WM
Till Dec 2010 24 78 36.15 72.6 4/ 0
Jan 2011 onwards 33 182 26.02 59.3 17/ 4
Career 57 260 29.06 63.3 21/ 4
Rangana Herath in Tests since Jan 2011
  Tests Wickets Average Strike rate 5WI/ 10WM
Home 15 119 20.47 48.4 14/ 4
Away 18 63 36.50 80.0 3/ 0
In Aus, Eng, SA 11 36 37.05 2.81 2/ 0

Since the beginning of 2011, no bowler has taken more Test wickets than Herath, whose 182 in 33 games works out to an average of 5.5 wickets per Test. Herath has also taken on plenty of workload in these matches, bowling 1801.1 overs - an average of 54.3 overs per Test, and 31% of the team's overs - and his economy rate of 2.62 indicates he has given his captain plenty of control over long periods.

Herath is one of five spinners among the top ten wicket-takers during this period, but the only left-arm spinner; the other four are all offspinners. Saeed Ajmal is the second-highest wicket-taker among spinners, but in the last two series between Pakistan and Sri Lanka, Herath has outdone him. In the two-Test series that just finished, Ajmal took only nine wickets at 40.11, compared to Herath's 23 at 15.13. In the three-Test series in the UAE in 2012-13, the difference wasn't so great - Herath took 14 wickets at 36.64, to Ajmal's ten wickets at 42.10.

Highest wicket-takers in Tests since Jan 2011
Bowler Tests Overs Wickets Average Strike rate 5WI/ 10WM
Rangana Herath 33 1801.1 182 26.02 59.3 17/ 4
James Anderson 43 1724.3 175 27.58 59.1 6/ 1
Stuart Broad 40 1470.2 165 26.69 53.4 9/ 2
Dale Steyn 30 1125.4 151 21.43 44.7 9/ 1
Saeed Ajmal 26 1474.1 145 25.46 61.0 9/ 4
Graeme Swann 32 1363.4 129 32.21 63.4 7/ 2
Vernon Philander 26 877.5 115 21.57 45.8 9/ 2
Peter Siddle 32 1127.1 115 28.32 58.8 4/ 0
Nathan Lyon 33 1225.1 112 32.99 65.6 5/ 0
R Ashwin 21 1055.0 107 28.65 59.1 9/ 2

Before Herath 2.0 arrived, left-arm spin had slowly been consigned to a more defensive role in Test cricket, while offspinners had become fashionable again thanks to Murali, Ajmal, Harbhajan Singh, Saqlain Mushtaq and Graeme Swann. The offspinners had the doosra to add bite to their bowling, while the left-arm orthodox brigade had become predictable with their stock ball and the armer. Legspin, of course, was always a glamorous act, and after Shane Warne it became even more so. In the period between January 2002 and December 2010, left-arm spinners averaged 39.30 runs per wicket in Tests, while their right-arm counterparts - both offspinners and legspinners - together averaged 35.19. While that doesn't look like such a big difference, the gulf in the number of wickets they took during this period was huge: left-arm spinners took 1330, less than half of that of their right-arm counterparts (2779). Most of the top spinners during this period were right-arm ones: Muralitharan (418 wickets at 21.23) and Shane Warne (284 at 23.52) were the two outstanding bowlers, while Anil Kumble and Harbhajan Singh also took 300-plus wickets at averages of slightly over 30.

On the other hand, the two top left-arm spinners - Daniel Vettori and Monty Panesar - both averaged almost 35 per wicket, while there was only one left-arm spinner, Vettori, who took more than 150 wickets during this period. Herath's stats were modest as well over these nine years - 72 wickets in 21 Tests at 34.86.

In the last three and a half years, though, left-arm spinners have turned the tables, thanks largely to Herath. Abdur Rehman (79 wickets at 26.84) and Pragyan Ojha (71 wickets at 24.26) have contributed handsomely as well, but Herath has clearly been the protagonist.

Different bowler types in Tests since Jan 2011
Type Wickets Average Strike rate
Right-arm pace 2460 31.84 61.57
Left-arm pace 501 32.02 60.66
Offspin 968 34.36 68.33
Left-arm orthodox 622 32.94 73.67
Legspin 143 47.75 78.99

In terms of overall career numbers, Herath's 260 wickets is exactly 100 short of the leading wicket-taker among left-arm spinners: Vettori has 360 in 112, at an average of 34.42. Between them are two legends, Derek Underwood and Bishen Bedi, on 297 and 266 wickets. Herath is already 36, but given the form he has been in, it isn't too far-fetched to imagine that he could pass them all.

The top Test wicket-takers among left-arm spinners: Herath is currently in fourth place, exactly 100 wickets behind the leader, Daniel Vettori © Sajan Nair / ESPNcricinfo Ltd

A big difference between Herath's earlier version and his current one is his ability to be effective against left-handers. In the period between 2004 and 2010, in which he took 72 wickets in 21 Tests at 34.86, most of his success came against right-handers; against left-handers, each wicket cost him almost 50 runs. Since the beginning of 2011, though, he has been a lot more effective against them: he has brought in more variations of flight, speed and turn, and the result is that his average against them has dipped to slightly less than 30, a huge improvement on the earlier average of 49.47.

Herath versus right- and left-handers in Tests
  Right-handers Left-handers
Versus Wickets Average Strike rate Wickets Average Strike rate
2004-2010 55 30.18 65.91 17 49.47 83.35
Jan 2011 onwards 142 25.03 58.79 40 29.45 61.48

Given the amount Sri Lanka have played Pakistan recently - and the amount of success Herath has had against them - it isn't surprising that many Pakistanis feature in the list of batsmen dismissed most often by him. It also includes Ajmal, who averages a miserable 2.40 against him. (Herath has done a bit better against Ajmal during this period, scoring 37 off 60 balls, and getting out three times.) Against most of the specialist batsmen, Herath has bowled plenty of deliveries to get their wickets, but he has also kept most of them in check, going at less than three an over against all except Michael Clarke. That ability to bowl tirelessly and accurately for long periods was always his forte; now he has added variations and guile while keeping his core strengths intact, and the result has been a blessing for Sri Lanka.

The batsmen Herath has dismissed most often in Tests since Jan 2011
Batsman Runs Balls Dismissals Average Runs/ over
Misbah-ul-Haq 266 627 8 33.25 2.54
Asad Shafiq 206 508 7 29.42 2.43
Younis Khan 253 586 7 36.14 2.59
Azhar Ali 199 612 6 33.16 1.95
Saeed Ajmal 12 63 5 2.40 1.14
Michael Clarke 193 309 4 48.25 3.74
Matt Prior 87 177 4 21.75 2.94
Jonathan Trott 126 344 4 31.50 2.19

S Rajesh is stats editor of ESPNcricinfo. Follow him on Twitter

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Comments: 10 
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Posted by manjula on (August 25, 2014, 17:40 GMT)

One thing though, as all Sri Lankan knows, Why wasn't he played along side Murali. Had he played along side of Murali, SL could have dominate from year 2000.

Posted by Dummy4 on (August 25, 2014, 14:37 GMT)

@ygkd, wrist spinning is the arcane art of bowling, and also the most difficult. If you look back over the history of cricket it seems that leg spinners often come in clumps, with several good ones around at once, but between them there is often a dearth, with only one or two just barely Test quality spinners around.

Posted by Mohamed Afulal on (August 24, 2014, 10:05 GMT)

An interesting articles on leg spinners in modern era by Rajesh. Thank you so much for digging history to present your case more for reader empathy. Naturally Herath comes out on top for his ability to present variations rather than predictability. Yes, Daniel Vettory has got exactly 100 more wickets than Herath but he played 55 more tests. Herath is still playing whereas Vettori has retired. Who knows if Herath plays another 20 tests he could pass Vetoris 360 in 75 tests ?

Posted by parthiban on (August 23, 2014, 2:34 GMT)

so michael clarke has weakness against left arm spin.

Posted by Prahanta on (August 22, 2014, 14:06 GMT)

Rangana has been the real story behind Srilanka's success in recent time. Indian spinner should learn from him about how to bowl outside subcontinent.

Posted by Ranil on (August 22, 2014, 11:58 GMT)

Really pleased to hear Herath doing so well;he should look after his body to remain injury free & until the WC he should be used only sparingly in one day games.

Posted by Dummy4 on (August 22, 2014, 9:42 GMT)

Brilliant article on a great Sri Lankan production! I think if he play till he become about 40 years, he would have 400+ test wickets! Don't forget that he was the main reason for Sri Lanka to win T20I World Cup 2014 because he got 5 wickets in 4 overs giving only 3 runs vs New Zealand in Semi Final where Sri Lanka only had a total of 119 to defend. New Zealand was all out for about 70. It is useless to compare Herath 1.0 with 2.0 because in Murali era Herath had no wickets to get as Murali ran through the batting line up very quickly. However Herath is the match winner for Sri Lanka in this Herath era. By the way a very good, valuable article with great stats and numbers.

Posted by Philip on (August 22, 2014, 6:47 GMT)

If Rangana is such a good left-arm spinner, why didn't he dismiss KP more often??? Seriously, Herath was long a gem in the rough and one always expected him to come good if given enough time and now he has indeed, as the recent stats show. What staggered me when reading the figures was not how good Herath is going, but just how badly leg-spin was going (averaging half again as much per wicket as other spinning styles) - but if the current exponents are limited to the likes of Steve Smith, Scott Borthwick and the disappointing Imran Tahir then I guess that might explain why. Too many loose balls (a strike rate of 78 is not great but not sufficiently bad to explain away giving away 50% more runs per wicket). Yes, the leggies' modern run rate must be awful.

Posted by Andrew on (August 22, 2014, 4:37 GMT)

I love this bloke - so happy to see him having such success. Reminding us all how dangerous "old fashioned" finger spin can be when executed with such skill. Throw in his terrific attitude and approach to the game and cricket is very much the richer for having him.

Posted by udendra on (August 22, 2014, 4:23 GMT)

Apart from SL playing Pak more often, another reason for Herath to perform well against them is Pakistan's known vulnerability against left-arm spin.

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S Rajesh Stats editor Every week the Numbers Game takes a look at the story behind the stats, with an original slant on facts and figures. The column is edited by S Rajesh, ESPNcricinfo's stats editor in Bangalore. He did an MBA in marketing, and then worked for a year in advertising, before deciding to chuck it in favour of a job which would combine the pleasures of watching cricket and writing about it. The intense office cricket matches were an added bonus.
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