Rangana Herath is not your typically fashionable-looking, modern-day international cricketer. The portly Sri Lankan left-arm spinner doesn’t spout theories about his trade either.
His expressions while beating a batsman or claiming a wicket seem to be contemplative and self-reflecting, far removed from the attention-grabbing display of emotions that one witnesses nowadays.
This is possibly the reason why the Kurunegala-born, closing in on the 400 Test wicket mark, has not garnered the kind of global cricket attention usually associated with a major landmark.
With 385 Test scalps, Herath is already 15th on the all-time wicket-takers’ list, and only the fifth among spinners, after compatriot and record-holder Muttiah Muralitharan (800), Australian Shane Warne (708), and Indians Anil Kumble (619) and Harbhajan Singh (417).
The 39-year-old veteran of 82 Tests is still going strong, and is currently the only active international cricketer across teams to have made his debut in the previous millennium.
Herath suffered a finger injury during the first Test of the ongoing series which India won by 304 runs but has voiced confidence that he will recover in time for the second Test, which begins today at the Sinhalese Sports Club (SSC) ground in Colombo. He may have been unimpressive in the first Test, taking one wicket for 159 runs in 40 overs in the first innings and none for 34 in the second. But he has an impressive record at the SSC, with 73 wickets in 12 Tests, and his career-best Test statistics of 14 for 184 against Pakistan in 2014 came at this ground.
Herath, who made his Test debut in 1999, has been relentless since his 2009 comeback, admirably filling the big shoes of Muralitharan, who retired the following year, as the island nation’s strike bowler.
“Two aspects of Herath’s bowling have always impressed me—his overall ball control and his unfailing line and length," says former India Test batsman V.V.S. Laxman, who has played the spinner on a few occasions.
“Being on the shorter side, Herath possesses natural flight, always tossing the ball above the batsman’s eye level. His length, it is one that forces the batsman to get on to the front foot," the cricketer-turned-commentator says.
“On a turning track, Herath is more than a handful, for some of the deliveries will turn and the others will go with the arm with no noticeable change in his action," he adds.
Herath operates with a round-arm action, a bowling style that comes with its own disadvantages, for the purveyor is usually unable to extract the kind of bounce off the pitch, or impart the width of spin, that a bowler with a high-arm action would be able to derive.
However, Herath makes up for it with his quick reading of the conditions and the ability to adapt.
“The beauty of Herath is that he keeps it simple," says former India left-arm spinner Venkatapathy Raju, who played 28 Tests and 53 One Day Internationals from 1990-2001.
“Spin bowling in modern cricket is extremely challenging, especially with batsmen playing unconventional shots. Unlike in the old days, where one could set his field and bowl to it, a spinner now has to be highly innovative to succeed, and, to me, Herath is up there as a spinner in the contemporary game," adds Raju, a former national selector.
“Herath’s biggest strength is his subtle change of pace. He is not a big spinner of the ball but possesses superb control. I always tell young spinners to watch and follow him," says Raju, who has coached a few of the International Cricket Council’s associate member nations.
With 259 wickets coming at home at an average of 23.46 from 45 Tests, including 25 five-wicket hauls, Herath is a gigantic threat in his own backyard. Although his record away from home (including neutral venues) pales in comparison—126 wickets from 37 Tests at 37.78—he has been indefatigable, to say the least, in adjusting to requirements and alternating between the support and strike roles.
Herath, who was stand-in captain during the first Test against India in Galle last week, picks the Test win in South Africa (2011) and the 1-0 Test series victory in England (2014), apart from the 2014 International Cricket Council World Twenty20, as the fondest memories of his nearly two-decade-old international career.
He took nine wickets in the Durban Test that the visitors won by 208 runs and was adjudged man of the match for his spectacular effort.
Ageing Herath is not oblivious to the supremely fit nature of today’s cricketer, a dramatic change from the time when he made his Test debut. Yet he appears clear that different skill-sets call for different fitness programmes, and fitness, at the advanced level, needn’t be one-dimensional.
“I don’t need to compete actually because that is different skills, different people. That’s why I always say you need to manage people the right way. At the same time, if I can bowl 40 overs with the spirit, and at the right line and length or whatever, that’s more than enough," Herath told Wisdenindia.com last month.
Looking back on his career, Herath continued, “All the hard work has paid off. If you do nothing, you will get nothing. I have always had a passion and love for this game. I did a lot of hard work, with purpose and with the right focus."
Sanjay Rajan has written on sport for over two decades. He tweets at @SeamUp.