As Mosaddek Hossain chipped his shot tamely into the hands of the mid-on fielder, Rangana Herath held his arms aloft. Hossain had just become Herath’s 500th victim in international cricket.
Muralitharan and Vaas are unanimously considered as two legends of the game, an accolade which has rarely been associated with Herath. The unorthodox left-arm spinner’s career has been a curious one. Having made his Test debut for Sri Lanka all the way back in September 1999, it would seem strange that the ongoing match against Bangladesh is only Herath’s 88th appearance.
This anomaly can partly be explained by Muralitharan’s greatness. Between making his debut until 2008, Herath only played in 14 Tests for Sri Lanka with Muralitharan untouchable in the spinner’s role.
Those 14 matches yielded only 36 wickets for Herath at an unremarkable average of 39. Since then, he has taken 373 wickets in 74 Tests at an average of 27. It is not hard to figure out why there has been such a great contrast between the first half of Herath’s career to the second.
For much of his international career, Herath has lived in the shadows of the greatest bowler Sri Lanka has ever produced. It was only after Muralitharan’s retirement from the game in July 2010 that Herath’s career truly prospered.
With 409 Test wickets to his name now, Herath is the leading left-arm spinner in Test cricket history with former New Zealand player Daniel Vettori a distant second with 363 scalps. His 33 five-wicket hauls is the fifth-highest ever and the most for any active Test cricketers. For reference, the great Shane Warne recorded 37 five-wicket hauls while India’s Anil Kumble made 35.
Unfortunately for Herath, his peak arrived at a time of transition for Sri Lankan cricket with the retirements of Muralitharan, Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara. Having lived in the shadows of Murali for so long, Herath has had to contend with an unenviable job of propping up a Sri Lankan side in constant decline.
Both these factors have led to much of his achievements being underrated. Who knows how highly Herath might have been regarded had he enjoyed the luxury of playing in the dominant Sri Lanka side of old but there is no arguing that his name deserved to be said in the same breath as the likes of Kumble if not Warne and Muralitharan themselves.
One session was all it took for South Africa to wipe out India’s remaining seven wickets on the final day as the hosts completed a 135-run win in the second Test at Centurion to clinch the three-match series.
On a pitch which had Morne Morkel convinced he was bowling in the subcontinent, India’s much vaunted batting card once again collapsed like a house of cards to leave one wondering what the fuss was all about in the first place.
After four innings in South Africa, India have crossed the 200-run mark only once, in the first innings at Centurion. Their scorecards in the series so far read: 130, 135, 258 and 141, a dismal run for a side which has established itself as top-ranked Test outfit over the past 18 months.
Bar two standout individual knocks in Hardik Pandya’s 93 in the first Test and Virat Kohli’s 153 at Centurion, India’s batting has been shambolic to say the least with none of the other batsmen putting together any innings of note.
If the batting performance by the Indians looks grim right now, it is not out of the realm of possibilities that the tourists could have very well folded for a 100 odd in all four of their innings so far if not for the two individual heroics.
Kohli and India mentioned that they were not looking to prove a point as they embarked on their first of many tough trials to come overseas in 2018. However, despite what was said in public, there is no doubt that improving their overseas results was the biggest priority for the Indians having established themselves as the indisputable top dogs in Test cricket following a period of sustained domination at home.
Within two Tests, the South Africans have exposed all the deficiencies in the techniques of the Indian batsmen. While there is a fine line between defensive and attacking batting, the Indians have been caught in the middle with nowhere to hide. When they have tried to dig in, they have only crumbled after a brief resistance without making any indents in the scorecard while they have perished more often than nought while attempting to attack their way out of trouble.
Without any tour matches to prepare themselves for such an important series, India’s batsmen who were roared like tigers back home have been more likes foxes caught in the headlights in South Africa.
More than their shortcomings with technique, it has been the lack of discipline which has done India in so far. In the defeat at Centurion, the visitors lost the all important wickets of Cheteshwar Pujara and Pandya to needless run-outs in the first innings. Their second innings was no better with Pujara succumbing once again in similar fashion to become the first Indian to be run-out twice in the same Test.
India’s batsmen have simply failed to put enough of a premium on their wickets in the tour and have subsequently paid the price in a game of small margins.
Then there is their fielding where they have failed to latch on to their catches at crucial junctures of the game. Parthiv Patel was in the spotlight at Centurion where he dropped a sitter before failing to even attempt to grab a knick by Dean Elgar in the second that left Kohli and the others scratching their heads in disbelief.
While South Africa have themselves been guilty of throwing away wickets to cheap run-outs, they have been nothing short of exemplary on the field, especially with their catching.
India’s bowling has been their only saving grace on the tour so far and even there they have fallen some way short of their South African counterparts. While they have picked up 20 wickets in both Tests, they have allowed the hosts to escape from a position of peril in both matches.
Questionable selections by Kohli have been the hot topic of debate in the series, India’s woes are many and it is difficult to point the blame at a single department. Having failed their very first overseas acid Test now, the warning signs are already looming for the tours of England and Australia to come later this year.
With the norm of failures abroad continuing, it will be difficult for Kohli’s India to stake their claim as a truly great Test side. They still have one Test to salvage some pride but for now, they are only strengthening the notion of India being tigers at home but duds overseas.
When reports emerged last week that it was Bhuvneshwar Kumar who would have made way for Ishant Sharma in the opening Test against South Africa, it seemed a little far-fetched. And so it happened, Ishant’s slight niggle meant the call did not have to be made as Bhuvneshwar produced a sublime display of seam bowling.
That Bhuvneshwar does not seem to be high in the pecking order of India’s pace battery was confirmed on Saturday as Virat Kohli dropped the 27-year-old to make way for Ishant in the playing XI for the second Test at Centurion.
Jasprit Bumrah, who had made his debut at Newlands, retained his place along with Mohammed Shami. With the pitch at SuperSport Park being among the bouncier tracks in South Africa, Ishant’s inclusion was very well warranted.
What was not warranted though was dropping a pacer who has come on leaps and bounds in the last year or so. While Bhuvenshwar’s ability to swing the ball both ways with the red-ball has never been in doubt since his introduction to international cricket, it has always been his lack of extra pace which has set him back.
Lately however, Bhuvneshwar has worked hard on his speed and has been regularly clocking the late 130s km/h and early 140s. His beautiful seam movement has become all the more potent with the increase in pace.
While he did not have an extended run in the Test side in 2017 as India dominated at home, his limited-overs form is a testament to his unwavering accuracy and consistency. He was India’s best bowler in a dismal tour of England in 2014. Perhaps the only blot on his overseas record is his performance in the Sydney Test against Australia in 2015 where he picked up just one wicket, giving away 168 runs in the match.
With India choosing to stimulate conditions in South Africa during its last Test series against Sri Lanka at home, Bhuvneshwar was nearly unplayable at Eden Gardens as he picked up four wickets in each innings.
He continued that showing in Cape Town with a six-wicket haul where he ran through South Africa’s top-order on the opening day. Therefore, to learn that he was second choice on a track tailor-made for his wobbly seamers, does not reflect well for Kohli’s selection methods.
Bumrah, who leaked runs in the first innings at Newlands before coming back strongly in the second, was expensive once again on Saturday. So was Mohammed Shami, who looked down on pace once again. While Ishant toiled hard, India’s other pacers failed to maintain the pressure as they allowed South Africa’s batsmen to get away.
Shami bowled only 11 overs through the day and had to leave the field for a brief while as he struggled with his rhythm. Bhuvneshwar’s ability to keep things tight would have been a greater asset for Kohli at Centurion despite the lack of lateral movement off the pitch. He has also been handy with the bat for India lower down the order and the 127 deliveries he faced in total at Newlands was the most for any Indian batsmen in the 72-run defeat.
Kohli continues to make brave calls in his team selection but his dropping of Bhuvneshwar at Centurion reeks of a lack in confidence in the seamer’s abilities despite his consistent performances.
Bhuvneshwar had arguably been India’s most in-form bowler heading into the second Test and his place in the side should have been a given. More importantly, the fact that he would not have played in Newlands but for fate, shows that the seamer does not rank high in Kohli’s books.