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Honed by the lean years, Rangana Herath prepares for final feast

Rangana Herath trains ahead of his final Test appearance AFP

It is impossible to watch Rangana Herath bowl a difficult spell and not gain a sense of the human being. On those days - the tough ones - when he's set a batsman up for the slider only for the opponent to have worked him out, when he's tried the gentle floaters, the over-spinners, the round-arm darts, and none of these has come good, these are the moments that lay him bare, the sessions that expose him.

He is a mongoose, rooting through the undergrowth. He turns over another rock, and drives onward, never pausing, a vision of grim determination. Great spinners are often cast as wizards, players who flicked their fingers, flexed their wrists and brought forth the magical - balls that exploded off the surface, deliveries that danced through defences, batsmen left standing there like idiots, their minds addled, their feet hexed. Herath has more wickets than all but three of the greatest, but he has never been that kind of spinner. He has lived and played in our world, rooting through the undergrowth.

His success seems all the more extraordinary for having come now, in the second decade of the 21st century. This is an age of academy-drilled cricket-playing automatons, and in Sri Lanka, of frequent fast-tracking of young players into the national team, like they are being carried in on palanquins. It is no surprise that many of these young players fail abysmally when hard times come, because when have they ever known them?

Herath, meanwhile, knows all about lean years. He spent a decade in the shadow of Muttiah Muralitharan, playing season after thankless season in the domestic competition, picking up short-term gigs in English leagues, part-timing at his bank job when there was no cricket to be played. What's a wicketless session compared to all that? What's a batsman who has just hit him against the turn? A team-mate who has dropped another catch? An umpire in a sour, not-outing mood?

If he has never taken it upon himself to shoot barbs at the many powerful incompetents running cricket in the country - as virtually every other great Sri Lankan player has done - it is because he has never taken himself too seriously. Self-deprecation comes easily to him. Boasting and posturing, not at all. Make a quip, about his rotund shape, say, as everybody who has ever written about him, or spoken about him, or looked at him has done. He will chuckle as if he was in on the joke. So heartily, it's like he is more in on it than everyone else. Few great bowlers are as forgiving of team-mates who have made fielding lapses, yet Herath will throw himself around the field for others, despite the fact his body is at least 90% torso. Another joke about his shape. Who can possibly resist?

In the last two years, Herath has almost certainly been the most popular active cricketer on the island, partly because the new generation has failed to capture the public imagination, but also because, more than any other cricketer, he has felt like one of us. The great battles of his career are not with form, or technique - what does the policeman, or the bus driver, or the marketing executive know of those? But he has been doubted, he has known toil, he has been overlooked, accused, ignored, spat out. One time in 2016, he was hit in the box by Josh Hazlewood, and he walked funny for the next three sessions. That he claimed yet another five-wicket haul and won that Test upon wounded groin only made him more endearing.

His body, he says, is now properly giving up. There's only enough strength left in his audibly creaking knees for one more five-day stint of toddling up to the bowling crease and waddling around the outfield. There will only be two more reverse-sweep laden innings, at most.

In looking back at his career, it is tempting to recount only the astounding highs - the frequent ambushes of Pakistan, the 2011 revelry in Durban, the home rout of Australia, that spellbinding defence of 176 against India on his favourite track, in Galle. All that is worth enshrining. But don't forget the other Herath. The one who has tangoed unsuccessfully with the rough for sessions on end. The Herath who could have let his career slip all those years ago, but sweated for a decade, for a dream. He finishes now in the realms of the game's greatest, but it is not genius that got him there. It is the lean years that have made him what he is.