Sri Lanka vs Bangladesh: Rangana Herath not a 'modern' cricketer, but can more than pull his weight
Long may Herath shyly shuffle to the crease and produce deliveries of nuanced left-handed subtlety and brilliance, and of course, pull off blinders.
Kumar Sangakkara and his dulcet tones and panache, Muttiah Muralitharan and his freaky wrists, Mahela Jayawardene and his sublime touch, Sanath Jayasuriya and his piston forearms, Angelo Mathews and his adonis form are all Sri Lankan cricketers whom the youngsters worship and aspire to be. Rangana Herath and his fatherly paunch and shy shuffle to the wicket do not quickly find takers and yet, he, the most famous bank clerk in Test cricket's history, is the second leading wicket-taker for Sri Lanka in the longest format of the game – after only Murali, who has 800 wickets to his name – and became the most successful left-arm spinner in Tests last week passing Daniel Vettori's tally of 362.
At the ripe old age of nearly 39 years, Herath is just 34 wickets short of 400. If and when he the gets there, Herath will find himself in an elite company of 13 other gentlemen who have scaled that peak. A tally of 400 Tests wickets would also make him the fifth spinner to reach the landmark after Murali, Shane Warne and India's Anil Kumble and Harbhajan Singh. Not too shabby for a roly-poly man more apt to feature in cricket of yore rather than that in the current day where the young 'uns are sculpted in the gym and BMI (body mass index) is as important as RPO (runs per over).
When history looks back on Sri Lanka and its spinners, it will always be Murali first, and rightly so. The off spinner was the closest human beings could get to a bowling machine, whirling away from one end tirelessly, whittling 800 opposition batsmen down over an illustrious career. Herath, having debuted in 1999, played just 21 Tests till the great Murali decided to call it a day. Herath's 22nd, and Murali's 133rd and last Test, was at Galle versus India in 2010. The large shadow that Herath played under for more than a decade was finally gone, and he has appeared in 57 of the 64 Tests Sri Lanka has played since Murali's retirement, reaping 295 of his career haul of 366 wickets, at an average of 25.58 including 25 five-wicket hauls.
While Murali bamboozled batsmen with the turn he could generate, he was after all a wrist spinner who bowled off-spin. Herath was old-fashioned in more ways than just his looks. He was a throwback to spinners of the past who fooled batsmen with their guile, and made spin bowling look and feel like art.
He brought “ball on a string” back into fashion. He did not bowl over batsmen but undid them by continually inspecting for weak spots in their defence with clever variations of length, loop and line, and when a chink in the armour was exposed, softly lopped them off instead of performing an elaborate coup de grace. There wasn't a magic ball that eventually defeated the batsman but it was the escalation of the examination that made them surrender their wickets to the soft-spoken spinner from Kurunagela.
It was appropriate that the venue at which Murali bid adieu would be the one at which Herath would surpass Vettori to become the most successful left-arm spinner in the history of Test cricket. Like Herath, the Galle International Stadium is the most unthreatening of venues there is – with the fort overlooking the ground, endearing grass banks, soothing sounds of waves crashing in the ocean near, and the action even visible to fans strolling past - but has played host to Sri Lanka's ambush of visitors for many years.
Once Bangladesh was set an almost impossible task of playing out more than a day for a draw (or an even more improbable 457 runs for a win) in the first Test of the series, against Herath at his favourite hunting ground, there would have been just one result possible and only the most optimistic of Bangladeshi fans would have thought otherwise.
It was lambs to the slaughter as the final day dawned. Herath in his previous 15 Tests at Galle had made his way to 84 wickets at an average of under 24 runs per wicket and eight five-fors. He added his ninth, dismissing the bamboozled Bangladeshi lower order, to draw within two of Ravichandran Ashwin for the most number of five-wicket hauls (25) since the Indian's debut in November 2011.
Both Ashwin and Herath have played 47 Tests since the former turned out against the beleaguered West Indians in Delhi in 2011. Their records are almost identical, though Herath does not get the same amount of praise as the Indian does, but it's nothing new to Herath. He is used to being the sidekick to a record-breaking off spinner before. He will just keep on keeping on, and when he's done, he will just return to his day job at the bank.
Ashwin and Herath's Test bowling records since Ashwin's debut
For a man who was inspired by Aravinda de Silva's sublime but thunderous batting displays and was once an opener at school cricket and a wannabe fast bowler who was told to give up on it for he was vertically challenged, Herath, in his most unlike-modern cricketer avatar has been a champion and inspiration for all the cricketing misfits. Long may he shyly shuffle to the crease and produce deliveries of nuanced left-handed subtlety and brilliance, and of course, pull off blinders that no one would have thought someone like him ever could.
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