On July 2, 2009, Rangana Herath was about to go to his gym in Stoke-on-Trent in northern England. He was 31, a veteran of 94 first-class matches, but only 14 of them were Tests. He wasn't really expecting to add to that tally any time soon.
Not yet an international cricketer, having made his IPL debut two months previously, R Ashwin was perhaps going through the previews to gear up to watch India play an ODI in the West Indies on July 3 and then the Test between Sri Lanka and Pakistan in Galle from July 4.
Herath's phone rang. They wanted him in Galle. Muttiah Muralitharan had been injured, they needed a support bowler for the man supposed to take over from him, Ajantha Mendis. It was a matter of minutes. A little later, and that call could have gone unanswered for an hour at least. Perhaps Herath wasn't the most punctual to go to the gym, which you can imagine he didn't quite look forward to. The crucial fact is, the phone was in his pocket and not in his bag as it would have been a few minutes later. He was able to answer that call, drive five hours to London and make the flight, which he might not have been able to do an hour later. He flew economy, and made it to Galle on the morning of the Test. Had Sri Lanka lost the toss, Herath might have had to shake off his jet lag on the field.
Six years later, their paths crossed in Galle. Ashwin was going through a strange patch in his career. He had excellent numbers but had also missed seven out of India's last 13 Tests, played in South Africa, New Zealand, England and Australia. He was not happy about being left out. Inside he raged. He wondered why he had to sit out if the fast bowlers couldn't finish a Test in South Africa. Or why the batsmen's failures in England resulted in his being dropped in Australia.
Herath had already gone through all of that twice over. Even after coming back and becoming Sri Lanka's rescuer at the age of 31, he would find himself left out of sides inexplicably. The finals of the 2011 World Cup and the 2012 World T20, despite good performances. If Ashwin was despondent or nervous coming into Galle in 2015, he could do well to learn from the quiet perseverance of Herath.
In this match, Ashwin took 10 wickets, including six on the first day, but he and India were outdone by Herath and Sri Lanka. Watching Herath, Ashwin learned an important lesson: to not give up the stumps, to sometimes strive to turn the ball less. The difference perhaps was the hours and hours of bowling experience Herath had gained by bowling in first-class cricket before he finally got his chance. Ashwin didn't have to wait so long for success; when he was denied it, he would become restless and try to turn the ball harder. Ashwin was now learning to wait for his time.
Since then, between them, aided by changing techniques because of DRS and in part by changing pitches, Ashwin and Herath have made fingerspin great again. It can be argued that Ravindra Jadeja is more than just support cast - he is in fact No. 1 on ICC charts right now - but the two outstanding bowlers over the last six years have been Ashwin and Herath. Since Ashwin's debut, they have played 49 Tests each and have near-identical numbers in those Tests: 275 wickets for Ashwin and 274 for Herath, 25 five-fors each, seven and eight 10-wicket match hauls. Herath is slightly more miserly, but Ashwin has taken fewer deliveries for each strike. Herath has set up Test wins in South Africa and England, Ashwin has been Man of the Series in Sri Lanka and the West Indies.
Before the two, the pre-eminent spinners in the world were either wristspinners or fingerspinners with a bit of mystery about them. Fingerspinners without mystery were there just to tie one end up until the pitch started doing things for them. The most mystery these two have ever carried in their kitbags is the carrom ball, whose oldest known practitioner, without going as far back as Jack Iverson, is Herath and whose best proponent today, arguably, is Ashwin. Yet, in Test matches, in these days of close video analysis, there is hardly any mystery to the carrom ball.
A lot of their mystery now is in trying to control the amount of turn they impart on the ball. It is not an exact science, but they are adept at giving the ball the best chance to turn less should they need that variation. They change their seam angles and points of release subtly. As a few batsmen have acknowledged, you can exhaust yourself countering one mode of their attack, and then suddenly, just like that, they unleash another.
They use different arms. One is pudgy, the other is tall. One is likely to share a laugh about his pudginess, the other remains on the edge. One is trying to maximise whatever little Test cricket is left in his 39-year-old body, the other is at his prime, physically and mentally. Yet they are more similar in their styles and their stories than you would think. Back now in Galle, a landmark venue for both of them, they resume the contest to find out who the best bowler of this decade is. Herath will be at a disadvantage because his support is not as robust as Ashwin's, because his body is less likely to stand the strain of three Tests in three weeks, and because his side nearly lost to Zimbabwe last week, but then again he was at a similar disadvantage the day he answered Kumar Sangakkara's call in Stoke-on-Trent.