Ordinary man, extraordinary deeds

Rangana Herath is not your typical modern-day flashy cricketing hero. He is stockily built, almost tubby. Yet, he can do something which every spinner was expected to do in the past and no modern-day spinner can do — bowl six deliveries on the same spot. On show is his unsophisticated brilliance, writes N. Sudarshan.

Back in 2009, Rangana Herath, then 31, left Sri Lanka for England to play in the Straffordshire League to make some money. What Herath also did was to leave a letter with the Sri Lankan national selectors saying that he would be willing to come back if at all his services were required.

Those were the days when Muttiah Muralitharan was still around and the selectors, enamoured and bitten by the mystery bug that Ajantha Mendis was, did not want to look elsewhere. Yet, in a fierce show of loyalty, Herath apparently travelled to every game that Sri Lanka played in that year’s T20 World Cup in England.

In July the same year, Muralitharan’s injury ahead of the series against Pakistan left Sri Lanka short of bowling personnel. Skipper Kumar Sangakkara thought of Herath and phoned him to come down for the Test in Galle. On day four, with Pakistan chasing 168, Herath bowled a spell which read 11.3-5-15-4 and Lanka won by 50 runs.

How strikingly similar is the above story to the one that played out in Galle recently? The 37-year-old was dropped for the last Test against Pakistan before this match. “This was not the first time that I was dropped from the team,” he said with a cheeky grin. “I’ve been dropped from the team so many times. For me, it’s like bread and butter.

“It is nothing new. But I’m confident of things that I can do. Because I have done those things in the past. That trust of myself helps me and keeps me going.”

This stop-start careergraph has been Herath’s since the day he made his debut in 1999 at Galle. Till 2008, he had just 35 wickets from 13 appearances at 37.22. There was not even a single five-wicket haul. From 2009 till now, in 48 Tests, he has 235 scalps at 28.71, with a best of nine for 127, 22 five-wicket hauls and 10 wickets in a match on four occasions.

In a way, Herath is not your typical modern-day flashy cricketing hero. He works at a bank and before every series fills out a leave form. In fact, 24 hours after Sri Lanka won the World T20 at home in 2014 he was back in the bank. There is nothing mysterious about the man (he did invent the carom ball). He never got an IPL contract. He is stockily built, almost tubby and his amble in chase of a ball running towards the boundary is painful on the eye.

Yet, he can do something which every spinner was expected to do in the past and no modern-day spinner can do — bowl six deliveries on the same spot. On show is his unsophisticated brilliance. This is an era when the spinners are expected to confuse and disrupt batsmen. But Herath’s bowling is built on rhythm, spinning a web and is something that has been honed repetitively. Ultimately it turns into a whirlpool which sucks the batsmen in.

Herath is now the third-most successful left-arm spinner, going past Bishan Bedi’s mark of 266 wickets at Galle. Only Daniel Vettori (362) and Derek Underwood (297) are above him. With 22 five-wicket hauls he is now among the top-five spinners with the most five-wicket hauls after Muttiah Muralitharan (67), Shane Warne (37), Anil Kumble (35) and Harbhajan Singh (25).

As much as the first Test was a celebration of Herath’s classic spin bowling, it also laid bare the argument that Indians are better players of spin. If not anything, it showed us how systematically they have unlearnt the art. In the 2012-13 series at home against England, Graeme Swann and Monty Panesar grabbed 37 wickets in four Tests. Moeen Ali in 2014, till then a part-timer, had 19 wickets in five matches in England. Nathan Lyon, in Australia, in 2014-15 gobbled up 23 in four and Tharindu Kaushal and Herath, in the Galle Test, accounted for 15 wickets.

The way Herath floated one at Rohit Sharma from a little wide of the crease, for it to pitch and spin away, past the bat, and hit the top of the off-stump was nothing extraordinary. But the expression on Rohit’s face, of somebody flabbergasted, was indicative of the above.

In The Indian Express, former India Test openers Sunil Gavaskar and W. V. Raman weighed in on the issue. “There is so much limited-overs cricket they hold the bat firmer in their hands,” Gavaskar said. “And therefore that soft bottom hand or even sometimes that soft top hand is not generally seen.”

“The intent to score runs means the batsmen hold the bat like an axe,” said W. V. Raman.

Perhaps Herath can be an example for India in more ways than one. Like bowling spin, batting against it is also to be repetitively honed. In Rahul Dravid’s words, “It’s an art which needs to be practiced, learnt and valued. It also needs loads of patience, and at a time when there is a clear shift away from specialisation, unwavering commitment.”

“The one guy who has been outstanding and who is never spoken about is Rangana Herath,” said Sangakkara on the eve of the first Test. “He has been an incredible servant of Sri Lankan cricket.

“To be part of a set-up that has produced cricketers like this, I am very pleased.” It was an ode within an ode. How many are blessed to get that?