Rangana Herath is middle-aged, not exactly thin, or tall, and upon seeing him for the first time, "athlete" would be the last vocation that springs to mind. He is not a huge turner of the ball either and for much of his early career was forced to play second fiddle to the great Muttiah Muralitharan. The left-arm spinner is currently the best bowler of his type in the game, and his 4/49 in Sri Lanka's just-concluded victory over Bangladesh makes him the most successful left-arm bowler in the history of Test cricket, with 415 wickets.
His success shows that cricket caters to all types. It accepts a variety of shapes and sizes; from rotund players like Rahkeem Cornwall and Colin Milburn to scrawny figures like Glenn McGrath, and from giants such as Mohammad Irfan and Morne Morkel to those less blessed vertically like Parthiv Patel and Gundappa Viswanath.
The short basketballer is an extreme rarity in the NBA, as is the frail American football player. The footballer (soccer player) who is particularly slow on his feet is unlikely to get far in a sport that is played at a rapid pace at its highest levels.
Cricket, on the other hand, allows for a variety of methods. It is the most democratic of sports. The same game that permits Virender Sehwag and David Warner's belligerence as Test batsmen, also accommodates the steadfastness of Shivnarine Chanderpaul and Geoff Boycott. Michael Holding, Jeff Thomson and Mitchell Johnson frightened batsmen with withering pace; Vernon Philander's pace is gentle by comparison, and yet he has proven himself to be as effective as the speed merchants.
Or consider that spin bowling greats Shane Warne and Muralitharan found success by spinning the ball a mile. However, almost equally successful was Anil Kumble, who was often accused of hardly getting his deliveries to defy the straight line.
In Pune, during the first Test of the series between India and Australia, in February 2017, Australian left-arm spinner Steve O'Keefe outshone a more illustrious member of the fraternity like Ravichandran Ashwin, despite the off-spinner turning the ball by wider margins than he did. But Ashwin's greater turn mostly led to ball missing bat, while O'Keefe found the edge and threatened the stumps more frequently.
There are times too when the big swinger of the ball is not as effective as the bowler who bends it only a few inches. There have been occasions when Jimmy Anderson was, over a period, swinging deliveries past the bat, pads and stumps, only for Stuart Broad at the other end to reap a bagful of wickets by moving the ball significantly less than the master swing bowler.
Knowing your skills and using them wisely is paramount. Malcolm Marshall was bending it a long way in Egbaston during the fourth Test of the series against England on the 1991 tour, according to Curtly Ambrose in his memoir Time To Talk. "He was swinging and seaming it all over the place and Graham Gooch could not lay a bat on him. He was unplayable and I was enjoying the show."
As was the master craftsman's way, he was always trying to impart lessons on the art to his younger comrades-in-arms. "How do you think I'm going to get him?" he asked of Ambrose standing at mid-off. "Caught behind or in the slip cordon," came The Antiguan's reply, thinking it would only be a matter of time before Gooch edged one. "No," asserted the great bowler, "I can't get him out like that, the ball is doing too much for that. I am going to bowl him down." A few balls later, Gooch was bowled for 45.
The variety of ways a batsman can be dismissed has spawned a variety of bowling styles and fielding positions. And the many areas in which a batsman can score has resulted in the cultivation of a wide range of scoring strokes and scoring methods.
The invention and development of the googly, for example, handed the wrist spinner more weapons. And though the clampdown on illegal bowling actions has all but eliminated the doosra, the ball from the off-spinner turning away from the right-hander, did similarly for finger spinners.
The game has changed and grown over its long history. Bowling used to be underarm and bats were once shaped like hockey sticks. There was also a time, believe it or not, when the leg side was considered largely out of bounds. It was often bereft of fielders and batsmen would sometimes apologise for inadvertently hitting the ball to leg. It was not until batting stylist Ranjitsinhji unveiled the leg glance that the on side was opened up. And even then, he was accused of defiling the spirit of the game.
It is difficult to imagine a game with more moving parts operating all at once; difficult to imagine one with more issues to contemplate. What is the nature of the playing surface? How much is it bouncing or turning or seaming? How hard is the wind blowing and in what direction? What are the different field settings that should be employed for different players? When should the spinner be brought on? When will the ball begin to reverse? Should the new ball be taken immediately it becomes due, or should the old ball be persisted with a while longer? The cricket captain has one of the most taxing jobs in all of sports.
It can be taxing for spectators as well. Closely following a day of Test cricket, for instance, can be slightly exhausting. But it is often fulfilling too. Veteran American journalist and baseball devotee, Mike Barnicle, was recently discussing the baseball playoffs on a popular morning TV talk show, Morning Joe. "Baseball is the only major professional sport that people watch; Hockey, football, basketball, none of them have the time in between the action to savour the stress and the tension of each pitch." His colleagues all seemed to nod or purr in agreement. They can be forgiven. They likely know nothing of cricket.
Many consider that limited overs cricket, especially the T20 format, require less thought, and to an extent it does. But then, they have their own set of peculiar issues. How should the powerplay overs be approached? What about the middle overs? How should the run chase be paced? Is there rain about and will Duckworth-Lewis-Stern (DSP) come into play?
There's a legion of different things to ponder, and the most successful teams are often the ones which ally aptitude with deep thought; the ones that weigh the game situation and make wise decisions on how to proceed. How many times have we seen a batsman, for instance, palpably imbued with serious talent, fail to make it at the highest level because of poor decision-making skills or inadequate application.
It is not that other sporting endeavors don't exercise the minds of their players and captains. But cricket, it can be argued, demands more of a balance between physical ability and mental application than most other sports. It is for this reason that one seemingly as limited in athletic ability as Herath could be as much of a champion as a specimen such as Mitchell Starc.