India v Sri Lanka, 2nd Test, Kanpur, 2nd day November 25, 2009

Herath shows heart for five-star returns

Cricinfo staff
The Sri Lankan left-arm spinner kept his head, and his line and length, in the face of the onslaught from the Indians

On landing in India, Kumar Sangakkara singled out Rangana Herath as Sri Lanka's best bowler, citing form as the criterion. It may have been intended as a red herring for India but, by placing Herath above Muttiah Muralitharan and Ajantha Mendis, Sangakkara had clearly set Herath a stiff challenge.

Today Herath took a few steps to meeting that challenge. He bagged his fourth five-for, and his first on foreign soil. It was an important contribution - India had posted a record first-day score, and on the way had exposed the visitors' three-spinner combination on a pitch that has remained slow.

Yet Herath had to earn that haul. On Tuesday, he was greeted by Gautam Gambhir with three boundaries and his first six overs went for 42 runs. He went wicketless through the day despite trying every variation. Things didn't get much better this morning; Rahul Dravid hit his third ball over his head for six, continuing the sort of aggression he'd shown during his 177 in Ahmedabad last week, and Sangakkara removed Herath from the attack after a four-over spell before lunch.

Enter Murali and Mendis. What would normally have proved a double-ace combination proved a flop as the Indians showed they'd done their homework on the duo's tactics and planning. In a week's cricket played so far Murali has bagged only three wickets and gone wicketless in the second innings at Motera. His stocks slumped further in Kanpur - he was the most expensive bowler in the Indian first innings.

As for Mendis, he was included in the playing XI for this Test after much deliberation as the Sri Lankan think-tank thought the Green Park pitch would start disintegrating soon. It was clearly a decision loaded with risks - Mendis is no more the mystery for the Indians that he was last year - and, with India unlikely to bat again to any consequence, it could be seen as having backfired.

The problems at Green Park were the same for Murali and Mendis: neither maintained a tight line, deviating as soon as the batsman charged him. On an unhelpful pitch persistence is key to a spinner's success, but Murali and Mendis appeared easily rattled.

Luckily Herath kept his head. Varying his delivery point from the popping crease, he never stopped giving flight to the ball and, as he grew in confidence, the ball started dipping. Once the wicket started to take turn in the second session he got it to break nicely, and force the batsmen on to the defensive.

First VVS Laxman, one of the best players of spin, got distracted by Herath's teasers. Aware of Laxman's preference for leaning into his drives Herath pitched it a few inches behind the good-length spot, luring the batsman forward. All the while he was not afraid to flight while using the arm ball (his stock ball) sparingly but smartly to keep Laxman rooted to the crease.He tied down Laxman with a maiden - one in which two leg-before decisions were turned down. The next over Laxman charged Herath but only managed to give an easy catch to the cover fielder.

The rest followed in quick succession and soon India were back in the pavilion. Herath's hard work impressed even his opponents. "He had to bowl on the first day when nothing was happening, but he stuck with it, persisted and finally reaped rewards." Gambhir said. The man himself remains confident. "When I started this series, personally I wanted to get a five-wicket haul in India. That was one of my targets and I am glad that I have achieved that," Herath said.