Who after Rangana Herath?
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When Sri Lankan cricket first beamed on television in the 1980s, our living rooms were filled with Papare music. That sound was nearly absent as India pummelled Lanka 3-0 in a ridiculously one-sided Test series that ended 14 August.
In its place is a void. In the land of Sanath Jayasuria, Aravinda de Silva, Muttiah Muralitharan, Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene, cricket has lost its soul. In 2015, when India won 2-1, the last two bid farewell. Lankan cricket has been trying to find their replacements ever since.
At the start of the 2017 series, Lanka faced the question: Who after Rangana Herath? India had played the left-arm spinner well on the 2015 tour, barring the Galle Test. After picking seven wickets for 48 runs and consigning India to a stunning defeat, he managed another eight wickets for 350 runs in four innings thereafter.
In this 2017 series as well, Herath got just five wickets for 347 runs in three Indian innings across the first two Tests in Galle and Colombo.
The 39-year-old led his country in the first Test last month (in Dinesh Chandimal’s absence) and this question about his successor was posed to him. “I am still enjoying Test cricket and I haven’t thought about retirement. But look at Malinda Pushpakumara’s first-class record. I think he should be playing Test cricket right now, whether I am retired or not,” he had replied.
Ahead of the second Test at the Sinhalese Sports Club, a big banner went up on the gates of Lumbini College in Colombo. It had Pushpakumara’s name, in big and bold letters, a good-luck message for their alumnus’ 100th first-class match and Test debut. After the defeat at Galle, Lanka bit the bullet, fielding both left-arm spinners, Herath and Pushpakumara, in the second match of the series.
“We have seen them play together for our club, if only for a small period of time. When Herath was called up for international cricket, Pushpakumara stepped up for the club team and was an automatic replacement. It is not surprising that he has been lined up for the same job in Tests as well,” says Mahesh Weerasinghe, coach of the Colombo-based Moors Cricket Club.
Thirty-year-old Pushpakumara’s record makes him an obvious choice. Prior to the two Tests against India, he had a first-class record of 558 wickets in 99 matches at an astonishing average of 19.85. But he had to wait until his current ripe age (by sporting standards) to get a look-in. Not many teams will put two similar bowlers in the playing XI.
But that isn’t the only factor.
“There is a fascination for mystery spinners in Sri Lanka,” says Rushan Jaleel, strategic coach of Trinity College in Kandy, where Sangakkara played his formative cricket. “While Muralitharan was around, they didn’t feel the need to invest in a proper partner. When he left, Herath came in, and the same process, unsurprisingly, was repeated. We have had a few ‘mystery’ spinners tried out in between, but no proper replacements have been groomed.”
Players like Upul Chandana, Kaushal Lokuarachchi, Angelo Mendis, Seekkuge Prasanna and Tharindu Kaushal figure on this list, which doesn’t focus on the problem.
“Pushpakumara’s chance has come after so long. Being the same kind of bowler as Herath has been an obvious impediment. But when there are no other players performing consistently, why not give him a chance? That’s because Lanka’s selection policy doesn’t follow a pattern any more,” says Weerasinghe.
With Herath sitting out of the third Test due to an injury, the selectors picked Pushpakumara as well as left-arm leg-spinner (or chinaman) Lakshan Sandakan, 26, in Kandy. The duo bowled well enough on Day 1, restricting India to 329-6 at stumps before Lanka lost control of the match.
They have both been picked for the ongoing One Day International/Twenty20 series of the 2017 tour. Perhaps it is planning-in-disguise for the next chapter of spin-era in the Emerald Isle’s cricket history.
Will Pushpakumara and Sandakan be around the next time India come calling?