Teams that visited Sri Lanka in the noughties witnessed their fair share of spin-bowling magic. Each series, teams would arrive confident that they had seen enough slow-motion footage of Muttiah Muralitharan's wrists to unravel his tricks. "We just need to play him off the pitch, on the back foot," went one theory. "The key is to counter him with the sweep," claimed another. Nothing really helped.

The SSC was witness to one of the most emphatic magic shows in 2008, when an Indian top order featuring Virender Sehwag, Rahul Dravid, Sachin Tendulkar, Sourav Ganguly and VVS Laxman were brought to their knees in a bent-arm whirl of big offbreaks, doosras and topspinners. In the end, despite the endless raids for his secrets, Murali retired with most of his magic intact.

Few would describe Rangana Herath as a magician. He jogs in, pivots, lands the ball on his intended spot, turn sit a little - where's the magic in that? It is more like the life of a miner.

When South Africa were in the country in July, several batsmen made note of his accuracy, but saw little threat beyond that. In that tour, Herath had been some distance from his best, maybe worn down by the volume of overs he has delivered this year.

As Herath claimed five wickets for 98 on Friday, five days after he had delivered an exhilarating victory in Galle, he had reclaimed his old form, but revealed something of his own magic too.

He may not have Murali's rubber wrists or Saeed Ajmal's subterfuge, but he is instead a purveyor of the long con. Herath's greatest illusion is that there is nothing illusory to him at all.

Many subcontinent spinners have embraced new bags of tricks in the T20 age, but for opponents and spectators all around the world, the most mysterious thing about Herath is that he continues to reel in big hauls.

Isn't he just a line-and-length trundler? A tightwad so the millionaires can spend big at the other end? When he has pulled off a match-turning spell, opponents often admit Herath is good - they really have no other choice - but few can quite explain why or how.

Herath gets his lucky breaks like anyone else. Younis Khan's dismissal on Friday was one of those on Friday. But the secret in the best Herath dismissals are not in the turn, or the prestige, but in the set-up.

Khurram Manzoor got seven dot balls from Herath, each tossed up, pulling his front foot a few centimetres further out each time, until in an instant, the bowler whipped the black cloth off his show-stealer.

Herath drifted one in with extra revs, pitched it on a patch of darkened soil, and spun it sharply enough to take the edge through to the keeper. The killer blow was nice, but the real beauty lay in the process of getting the batsman to commit to a shot he should never have played.

Manzoor left the field smashing bat on pads, as if to say "how could I have been so stupid?" But Herath's dismissals are so often like this. It is only after his prey is strung up on his web that the entire machination comes into view. You wonder how you had not seen it all along.

Herath's dismissals are so often like this. It is only after his prey is strung up on his web that the entire machination comes into view. You wonder how you had not seen it all along.

Late in the day, Herath tossed two up outside off stump to Asad Shafiq and beat his outside edge in successive balls. The next one was a slider dressed up as the orthodox spinner, with the same pace and trajectory of the two previous balls, but none of the turn.

This one went past the inside edge, as the batsman played for turn, and rattled off stump. All tricks have their time and place. Not every occasion calls for the long con. This was just your run-of-the-mill bait-and-switch.

In the past few months, Herath's cricket nous has been increasingly tapped by a captain who has been in on an all the bowlers' secrets. Mahela Jayawardene is still the most visible on-field lieutenant, but increasingly, Angelo Mathews is colluding with Herath when other men are bowling.

Jayawardene thinks offensive strategy. He knows which fields make batsmen uncomfortable. He has his finger on the pulse of the opposition innings, but Herath is the man with an ear to the ground when the bowlers are running in. He can tell when one quick is ailing, and the other is begging for another over.

Most of all, he appreciates their struggle. He understands which fields put the bowlers at ease, so that they bowl at full tilt without fear of leaking runs. He is the leader of this attack by dint of his hauls, but he is the leader in spirit too.

Like him, no bowler in Sri Lanka's ranks has outrageous talent to work with, but in his indomitable ethic, Sri Lanka have a flagbearer for perseverance. "You might have long, loathsome days," goes the new bowling ethos, "but your effort and your lines have to be impeccable from start to finish." With two bad knees and light years in his legs, no one takes up that challenge better than Herath.

On day two, Herath became the fourth-fastest spinner to 250 Test wickets, in his 57th match. The only quicker slow bowlers were Murali, Shane Warne and Anil Kumble.

Even Herath must wonder how he went from the Test-match wilderness to such esteemed company. Herath does not have the big-turning doosra or the rapid flipper, but with a talent for misdirection and a heart that keeps on ticking, he is still working his magic for Sri Lanka.

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