“Nobody minds Herath. Everyone loves Herath. He is probably the most-loved cricketer on the planet right now. They may criticise his bowling, his overseas records (which is perhaps justified) – but they do love him”
It was almost anticlimactic. Rangana Herath tried to ping a well-set Keaton Jennings, already on 142, with a yorker. Jennings pushed the ball to mid-wicket. There was no run.
Akila Dananjaya bowled from the other end. He got Ben Foakes, and the declaration came at the end of the over.
That utterly ordinary ball remained the last of Herath’s illustrious career. It was as unspectacular as the Herath himself, a man whose 433 Test wickets defied his unremarkable frame and belated foray into international career.
Over four decades ago, England had thrown David Steele to the Test side, first against Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson, then against Andy Roberts, Michael Holding, and Wayne Daniel. Steele, grey-haired and bespectacled, did not look anything like a cricketer in an era of sideburns and long hair. Why he even got lost in the Lord’s labyrinth while walking out to bat for the first time in his career!
He did not look like someone capable of handling the quickest in the world. He was “the bank clerk who went to war,” wrote Clive Taylor in The Sun. And yet Steele finished on top, with 673 runs at 42.
Herath took things a step further. He actually works at Sampath Bank. For all you know, he probably has to apply for leaves via some convoluted intranet service if he has to go out and take a hat-trick against Australia.
He used to be felicitated at work from time to time. One hopes they didn’t do that after every Test he won for Sri Lanka, for his colleagues might have got bored by the sheer monotony.
That is unlikely, of course. Nobody minds Herath. Everyone loves Herath. He is probably the most-loved cricketer on the planet right now. They may criticise his bowling, his overseas records (which is perhaps justified) – but they do love him.
This, despite the sheer non-existence of athleticism, which makes one think he is “wading through the molasses” (Andrew Fidel Fernando, ESPNCricinfo) in the outfield.
The gait, along with his workplace, has probably earned him the “bank clerk” tag. They make obvious questions clutter your mind. Does he ride a scooter to work? Does he bring a “tiffin-carrier” along? Does he wear a “bush-shirt”? Does he play carrom with his colleagues at lunch-break (and win, of course, nobody can be more accurate!)?
Not quite. Herath does a nine-to-five job in a bank, but he is not a clerk. During the cricket season, he plays for the bank’s mercantile team. In the off-season, he works at a card centre. He drives an SUV, not a scooter. His appearance deceives.
We should have known better, for that smiling face and greying hair hides, among other things, the fact that he has taken more Test wickets than any left-arm bowler in history, pace or spin.
The master of disguise.
It is astonishing that Sri Lanka had never bothered to play Herath alongside Muttiah Muralitharan despite their contrasting genre and approach to bowling. That probably prevented Sri Lanka from boasting the greatest spin attack in contemporary cricket.
Perhaps Murali would not have needed to bowl 55 overs a Test (Herath bowled 47). That might have extended Murali’s career.
But if one accounts for the meteoric rise and fall of Ajantha Mendis, it seems almost absurd that despite making his debut in 1999, Herath played only 14 Tests till 2009. At that point, his career stood at 36 wickets (2.57 a Test) at 39.
And since 2009, when Herath finally got the run he deserved, he has taken 397 wickets from 79 Tests (5.02 a Test) at 27. All he probably needed was an extended run and some faith. In fact, the reason he took up a day job was the uncertainty that loomed over his selection in the Murali era.
Once he got a chance, however, Herath emerged as the most prolific spinner of the decade. Even if one adds pacers into the mix, Herath’s 363 wickets are next to only James Anderson’s 417. These is phenomenal, given that Sri Lanka do not play as many Tests as, say, Australia or England.
Indeed, if one uses a 200-wicket cut-off, Herath’s tally of 5.04 wickets a Test this decade is behind only Ravichandran Ashwin’s 5.25. Dale Steyn (4.61) and Anderson (4.17) are the only others to have taken over four wickets a Test.
Surprisingly, he has created that incredible career without many frills. His run-up is measured and economic, without frills. There are no jargon-laded tricks concealed – no doosra, no teesra, nothing: just the one that leaves the right-hander and the one that does not.
Herath’s success was built upon his metronomic precision and subtle variations in flight, length, and pace. He read the batsman and tested and teased him relentlessly, even on the flattest of wickets.
They read him and played him with confidence, though scoring quickly was out of the question. They probably got twenty-two off the first fifty balls they faced off him. But the fifty-first probably turned that little bit or stopped for a microsecond more on him, and that was all was needed.
For Herath never seemed to tire.
Those unremarkable features, a forgettable bowling action, ambling on the field fielding – they have all contributed to the bank-clerk myth. Not so the batting.
In his early days, Herath used to be a savage hitter who thrived on massive hits. He also wanted to bowl fast, as Fernando mentioned; but just like Sachin Tendulkar, he was dissuaded because they told him he was not tall enough.
Thank goodness they did, because the sheer thought of Herath steaming in to hurl them at 150 kph is almost enough to scandalise you. Can you imagine a snarling Herath?
But while he (sensibly) stopped pursuing those dreams, the batting bore a defiance of the sort. He loved to hit, and by hit I mean he swept, slog-swept, even reverse-swept, often without success but almost invariably with panache.
The batting was as charismatic as his bowling was plain; his swansong Test bore testimony to that.
Dinesh Chandimal sent him at eleven in the first innings. That would not have gone down very well. Herath, after all, averages 14 (No. 10 Suranga Lakmal has 11). He has also been entrusted with the Holy Grail of all tail-enders: he had opened batting as night-watchman.
But here he was, at No. 11. How did he respond? Obviously, with a sweep off the second ball he faced, off Moeen Ali. On came Jack Leach, nine years old when Herath had debuted. Leach dared to remove the point fielder. Herath reverse-swept calmly for four – with an air of someone who believed it was perfectly normal for a No. 11 to do that at 181/9.
So they got Adil Rashid. Herath reverse-swept, was given out, referred, survived, swept for four, and reverse-swept again. And then in his next over he swept and reverse-swept again. When the wicket fell, it was Lakmal’s, not his.
But there was yet another outing left. They sent him at 11 again in the fourth innings, this time with 223 left. What did he do? Oh, of course, the sweep.
And he was given out again. And he reviewed again. And he survived again. And then he plodded and blocked and missed and did everything, but eventually his fitness – or lack thereof – got to him: he fell short of the crease in his final innings.
A run out in his final Test innings, yes. That is as unbelievable as Hearth taking only three wickets in a Galle Test are. But he was probably determined to bow out with something unusual.
And now he will return to Sampath Bank. He actually enjoys it, you know. Or at least that was what he told The National last week.