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ESPNcricinfo Awards 2014 T20I bowling winner: A master sans mystery

In Chittagong, Rangana Herath lorded it over New Zealand's batsmen despite having only one variation to his stock delivery

A T20 spell of astounding quality  •  Getty Images

A T20 spell of astounding quality  •  Getty Images

Mystery has ruled spin bowling in the T20 age. Short-format slow bowlers are no longer measured by how far they can spin the ball but in how many directions. The trick is no longer to beat batsmen with flight or dip: it's about leaving them groping, open-mouthed, while the ball whizzes off in another direction. Or at least this was true of the pre-crackdown universe during last year's World T20.
Sri Lanka bought into this thinking during the early stages of their WT20 campaign, when Sachithra Senanayake and Ajantha Mendis were their main men. Between those two, they have about three deliveries that are yet to be properly named. Rangana Herath, the round-faced Test old-timer, is a little too square for this new stuff, went the theory. He has one ball that turns the other way, but the outstretched pinkie when he delivers it might as well have an accompanying banner that reads: "Hey you, watch out! Here comes my carrom ball."
So it was only after Mendis had been washed away by the Chittagong dew against England that Herath was finally extracted from the dugout. His first match - the virtual quarter-final against New Zealand - did not begin well. The pitch was drier this night than it had been previously, but 119 is still closer to the life expectancy of a citizen of Japan than a decent T20 total.
Perhaps we should have known it would be Herath's night when, after sending down his first delivery, he scooted to his right, swiftly collected the ball and ran Martin Guptill out. Guptill is so quick and agile, he could be an X-Man. Herath, meanwhile, has worse-preserved knee joints than most dinosaur fossils.
Then came the wizardry - or was it puppetry? Herath didn't just have the ball on a string, he seemed to have the New Zealand batsmen on bits of twine too. He flighted one up to Brendon McCullum's off stump to show him the appreciable turn first, then angled a slower one on to the pads. McCullum dared not hit against the spin so early, especially if Herath had ripped it in. Another flighted, turning ball on off stump, then a dart - the first one - on the pads. Having delivered four dot balls, Herath knew McCullum's next move long before the batsman made it. He floated one up wide of the stumps. McCullum charged out. The ball dived and jived. Bails broken, match torn open, New Zealand's captain was soon trudging back.
Ross Taylor, arguably a better player of spin, was outmanoeuvred even more forcefully. From the first two balls, Herath determined Taylor could not pick which one would turn and which would slide on, so he alternated between them, raising two appeals in the first four balls, before nailing him with the fifth.
James Neesham was bamboozled through the gate. Luke Ronchi was outdone by one that spun. The pitch was taking a little more turn than usual, but it was hardly spitting square. Slow bowlers would almost certainly have had more value for their revs up north in Mirpur, yet there New Zealand's batsmen were, committing to more wrong lines than a drunk at a karaoke bar, prodding like they could not pick the man who turned it in only one direction all night.
The last man, Trent Boult, was essentially a prop in an act of cricketing justice that evening. He ran out of his crease and gave Herath his five-wicket haul by gamely deflecting the ball to slip. The man who snaffled it there was Mahela Jayawardene - Sri Lanka's captain on the night, despite what the team sheet said. The slip and short leg that stayed in for Herath throughout the innings were there at his behest.
After the match, Herath told television presenters there was nothing more to his haul than "bowling the ball in the right place". It is the same line he always brings out, and it might be bashfulness, or it could even be willful deception, but 261 Test wickets in, does anybody still believe it? Five wickets for three runs are not the figures of a bowler who simply puts the ball on a length. Positive batsmen, drenched in form, don't stall and scatter at the sight of such uninspiring diligence.
No. On this night, Herath had condensed his Test mode of attack. He was bowling one from out wide, another from close in, flighting the first, darting the second, adding threads as he went until the batsmen were strung up, suddenly dead in the web. At the time, it was hailed as "one of the great T20 spells", but really, that is probably underselling it, because when was there ever a better one?
Sri Lanka would go on to win the tournament when Lasith Malinga memorably muzzled MS Dhoni in the final, and a previously out-of-sorts Kumar Sangakkara stroked a perfect half-century. But none of that was as wonderful as this Herath 5 for 3. Nothing to come was so thrilling, or so unexpected.
When Sri Lankans reminisce about the 1996 World Cup, mind and conversation can't help but linger lovingly on that sublime Aravinda de Silva counterpunch in Kolkata - the 66 off 47 that simultaneously defined and epitomised that triumphant campaign. Alongside it now, and no poorer for having come in the shortest format, must sit this effort from Herath.
A match transformed by lion-hearted desperation. A tournament turned by frill-free freakery.

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