A winner after losing his looseness

Now, Herath is being compared with the incomparable Muttiah Muralitharan.-K.R. DEEPAK

If he had a choice, Sri Lankan left-arm spinner Rangana Herath will bowl when no one is watching. He plays a no frills game for the sheer joy of it, but he will not back off from a contest, writes R.K. Radhakrishnan.

It was inevitable: the comparison of Rangana Herath with the Greatest There Was in Sri Lankan cricket, Muttiah Muralitharan.

“Oh no, that's not correct…It's not fair. He is in another…planet,” protested the left-arm spinner, when I pointed out the debate that has cropped up in the Sri Lankan media and elsewhere. “No, no, he is a legend. I…I just bowl,” said Herath Mudiyanselage Rangana Keerthi Bandara Herath (that is his full name — Sri Lankans resemble the Telugus in that sense), speaking to Sportstar on the sidelines of the inauguration of the new media complex at the Tamil Union Cricket and Athletic Club, the venue for the Test match against England that began on April 3.

True, he is being compared with Murali soon after Herath completed his first 10-wicket haul in a Test match. Murali has done it 22 times! And Murali has 800 wickets to Herath's 132.

It's also true that there is only one more bowler who has had a better run than Herath in Sri Lanka, Chaminda Vaas. The left-arm paceman has had two hauls of 10 wickets each. Such was the gap between Murali and the rest of the crowd of bowlers in the Sri Lankan side. No wonder Sri Lanka badly needs a Murali-like bowler, and the first one to step up is being celebrated.

The pinnacle for Herath came on March 29 at the Galle International Cricket Stadium. He had already taken six wickets in the first innings, and had cleaned up the top two English batsmen in the second essay. The question on the night of Day 3 of the Test was simply this: Could Herath deliver under such pressure? For, the last time that Sri Lanka had won a Test match at home was in July 2010, against India. That was Muralitharan's farewell match too. Sometimes, it is the burden of history that weighs you down.

But it looked as if no one had told Herath about this history. “This is not the same guy who was bowling about two years ago,” said Arjuna Ranatunga, the most successful and the longest-serving Sri Lankan captain. “Back then, there was always at least one loose delivery from him each over. This time, in Galle, there was one every four or five overs. That is the essential difference. When a batsman is cornered and has to score, that's when he makes mistakes. Herath just waited,” he added.

That's just what he did. Herath waited for the English batsmen to come for him. For him, it was a game and he had the ball in his hands. That's all that seemed to matter.

In some ways, Herath is a man comfortable in the shadows. There's nothing flashy about him: his close cut hair would make him pass off as a military hand; he could even pass off for a private sector executive with his full-sleeved shirt tucked in. When someone with deep knowledge of the game talks, he listens. Like the other day at the Tamil Union Cricket and Athletic Club. As Arjuna analysed the game, some half a dozen cricketers around him, joined in. Herath stood there in rapt attention, his eyes focussed on each movement Arjuna made, hanging on to each word of the wily cricketer, who has now fallen foul of the establishment and the government. Finally, Arjuna had some good words for Herath and patted him on the shoulder. That was the only time that the intensity of the gaze diminished and a shy smile lit up Herath's face.

Remember, this is the same team that has a Lasith Malinga — who has dyed his hair black again — and also the likes of Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene — who can handle the posh, suave elite of the cricketing world across the globe without batting an eyelid.

But Herath is different. In a game where appearance is as important as performance, Herath does not care. “Finally what I do on the field is what counts,” he says.

And, it has remained that way for him since he began playing for a non-descript school in Sri Lanka, Maliyadeva Vidyalaya, and an in-the-fringes Club, the Moors. He finally left Moors recently after the Club was demoted.

So you ask him what he did in Galle 2012 — which turned him into an instant hero — that he did not in the forgettable seasons in English county cricket and the answer is ready: England had slow turners and they milked his bowling. Not so in Sri Lanka, not with Suraj Randiv bowling from the other end and keeping it tight. Herath kept probing away at the stumps and in the corridor of uncertainty, mixing it up, varying his flight, pace, and even his bounce for 57 overs spread across two innings.

It all began in Galle. He was blooded in the 1999 season against Australia in a rain affected Test. Herath was up to the challenge — with his ‘mystery' ball that went the other way after pitching — and managed four wickets (to Murali's five) in the first innings. Despite this good show, there was no guarantee of a place in the team. There was always Murali and Sanath Jayasuriya could bowl left-arm spinners too. So, Herath remained in and out of the team till the big break came along: against Pakistan, again at Galle, in the 2004-05 series. From then on, there was no looking back. Then came Durban, in 2011, and Sri Lanka's first victory since Murali retired. And, Murali could not set up a victory for the team in South Africa! For that, it required a Herath.

What about your batting, I ask him. You seem more like a fast bowler when you bat — he seems in a hurry and lacks the traditional spinner's patience. He laughs it off and says, “Oh sure, I will try to bat like a spinner!”