It is unfortunate in some ways that Rangana Herath's career has run parallel with that of world-record holder Muttiah Muralitharan. Herath arrived on the Test scene seven years after Muralitharan had broken into the Test ranks, and by that time he had not only to compete with Murali but also Kumar Dharmasena, Upul Chandana and Sanath Jayasuriya for a spinner's berth in the Sri Lanka team.
After he made his Test debut against Steve Waugh's Australians in 1999, he had a rather bumpy ride in Test cricket. The few occasions he was able to make it to the side were when Murali was out injured or when the selectors thought they needed an extra spinner. Herath has played 17 Tests in the past 10 years, but he didn't ever give up trying.
He has just gone past a major landmark - 50 wickets. "My only disappointment was that it took me a long time to achieve it - 10 years. I have another target, 100 Test wickets. A lot of spinners can go on until the age of 36. If I can maintain my bowling form and my fitness, I don't see why I can't play for another five years," Herath, who is 31, said.
He was playing in the Staffordshire League in England when he was summoned by Sri Lanka Cricket as a replacement for Murali, who was ruled out of the Test series against Pakistan following a knee injury. Herath gladly accepted the chance of representing his country once again. Playing in his first full series of three Tests at home he was instrumental in the destruction of the Pakistani batting along with seamers Nuwan Kulasekara and Thilan Thushara, helping fashion a maiden Test series victory for his country at home against Pakistan.
"In the past when I got a call-up I was not sure whether I would be playing or not, but on this occasion I knew they were getting me down all the way from England because they wanted to play me in the Test series," said Herath. "I always have some kind of mental preparation before every match and before I come on to bowl. I am grateful to the captain, Kumar Sangakkara, and vice-captain Muralitharan, and the selectors who had a lot of faith in me."
Herath performed outstandingly against Pakistan, taking 15 wickets at 26.93, and two five-fors in the series. It echoed his previous success against the same side - in 2004-05, when he took 11 wickets at 29.09 from two Tests on flat Pakistani pitches.
It was after a match Pakistan, again, in 2000 at home, that he suffered the wrath of the selectors, who refused to look at him for the next four years. "When Pakistan scored 600 runs I couldn't get a single wicket and neither did I contribute anything worthwhile with the bat. I was dropped from the side after that game. I was disappointed because I had played only two Tests at the time. For the next four years I was not considered for national selection and at times not even for the A team.
"I've learnt a lot from the experience of the past 10 years. Earlier I played under some kind of pressure, wanting to perform to keep my place in the side, but in the series against Pakistan I was more relaxed, as if I was playing in a club match"
"But I fought my way back. Consistent performances in domestic cricket saw me get selected for the tour of South Africa and Kenya with the A team in 2002. I did not take wickets in South Africa but I scored runs. In Kenya I took wickets. I think these performances and my consistency in domestic cricket got me recalled for the home series against Australia in 2004," said Herath.
He only played the one Test in that series, though, and made a few sporadic appearances the following year before he was again overlooked for a further three years. He then returned to the fold in 2008 to play a Test apiece against West Indies and Bangladesh to no great effect. Then came the call-up against Pakistan. Out of the 11 Test series in which he has figured, Sri Lanka have won six, drawn one and lost three.
"I've learnt a lot from the experience of the past 10 years. Earlier I played under some kind of pressure, wanting to perform to keep my place in the side, but in the series against Pakistan I was more relaxed as if I was playing in a club match. I always had this self-belief that I can fight my way back into the team on my performances in domestic cricket and with the A team," said Herath. He has been a regular wicket-taker for Moors SC in the Premier League, averaging 50 wickets each season.
Herath said it was the lack of A tours that prompted him to take the decision to play league cricket in England. "I checked with Sri Lanka Cricket. I also gave a letter to the selectors saying that I was available for selection if they needed me. I went to the leagues because I wanted to maintain my bowling form. Had I stayed back, I wouldn't have got any match practice at all, only net practice. I am glad I took the decision to go and play league cricket, because eventually it proved to be very productive for me in the Tests."
Herath's personal opinion is that on subcontinent pitches left-arm spinners have an important role to play, and that it is essential the national team has such a spinner in its side. "Like it happened at the Sara Oval the other day, a left-arm spinner has the advantage over a legspinner in that he can bowl with the new ball and get batsmen out either bowled or lbw with his arm ball.
"A lot of countries have left-arm spinners playing, like Daniel Vettori for New Zealand, Monty Panesar for England… India has Pragyan Ojha and Bangladesh has a few of them. My wicket-taking ball is the arm ball, which gets a lot of batsmen out lbw. I also have a mystery ball, like Ajantha Mendis, which I have taken wickets with in Test matches. But in the series against Pakistan I did not bowl it often because I was not so successful with it," admitted Herath.
His cricket career began at Narammala Mayurapada Vidyalaya, where he played Under-13 cricket for one year and was taught the basics of the game by Lal Dinapoorna, who was also an umpire. Herath captained the school in his final year. He blossomed at Maliyadeva College in Kurunegala, under coach Rohan Deerasuriya, who changed him from a fast bowler to a spinner. He represented the college from the Under-15 age group, and was a consistent wicket-taker without being outstanding. In 1994 he toured Malaysia with the Sri Lanka Under-17 side, which also had Kumar Sangakkara; and he played in the Under-19 home series against India.
"My parents have been my strength," Herath said. "My brother, who also went to Narammala, played a little cricket. I was really keen and interested in the game since my childhood. I used to go and watch cricket matches played in my hometown Kurunegala and gradually developed a liking for the game."
He also spoke of how he is greatly indebted to his employers, Sampath Bank, in whose credit card centre he works, for giving him the freedom and time to concentrate on his game. "I will be completing 10 years with the bank next year. They have been very helpful to me in the years I've been with them, making it comfortable for me to play my cricket without any hindrance, for which I am very grateful." Sampath Bank employs cricketers such as Thilina Kandamby, Charitha Buddhika, Dilhara Lokuhettige, Hasantha Fernando, Jeevan Mendis and Shantha Kalavitigoda, who have made it a dominant force in the Mercantile A division league and knockout championships for the past five years.
Herath learnt a lot about spin bowling from two other former Maliyadevans, the evergreen Ajith Ekanayake and Ranjith Madurusinghe. "It was a pleasure playing with Ajith. He is one of the few bowlers who has taken over 1000 first-class wickets for Kurunegala YCC. I also got some useful tips from Bruce Yardley [the former Australia spinner who was one-time coach of Sri Lanka] on how a bowler should plan to take wickets.
"I love to watch Vettori bowling. There is a lot you can learn from him. I would love to meet and talk to him about bowling and I'm looking forward to the Test series against New Zealand," he signed off.