When Muttiah Muralitharan retired from Test cricket in July 2010, it was feared that Sri Lankan cricket would endure a slump for the next few years. They still had batting giants like Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene, but what about their bowling? With Murali gone, there were serious question marks about their ability to take 20 wickets and win a Test.
In the last four years, Sri Lanka have answered that question reasonably well, with a 10-13 win-loss record in 40 matches, including wins in South Africa and England. The only country where they have been blanked out during this period is Australia, where they lost 3-0 in 2012-13. The bowling has withstood the absence of Murali remarkably well, thanks largely to Rangana Herath
, who has played 35 out of the 40 Tests, and taken 189 wickets
at an average of 25.74. Herath's tally works out to 37.6% of the total wickets taken by Sri Lanka's bowlers during this period, which isn't far off from Murali's percentage of 41.6% of the total wickets he took in the five-year period from 2005 to 2009 (255 out of 613 wickets in 40 Tests).
In the four years since Murali's retirement, Herath is one of four players to have won six Man-of-the-Match awards
in Tests, the highest by any player - the others are Stuart Broad, Mitchell Johnson and Sangakkara. Among those four, two of them - Broad (46) and Sangakkara (39) have played more Tests than Herath. And since Murali's retirement, Sri Lanka haven't won a single Test without Herath
- in the five matches when he hasn't played, they've lost once, to India, and drawn four times.
Clearly Herath's career has taken off in the last four years. In the 15 Tests he played with Murali
- mostly in the mid to late 2000s - he took only 39 wickets
at an average of 45.46, while Murali himself nabbed 90 wickets at 24.85
. In the early part of his career, there were a couple of long breaks too, when he found himself out of the Test team: after playing only three Tests in 1999-2000, he was out for almost four years, from July 2000 to March 2004, and he was also out for 30 months between October 2005 and March 2008.
Since 2011, though, he has firmly established himself as Sri Lanka's go-to bowler - often in all conditions - and one of the best spinners in world cricket. His home record has been astounding - 119 wickets in 15 matches, or very nearly eight per Test - but he has also been reasonably effective overseas, taking 12 in three Tests in Australia
, and winning Sri Lanka their first Test in South Africa with a match haul of 9 for 128 in Durban
Since the beginning of 2011, no bowler has taken more Test wickets than Herath, whose 182 in 33 games works out to an average of 5.5 wickets per Test. Herath has also taken on plenty of workload in these matches, bowling 1801.1 overs - an average of 54.3 overs per Test, and 31% of the team's overs - and his economy rate of 2.62 indicates he has given his captain plenty of control over long periods.
Herath is one of five spinners among the top ten wicket-takers during this period, but the only left-arm spinner; the other four are all offspinners. Saeed Ajmal is the second-highest wicket-taker among spinners, but in the last two series between Pakistan and Sri Lanka, Herath has outdone him. In the two-Test series that just finished, Ajmal took only nine wickets at 40.11, compared to Herath's 23 at 15.13. In the three-Test series in the UAE in 2012-13, the difference wasn't so great - Herath took 14 wickets at 36.64, to Ajmal's ten wickets at 42.10.
Before Herath 2.0 arrived, left-arm spin had slowly been consigned to a more defensive role in Test cricket, while offspinners had become fashionable again thanks to Murali, Ajmal, Harbhajan Singh, Saqlain Mushtaq and Graeme Swann. The offspinners had the doosra to add bite to their bowling, while the left-arm orthodox brigade had become predictable with their stock ball and the armer. Legspin, of course, was always a glamorous act, and after Shane Warne it became even more so. In the period between January 2002 and December 2010, left-arm spinners averaged 39.30 runs per wicket in Tests, while their right-arm counterparts - both offspinners and legspinners - together averaged 35.19. While that doesn't look like such a big difference, the gulf in the number of wickets they took during this period was huge: left-arm spinners took 1330, less than half of that of their right-arm counterparts (2779). Most of the top spinners
during this period were right-arm ones: Muralitharan (418 wickets at 21.23) and Shane Warne (284 at 23.52) were the two outstanding bowlers, while Anil Kumble and Harbhajan Singh also took 300-plus wickets at averages of slightly over 30.
On the other hand, the two top left-arm spinners - Daniel Vettori and Monty Panesar - both averaged almost 35 per wicket, while there was only one left-arm spinner, Vettori, who took more than 150 wickets during this period. Herath's stats were modest as well over these nine years - 72 wickets in 21 Tests at 34.86.
In the last three and a half years, though, left-arm spinners have turned the tables
, thanks largely to Herath. Abdur Rehman (79 wickets at 26.84) and Pragyan Ojha (71 wickets at 24.26) have contributed handsomely as well, but Herath has clearly been the protagonist.
In terms of overall career numbers, Herath's 260 wickets is exactly 100 short of the leading wicket-taker among left-arm spinners
: Vettori has 360 in 112, at an average of 34.42. Between them are two legends, Derek Underwood and Bishen Bedi, on 297 and 266 wickets. Herath is already 36, but given the form he has been in, it isn't too far-fetched to imagine that he could pass them all.
A big difference between Herath's earlier version and his current one is his ability to be effective against left-handers. In the period between 2004 and 2010, in which he took 72 wickets in 21 Tests at 34.86, most of his success came against right-handers; against left-handers, each wicket cost him almost 50 runs. Since the beginning of 2011, though, he has been a lot more effective against them: he has brought in more variations of flight, speed and turn, and the result is that his average against them has dipped to slightly less than 30, a huge improvement on the earlier average of 49.47.
Given the amount Sri Lanka have played Pakistan recently - and the amount of success Herath has had against them - it isn't surprising that many Pakistanis feature in the list of batsmen dismissed most often by him. It also includes Ajmal, who averages a miserable 2.40 against him. (Herath has done a bit better against Ajmal during this period, scoring 37 off 60 balls, and getting out three times.) Against most of the specialist batsmen, Herath has bowled plenty of deliveries to get their wickets, but he has also kept most of them in check, going at less than three an over against all except Michael Clarke. That ability to bowl tirelessly and accurately for long periods was always his forte; now he has added variations and guile while keeping his core strengths intact, and the result has been a blessing for Sri Lanka.