Rangana Herath was on the field when Muttiah Muralitharan took his 800th wicket in Galle. At mid-on most likely, or short fine leg. Perhaps no one other than him remembers. He will never be the bowler that Murali was, and he is fine with that. What he has become since that day, is Sri Lanka's unlikeliest, most unassuming star.

On day three against New Zealand, he transformed a match that was set to be a nailbiter into a cakewalk in a single session, but he had already stilled the waters to move into position the previous evening. New Zealand had spoken of being positive against spin, particularly after a dour first innings, and Brendon McCullum endeavoured to remain true to those words when he rocked back to wallop Herath over deep midwicket for six, off the third ball Herath bowled in the innings.

Two balls later, Herath bowled short again, but this time he gave it a little more topspin and gleaned an inch more bounce from the surface. The result was a top edge, and before New Zealand could wipe out their 26-run deficit, Herath had already removed their best batsman from the first innings - one capable of battering Sri Lanka into defence, if he had continued. His spell on day three might earn him more plaudits, but it is like Herath to do the hard work ahead of time. It is also like him to respond to a blow with a shot of his own. McCullum's wicket was the uppercut that loosened New Zealand's resolve for the barrage to come, and it was the second time in the match he had dismissed the batsman after being hit for six earlier in the over.

Sri Lanka have now won four Tests since Murali retired, and Herath has a five-wicket haul in three of those matches, including in their maiden win in South Africa. The passage of play prior to Daniel Flynn's dismissal illustrated just how much Herath means to this team now. Flynn was playing Herath well, before captain and bowler colluded to change the field completely. They put seven men on the leg side, three catching, and left a 150 degree arc from slip, to mid-off, completely unguarded on the off side. That Mahela Jayawardene approved a field of such audacity, showed his faith in Herath's control, and his recognition of him as a match-winner. That Flynn did not score a single run to the off side off Herath, and was dismissed soon after, is testament to Herath's station as such.

"In terms of Sri Lankan bowlers I've seen, I would rate Rangana just after Murali definitely, purely because of the way he controls an innings," Jayawardene said after the match. "That's what we saw from Murali. Murali had various other attributes as well, but Rangana has the experience know. He knows what he is doing with the ball. He knows what the batsman is doing as well. After Murali, he is the next best thing.

"With the transition after Murali retired, we would have struggled for a few years if we didn't have Rangana. What he has done, even in South Africa to win a Test match after Murali, is something special."

Herath's path was much lonelier than Murali's and in many ways, more steep. Even now, anyone who watches Herath bowl will not believe he is a man bestowed with outrageous ability. There is a school of thought that he is the inventor of the carrom ball, but even he will admit he is hardly the best proponent of it. He certainly did not use many in this Test. Patience has been the grindstone at which he has perfected his craft.

Murali was an anomaly, and men like Suraj Randiv, who scraped only two wickets in the match while Herath reaped 11, may not have much they can learn from one so singularly different. Herath is a disciple of subtlety and guile and even youngsters like Akila Dananjaya and Tharindu Kaushal would do well to learn from him.

"The first thing they have to learn is the patience that Rangana showed," Jayawardene said. "For ten years, he was waiting behind Murali for his opportunity, but he never gave up. He never got many opportunities, but whenever he got them he played and performed. That's what the new generation have to do as well, in terms of learning their trade. You can have the talent, but it's about delivering. The younger guys are doing that. They always come and speak to him at practices and work with him and we've got a nice little set up with the spinners' academy, where Rangana goes and helps all the younger guys."

Sri Lanka are yet to sew up the series, but they will be soaring after such a comprehensive victory, and New Zealand dejected after their collapse. Beyond the next match, a colossal test awaits. Though he has none of the talent some of Sri Lanka's batsmen command, Herath is the player most capable of sparking a win in Australia as well, and his side are beginning to see his immense worth. 
Frill free, earnest and even-headed, Herath has become Sri Lanka's working-class hero.

Andrew Fernando is ESPNcricinfo's correspondent in Sri Lanka