He doesn’t look like a champion sportsman, in fact he resembles a friendly civil servant who would cheerfully help you through a tricky planning application. Still, Rangana Herath has become the second Sri Lankan to take 400 Test wickets and the first left-arm orthodox spinner to reach that landmark.
Herath has been playing international cricket for 18 years, but the vast majority of that time was spent in the shadow of the greatest wicket-taker of all time, Muttiah Muralitharan. It is only since Murali retired that he has come into his own.
In the 11 years from Herath’s debut in 1999 to when Murali called it a day, Herath had taken 71 wickets at an average of 37.88. In the seven years since, Herath has been Sri Lanka’s number one spinner, taking 329 wickets at an average of 25.64. Over that same period, only James Anderson is ahead of him with 330 — but it has taken him 18 more matches than Herath to get there.
Those numbers are outstanding. His 29 five-wicket hauls over the last seven years are testament to that. But perhaps more remarkable is how it was all done with so little fuss. Herath is the least demonstrative cricketer in the world, and is all the more effective for it.
He just runs in and bowls the same deliveries over and over again. There are no snazzy variations beyond those that he generates by holding the ball back in his hand, spinning the ball harder, spinning it less or letting the pitch do his work for him.
There is one thing that Herath does that is different from when he was the defensive foil to Murali’s brilliance in the first half of his career. He has an excellent quicker ball that has pinned countless right-handers LBW. But that isn’t a doosra that is sent down with a bent elbow that then straightens.
When Murali departed international cricket very few could imagine anyone filling the chasm that he left, and even fewer expected it to be a left-arm spinner who was more adept at holding up an end than ripping through sides. Still, that is what Herath has become and with the passing of years, he is approaching 40, has not seemed to lessen his appetite or ability.
The recently-concluded Test against Pakistan was his post-Murali career in microcosm. He bowled 40 parsimonious overs that conceded 93 runs while claiming yet another five-for. But it was in the fourth innings that saw him come to life and claim an improbable win.
Sri Lanka seemed to have thrown away a match that looked to be destined for a draw when they stumbled to 138 all out on the final morning. Pakistan needed just 136 to win and go 1-0 up in the series.
The only hope that Sri Lanka had was Herath and his unbelievable record in the fourth innings of Tests. In this match, he became the fourth bowler to have claimed 100 wickets in the fourth innings of a Test. The other three are Muralitharan, Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath. Not a bad set of bowlers to join — and Herath’s fourth innings average of 18.38 is the best of the four to have reached that landmark.
Eleven of Herath’s 33 five wicket hauls have come in the fourth innings — the most by any bowler in history. On a worn pitch that is offering assistance, there is no one who is deadlier than this smiling left-arm spinner
Opening the bowling, Herath claimed 6 for 43 to bowl his side to victory. Steady and tight in the first innings, lethal in the second. That is the post-Murali Herath. Like all the best spinners, he can be two bowlers in one.
Sri Lankan cricket has many problems, on and off the field, but while they have Herath in their ranks they have a jewel that needs to be treasured. Even more so because he won’t be around forever. While he is still performing at the highest level he became the oldest man to take a 10-wicket haul for 80 years when he bowled Sri Lanka to victory in Abu Dhabi.
There really aren’t very many Test cricketers that play into their 40s so you have to assume that Herath won’t be carrying on for too much longer. The real hope is that Sri Lankan selectors have already started thinking about succession planning, something they have spectacularly failed to do over the last seven years. They stumbled upon Herath as a replacement for Muralitharan. The chances of that happening again are remote.