May 30, 2013

The man who stepped into Murali's shoes

Since Rangana Herath's Test return in 2009, he has steadily come to be as valuable to Sri Lanka as the man he replaced back then due to injury

Around 2.30pm on July 2, 2009, Rangana Herath was preparing to go to the gym on a day off from training with his Staffordshire club. Had he left without his phone half an hour earlier, he might still be kicking around the first-class circuit. Sri Lanka might still be awaiting their first Test win since Muttiah Muralitharan's retirement. Their biggest away win in 13 years might never have transpired.

He remembers the day clearly, and the call he feels changed his life. Murali had damaged a tendon while training ahead of Kumar Sangakkara's first Test at the helm, and he had suggested to the new captain that Sri Lanka fly Herath in as cover. They were both on the line when Herath picked up. Sangakkara made the proposal.

"Ranga, there's a Test match in Galle, not tomorrow, but the next day… Can you make it?" Thirteen thousand kilometres away, there was only ever going to be one answer.

"I didn't even think about the fact that not only was I in England, I was in Stoke-on-Trent, which was about four or five hours from the London airport," Herath says. "I hung up the phone and thought, 'I've given my word, so I've got to go now.' On the way, I thought to myself, this will probably be my last opportunity. I was 31 at the time, and at that stage, happy to still be considered. I knew I needed to give it everything."

Less than a week later, Pakistan began the fourth morning in Galle needing 97 for victory and with eight wickets in hand, after Sri Lanka's underwhelming batsmen had set them 168. Salman Butt had batted securely in the second innings, beginning the day on 28 not out, while Mohammad Yousuf, a first-innings centurion, was unbeaten on 12. Sangakkara took a gamble on Herath to open the bowling and, in four balls, he dismissed the overnight pair and set Pakistan's fatal slide in motion. By the end of his second spell, Herath had dismissed four batsmen and conceded nine runs in 10.3 overs. Pakistan lost the match by 50 runs and the three-match series, 2-0. Herath finished second-highest wicket-taker and has been a fixture in the side since.

"That was a turning point for me," he says. "I sometimes think that if I had declined the offer to come, because it was going to be too tough to get to Galle, I might still be in England or someplace else."

Where he is, instead, is at third place in the ICC's Test bowling rankings. He is not often considered for the title of Test cricket's premier slow bowler, but he outranks every other spinner, and since his recall, has taken his wickets at a marginally better average than both Graeme Swann and Saeed Ajmal. Herath has had helpful tracks to bowl on at home, of course, but in that period, he has also outperformed Swann and Ajmal in Australia and South Africa by both average and strike rate.

There can be little doubt too that Sri Lanka's Test fortunes pivot on Herath, to nearly the extent they did on Murali. In Sri Lanka's five Test wins since Murali gave up the whites, Herath has taken seven five-wicket hauls, reaping 49 of the 100 opposition wickets - a larger share of the victory spoils than even Murali claimed in a staggering career, notable for its profound impact on the team's fortunes.

Yet, though he is the nation's best current cricketer, he remains unmistakeably an everyman, stardom having forgotten him, or he it. There is no IPL contract padding his wallet, no major sponsors have plastered his rotund figure on the island's billboards and, until March, he was not even in Sri Lanka Cricket's top contracts bracket. Herath still has a day job at a Colombo bank - though it is now not much more than a series of long duty leaves. He asks for another six weeks off from the human resources department in the same bashful tone that he addresses groundstaff at the Premadasa Stadium, from whom he needs the key to a locked door.

"Being a cricketer in Sri Lanka is no hassle at all," he says. "It's just my wife, our baby and myself at home, so I'm the one who goes to the markets and runs all the errands while she stays back. I've never had any issues."

"When I'm bowling, I don't stop thinking. Batsmen aren't afraid to step out and hit you. If you are thinking about every one of your six balls every over, you give yourself the best chance to succeed"

He chuckles at himself as he recalls the stunning catches he has taken in the recent past, three of which are as memorable as any to have been nabbed by his more athletic team-mates.

"Those catches come once in a while for me. I guess when I do my job well as a bowler, that confidence seeps into the other areas of my game as well. I try to be safe in the field, but those kinds of catches you can't really plan."

The most recent of the three takes - a stellar one-handed grab above his head, while back-pedalling towards the boundary - came during the 2012 Boxing Day Test, when he waged a lone war on Australia as his team-mates continued to shell chances off his bowling and flounder hopelessly with the bat. Exactly one year before that, they had held their catches, and given him sound totals to bowl at, as Herath led the side to a remarkable comeback victory in Durban, their first ever on South African soil, and the last time the now top-ranked side were defeated. In the last two years, Herath has not only become the side's primary match-winner but also their most consistent performer, win or lose. Like Murali, he is at once spearhead and workhorse, only, bereft of outrageous talent, he is not quite as talismanic.

"I think at some point I realised how important I was to the team, and that's when I really lifted my game. That responsibility was a blessing, because it helped me go to the next level. When I bowled poorly, I felt like I had really let everyone down. But at the same time, now, I don't think about the pressure on me to take wickets. I think that would be a mistake, to pile something unnecessary on top. I keep doing the thing I know how to do."

Subtlety is what Herath does best, working off an uncomplicated action, which in turn affords him uncanny accuracy. In an era when subcontinent spinners worship variation, Herath is foremost a disciple of flight, in all its myriad forms. Tossed up, ripping deliveries are punctuated by meticulously calculated darts, straight ones, and over-spinners. The trend may be to pursue unplayable, deliveries that depose batsmen in a single swipe, but instead Herath builds a steady narrative with each spell. Some balls are delivered in front of the umpire, others from wide out, more still with a round-arm action, each adding a new thread to the plot. Often, it is only when his prey is strung up on Herath's web that the entire machination comes into view. You wonder how you hadn't seen it all along.

"When you start reading the batsman and watching what he's doing with his hands, his feet, and you start reacting to that and figuring out how you can put him in trouble with the strengths you have at your disposal - that's when you take your bowling up a notch. When I'm bowling, I don't stop thinking. You have to do that in modern cricket. Batsmen are always trying new things themselves, and they aren't afraid to step out and hit you. If you are thinking about every one of your six balls every over, you give yourself the best chance to succeed."

He is quick to point out though, that his bowling is not devoid of variation. Among modern spinners, he is the pioneer of the carrom ball: the flicked delivery that turns the other way. But his version, he admits, is no longer the best in the market. Ajantha Mendis' and R Ashwin's imitations are better disguised and Sunil Narine's achieves more turn. Herath uses his "other one" sparingly, and as his hauls have become heavier, batsmen have grown wise, and dulled its effect.

In March, Herath celebrated his 35th birthday with a 12-wicket haul against Bangladesh, becoming only the third Sri Lankan bowler to take 200 wickets. The year should have had much more in store for him in his favourite format, but five Tests were removed from the calendar, leaving only a Zimbabwe series to look forward to before a year-end tour to the UAE in December.

"I don't have any targets in terms of numbers that I want to hit. I'll have to take it series by series, and think about the needs of the team and my own fitness and performance. There are a few young spinners now, who are coming through and they need to get that opportunity as well."

As Sri Lanka's new rock, and lately their sledgehammer, Herath has propped up a side in transition, and eased the loss of their greatest ever cricketer. Neither his hunger nor his art shows any signs of subsiding, but in three years, Herath has already left an indelible mark on his nation's cricket history.

Andrew Fidel Fernando is ESPNcricinfo's Sri Lanka correspondent. He tweets here

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • dummy4fb on June 2, 2013, 4:31 GMT

    great article. he's probably the best but most under-rated spin bowler in the world today in test cricket. Highest wicket taker in the last calendar year. Well done Hera

  • getgopi on June 1, 2013, 2:16 GMT

    "There are a few young spinners now, who are coming through and they need to get that opportunity as well."

    He is already thinking of making way for others. A really fine man! But I hope he will be around for a good while playing Test cricket.

  • cricarch on June 1, 2013, 0:14 GMT

    So the moral of the story is - Always keep your cell phones with you!

  • Joeblack0874 on May 31, 2013, 16:47 GMT

    Lovely piece of writing in here. Enjoyed the read. I am surprised at the facts that have been exposed here. With these figures, who can doubt his credibility. It is truly a shame that he has not been able to reap the financial benefits that many have had. Markets? This reminds me of the old term that my grandma used when she went "shopping" to the saturday market as we refer to it here. If Sri Lanka can manage to extract another 3-4 years of top flight spin from Herath that will do their team a whole lot of good, considering how wafer thin their bowling attack is at the moment. To be the last team to beat the number one team is a great tribute to Herath.

  • dummy4fb on May 31, 2013, 16:26 GMT

    Wow, so beautiful to read about Rangana....the ever so humble man from the cricket mad country of Srilanka....they truly say fame and fortune do not spoil a person whose heart only beats for cricket....

  • dummy4fb on May 31, 2013, 12:50 GMT

    This guy is a classy bowler. Wonderful article once again by Andrew. He might not have the natural talent or the stamina of Murali, but probably has more guile. But of course it must be remembered that Murali had a purple patch of at least 10 years, and a career of over 17 years. Herath has been awesome in the past 3 or 4 years, but a great career should be over a minimum of 7 - 8 years, ala Michael Hussey. But I have great respect for him for hanging in there when he was being ignored as the 2nd spinner all those years. As they say, a man has never failed until he has given up.

  • dummy4fb on May 31, 2013, 9:36 GMT

    I have a lot of respect for this guy. He is a very underrated spinner. Herath was the leading wicket-taker in 2012 and has bowled brilliantly for SL in the last 3 years or so. He won them a test in SA; it was a remarkable victory indeed. He is their strike bowler now and performs in almost all kinds of conditions. I hope he goes on for 2 or 3 more years. Maybe he can take 300 wickets and win more matches for his country.

  • dummy4fb on May 31, 2013, 4:59 GMT

    what a tribute to a great character of the game today. Respect !

  • ThatsJustCricket on May 31, 2013, 1:32 GMT

    One of the best and yet underrated bowlers of our time. A classic old school, orthodox, uncomplicated spinner and a real delight to watch.

  • Meety on May 31, 2013, 0:00 GMT

    Ashley Mallett spoke glowingly of Herath in article about the time of SLs tour of Oz. Because of that article - I got to appreciate the high level work ethic that Herath has. Whilst my favourite Lankan cricketer is Sangakkara, I really rate Herath, & am very happy for him when he gets wickets. I think on their day Swann & Ajmal are better (not by much), but for sheer consistancy around the world, I'd have him a shade ahead of Swann. == == == At 35 yrs of age, I wonder where the next batch of TEST spinners are going to come from?