The man preparing Sri Lanka for life after Herath
If there was ever an opposition against whom Sri Lanka could consider a set of try-outs, West Indies would be it. In the light of Tharindu Kaushal's current entanglements over his action, Sri Lanka will certainly need to test the spin options that will be available to them in a post-Rangana Herath world.
The team's strength at home in the era after Murali has revolved around Herath. In 20 Murali-less home Tests, Herath cleaned out 136 wickets, Sri Lanka winning eight and drawing five. Herath, Sri Lanka's most successful spinner after Mr 800 is currently held together by crepe bandages and hope, his creaking knees and the rest of a generously proportioned 37-year-old body testing his ability to play through pain. The next two Sri Lankan front-line spinners after him have played eight (Dilruwan Perera) and six Tests (Kaushal); the latter has now been given a rap on his doosra fingers by the ICC.
The home Test series against West Indies will test Sri Lanka's spin programme after an era of more than plenty - more like an excellent tuck-in. The man in charge of training a new generation of Sri Lankan spinners, national spin bowling coach Piyal Wijetunge, works the balancing act between finding new, unorthodox talent and then keeping them on the straight and narrow when they are lured by the rewards of short-form cricket. Offspinner Kaushal came into the programme at the age of 12 and rose through the system to play his first Test in 2014 against New Zealand.
The load of Sri Lanka's attack against West Indies will once again rest on Herath. The country is aware that their last mystery-spin offering, Ajantha Mendis, is still recovering from injury and the yips. The bowlers now coming through SLC's spin programme are, sooner rather than later, going to be thrown in at the deep end.
The Sri Lankans have been here before. "When Murali was playing, we never wanted another spinner. Then Murali went. We thought it was the end of Sri Lankan spin, but then fortunately we had Rangana, who single-handedly started winning games for us," Wijetunge said during the recent Test series against India, who, alongside their lead spinner R Ashwin, aged 29, themselves picked two spinners aged 32 and 35.
"We're not far from India," Wijetunge laughed when talking about seeking the next young prodigious match-winning talent. Herath is at the tail end of his career and Sri Lanka don't have an experienced enough left-arm spinner to replace him. Wijetunge did, however, sound optimistic about the next generation he has watched grow during his last seven seasons as national spin coach. "Our young spinners might be able to do the job for us because they are highly skilled and have the potential," he said of a trio - legspinner Jeffrey Vandersay, who played two T20s against Pakistan this year, and Herath's two possible successors, left-armers Amila Aponso and Sahan Nanayakkare.
Sri Lanka's spin-bowling academy works through its national training centre, housed at the Khettarama Stadium, and features four groups of spinners - under the ages of 13, 15, 19 and 23, along with a fifth, elite, group. There are currently 67 in the ranks - 10-15 per age group - at a time when, Wijetunge says, "most of the kids want to be fast bowlers, the kids want to bowl fast and nobody wants to be a spinner. When Murali was playing, he was a hero and every kid wanted to be a spinner."
The SLC coaches try to keep the pool of available spin talent deep by reaching into the Sri Lanka Schools Cricket Association competition, the first feeder line for their academy. Scouts follow players at school events, call the most promising in for match trials, and then gather them at a central location. Since 2007, talent-search programmes have been held twice a year, in February and August, when scouts head out to watch local games. The U-13 level was introduced during the early years of Wijetunge's tenure: the players train at the centre once a week, and residential camps of longer duration are held twice a year.
The best spinners, Wijetunge says, still come from the main cities - Colombo, Galle, Kandy, Kurunegala. A former left-arm spinner himself, he smiles the smile of every slow bowler who has a good diss at bigger, quicker men. He expresses it quietly in words: "Spin bowling is an art. You need to have rhythm and you need to have a brain."
What the scouts look out for, he adds, are long fingers and the ability to turn the ball. When it comes to raw spinners, the ability, dexterity at turning the ball, to send it whirring, revving through the air or off the ground, is innate. Like timing is with batsmen. Much can be trained, but the talent of spinning the ball? "Boys are born with that talent. Between 15 and 19, they learn the skills."
Sri Lanka are proud of the spinners they produce - unconventional, unorthodox, controversial even. At their best, always attacking, devastating match-winners. "We always go for the unorthodox actions. If they spin the ball, they can be trained to be good spinners."
The blurred boundary between unorthodox and illegal will crop up every time a bowler gets hauled up by the ICC, as happened most recently with Kaushal. It is a situation that has caused much heartburn within the SLC over the last few years. "We had these problems earlier," Wijetunge says. "In 2010 two of our spinners were called at the junior World Cup."
There were two more cases in 2012 and another bowler called in 2014. "This was a severe problem for us, we just wanted to eradicate it, it became a nuisance, it gave us a bad name," he says. A protocol was laid out, empowering umpires to call bowlers with suspect actions and stop them from bowling during a game. Wijetunge says that in 2014, 65 spinners with suspect actions between the U-13 and U-19 age groups were called by umpires. "They were summoned to the national training centre. We assessed them, screened them and gave them remedial programmes." Some bowlers were successful after the remedial action, "some are still struggling, and the remaining have given up spin bowling altogether".
Like Muralitharan, Wijetunge too grew up in Kandy, also coached by Sunil Fernando, whose prime lessons to his spin trainees were "concentration, hard work" and the dead cert that "if you want to be a good spinner, there are no shortcuts". Already spin-friendly, pitches all over Sri Lanka tend to wear down over a season into rank turners, giving average spinners bucketfuls of wickets and the selectors a headache as to how to separate quality from quantity. It is why curators at the national training centre are told to produce good batting wickets, to test the trainee spinner's mind and his skills. It gives Wijetunge and his coaches the best chance to convert possible shortcuts into the long haul.
Along with regular training, there rests in the Sri Lankan academy a tool to strengthen spinners' fingers, so that they can give the ball more revs or give the middle finger the force with which to flick the carrom ball out of the hand. In Wijetunge's playing days, building finger strength was about doing endless push-ups off the fingers rather than the palms. These days fingers work out using a simple device: a stick with a spring at one end, which has a cricket ball fixed to it. The ball is meant to be turned, using the fingers, in the direction other than the one the torque of the spring imparts it. It was devised at the Khettarama training centre and is in full use, but wait till multinational sports goods manufacturers get hold of "The Twister".
The upcoming season for Sri Lanka promises to be a twister by itself. Sri Lankan ingenuity and innovation, particularly the kind emerging from its spin bowling factory, will be in demand. If an aspirant successor is found, the old masters and their country will be pleased.
Sharda Ugra is senior editor at ESPNcricinfo