December 13, 2012

Spin 'em hard, Herath

On Australian wickets, Sri Lanka's spinners will need to vary their pace and put their backs and fingers into it

I was running my Spin Australia national slow-bowling programme in Colombo in 2006, when among the 700 spinners there, aged 13 to the seniors, my spin director (and now Sri Lanka national fielding coach) Ruwan Kalpage and I looked at Rangana Herath, the chubby left-arm orthodox spinner, and the beanpole right-arm offie Suraj Randiv.

Herath had already played Test cricket, while Randiv was a rookie but well thought of and already part of then-coach Tom Moody's national spin plans. The Sri Lankan army had also sent along the finger-flick merchant Ajantha Mendis to our academy. All eyes turned to Mendis over the next couple of years, but Herath and Randiv kept plugging away in the wings. They never failed to bowl less than two hours at a session at the academy, and were always looking for more bowling as the last batsman wandered off to the change rooms.

Unlike today's first-class spinners Down Under, the Sri Lankans bowled and bowled in the nets. Australia's first-class spinners could do with Ricky Ponting's training philosophy: "I never saw a player get better by doing less work." Herath and Randiv heard on many occasions my take on bowling in the nets. It is no coincidence that the cricketers who work hardest seem to have the most luck.

A solidly built little bloke, Herath wasn't a standout gifted spinner, but I liked the way he competed. He tended to bowl flat, and from the time it was suggested that he drive up and over his braced front foot, he improved out of sight.

His stock ball is hard-spun, and if he bowls a flat delivery, he knows how to regain the desired just-above-the-eyeline loop by reaching up a little higher on his front foot at delivery. That enables Rangana to stay for a split second longer on his front foot, and helps him achieve maximum revolutions on the ball.

If you have a look at some of the great spinners in modern times - Shane Warne, Murali, Saqlain Mushtaq - you will note that they all spent a long time on the front foot. Apart from failing to get his angles right to the right-handers, Nathan Lyon, for instance, spends too little time on his front foot, and that makes him rush through the crease.

Herath played his first Test match on the usually spin-friendly Galle pitch in 1999, where he bowled in tandem with Murali, taking 4 for 97 off 34 overs. His victims: Steve Waugh (19), Ricky Ponting (1), Shane Warne (0) and Damien Fleming (16). Sri Lanka, however, didn't always need two spinners, and Murali was always, quite rightly, No. 1.

When I first saw Herath, he was in the Test wilderness, but he battled on gamely and is now the undisputed premier spin bowler in Sri Lanka. In 42 Tests matches he has taken 174 wickets at 29.67, which includes 13 bags of five wickets in an innings and two ten-wicket match hauls. Like the combative Warne, Herath always sports a cheeky glint in his eye. That reflects his love of the contest and his confidence in his own ability.

He also bowls what journalists in the subcontinent call a "mystery" ball. It is, in fact, not a mystery at all, unless the mysteriousness is all about a batsman's inability to pick the direction of the spin. He merely turns his hand over and it is released out of the front of the hand with a hint of leg-cut on it. Easy to pick, but so too are offbreaks and outswingers, stock deliveries that got more than a few wickets for Murali and Malcolm Marshall in their illustrious careers.

I'd love to see Herath stay tall through his deliveries and reach up to maintain the tantalising loop that helps him in a quiet and disarming way to dismantle opposition batting line-ups

Left-arm orthodox spinners don't always do well in Australia. There have been rare exceptions, such as England's Hedley Verity between the wars, our own Bert Ironmonger, and England's Tony Lock and Derek Underwood. Herath, though, might do well against Michael Clarke's men, for the playing of quality spin worldwide has fallen away in recent times.

To succeed on the flint-hard wickets in Australia, Herath will need to spin hard and make sure he operates with a consistent dipping arc. Subtle changes of pace are vital for spin success here. Most wickets afford a good spinner turn and bounce, but those changes of pace are all-important. On these wickets, batsmen can confidently hit on the up, and if the bowler doesn't change his pace, his figures will soon suffer. Herath must also operate to a 5-4 off-side field to the right-handers.

Too often overseas, left-armers bowl to a 6-3 field on the line of off stump or outside off. This was the field that brought Monty Panesar down here; the field that left-armers bowl to in county cricket.

When bowling that line, the left-armer beats the bat and the ball misses off stump. The keeper throws back his head, everyone applauds, and Monty is lauded for what is only a moral victory. Had he beaten the bat of the right-hander when operating to a middle-and-leg line, the ball would have had every chance of hitting off stump or pad, and that beats a moral victory any day. Herath must operate to a middle-and-leg line, with four fielders on the on side, so that if they miss, he hits. If he bowls that attacking line, Herath will be a far greater danger to Australia's batsmen than he would be if he bowls the "Panesar line".

I'd love to see Herath stay tall through his deliveries and reach up to maintain the tantalising loop that helps him dismantle opposition batting line-ups.

The offspinner Randiv takes time to get his rhythm and pace right. Often he bowls too slow, and he doesn't always get the timing to his liking. A few years ago his bowling arm tended to slow to almost a standstill on the downswing. To compensate, Randiv rushed the latter part of his action. The result was a jerky delivery, which greatly affected his rhythm and time of release. He was too often too full or too short, and easy pickings for good players. But he worked hard and we got his arm speed to start on full energy from the time he cocked his wrist to delivery and follow-through. He has long, strong fingers and he seems to dig his fingers into the seam, ever looking for greater purchase.

Randiv had a tough introduction to Test cricket, against India at the SSC in July 2010. Sri Lanka, thanks to big hundreds from Kumar Sangakkara (219) and Mahela Jarawardene (174), declared their first innings at 642 for 4. Randiv had runs to play with and was set for a good first Test match. But a double-hundred from Sachin Tendulkar and runs galore from others saw India hit 707, and Randiv toiled through 73 overs for 2 for 222. He has played 12 Tests for 43 wickets at an average of 37.51, but he has never been able to cement a regular place, only coming in to bowl in tandem with Herath when the wicket has warranted two frontline spinners.

Traditionally Australians have struggled against quality offspinners, and Randiv may make an impact. Over the years England's Jim Laker, South Africa's Hugh Tayfield, West Indies' Lance Gibbs, India's Erapalli Prasanna, New Zealand's John Bracewell, and England's Graeme Swann have bowled well in Australia. Even England's Peter Such picked up 11 wickets in two Test matches a decade or so ago. If they were not actually getting wickets, they helped create opportunities up the other end by building pressure.

Australians will welcome the sight of spinners bowling in tandem in a Test match, and on the spin-friendly wickets in Melbourne and Sydney they may get the chance to see Herath and Randiv bowl together on the Test stage. More likely, though, Herath will be the lone Sri Lankan frontline spinner. His clashes with Clarke and Co might turn the series the visitors' way.

Ashley Mallett took 132 Tests wickets in 38 Tests for Australia. An author of over 25 books, he has written biographies of Clarrie Grimmett, Doug Walters, Jeff Thomson and Ian Chappell