Sri Lanka v South Africa, 2nd Test, SSC, 3rd day July 26, 2014

Herath takes South Africa on rough ride

On a pitch that had not yet begun to take huge turn off the straight, a spinner who seemed to have lost some of his bite of late shaped his entire day's work around one small patch of loose soil

Rangana Herath was in the Sri Lanka dressing room when his destiny two days into the future began to materialise. On the first morning of the Test, Vernon Philander bustled in from the SSC's South End and sent his first one down, full and wide for Upul Tharanga to leave alone.

But it was not the delivery or the shot that would concern Herath. Half a second after the new ball left Philander's hand, the spikes on his right boot dug into the SSC clay, about half-a-metre from the popping crease. Over the next two days, Philander, Dale Steyn, Morke Morkel and Suranga Lakmal would land on that same spot, several hundreds of times, raising little puffs of dust. They would loosen, then break off off small clods from the surface. During the breaks groundstaff would rush in and sweep up each fresh supply of debris with a dustpan and brush.

After day three, Faf du Plessis had said Herath could "pitch it on a small piece of coin". But the circular patch of dark soil that burned in Herath's brain from daybreak to dusk on day three was closer to the size of a small wheel of cheese. Herath's teammates like to joke that they cannot trust him around a few slices of cheddar. On Saturday, it was the wheel of cheese that consumed Herath.

He bowled 192 deliveries from the Tennis Courts End - 143 of those from over the wicket, with little consideration to whether the batsman was right-handed or left-handed. That rough was his target, and like a man with an incurable itch he kept going back to it, ball after ball. He pitched a few on the stumps too, but that was largely to prevent his ploy from going stale. Everything Herath delivered from over the wicket was governed by that half-square-foot of disintegrating clay.

It is easy for spinners to be seduced by rough, because out of the loose dirt, all sorts of manic things can sprout. It is a patch of endless possibilities. First there is the satisfaction of hitting footmarks. When Herath hit his target, as he basically always did, a cloud of dust erupted, almost like the beeps and flashing lights when a pinball hits the bonus button in the machine.

What the ball does from there is anybody's guess. Most of the time, it turns more sharply, but on other occasions it grips the other way. Some balls land and gain pace, like the dark dirt is a well of chaotic, kinetic energy. Others keep so low the rough almost swallows the ball up like a portal. Several go through straight, at the same pace at which they arrived. Herath knows better than most spinners that delivering no turn when some is expected can be as deadly as any magic ball. Sending a ball into the rough is almost an act of surrender, of giving yourself up to the whims of the cricket gods.

Hashim Amla sought mostly to pad Herath away on the leg side, safe in the knowledge the ball had pitched way outside leg stump. Herath kept looking for the rough nonetheless, hoping one would pitch and burst past his legs to connect with the off stump. All day he kept landing them on his cheese wheel, but they never did turn that far.

JP Duminy pursued a similar strategy in his uncompromisingly sedate mood, only as a left-hander, the lbw was often in play. He faced 26 balls from Herath without taking a single run off him. At his best, Herath works batsmen out scientifically, and if he could, he would have taken a sample of the footmark and sent it off to a lab for analysis. But as it was, all he could do was keep hitting it and hope. Duminy never looked like getting out to the balls pitched outside the footmarks.

When one eventually turned more than the rest after many speculative appeals, Sri Lanka burned a review to find the ball had still not turned enough. Yet Herath kept at it, every ball a replay of the last; deliveries flocking to that footmark like animals to a waterhole. Over an hour after Duminy had come to the crease, he finally reached the limits of his patience. He strode out to meet the bowler, but soon found the ball diving and jiving out of that same damned spot to beat the blade. Herath and the rough had won that one.

On a pitch that had not yet begun to take huge turn off the straight, a spinner who seemed to have lost some of his bite of late shaped his entire day's work around one small patch of loose soil. It was a day of discipline for South Africa, and one of scant entertainment for the spectators who had come to the SSC. For Herath, day three was about persistence and hope, bordering on obsession. If Sri Lanka bat as well as they hope to on Sunday, his tango with the rough may resume in two sessions' time.

Andrew Fidel Fernando is ESPNcricinfo's Sri Lanka correspondent. @andrewffernando