Sri Lanka don’t have batting behemoths Kumar Sangakkara or Mahela Jayawardene anymore. They have been without spin king Muttiah Muralitharan for five years.
The absence of such Test stalwarts was always going to hurt them and over the past few years, it started to show as Sri Lanka slipped to seventh in Test rankings.
The situation was such that authorities were worried about the future of the game in the country if the proposed two-tier system went ahead as their low ranking could have meant their relegation to the second division.
It was in these circumstances, and with a squad filled with inexperienced cricketers, that Sri Lanka took on the then No1-ranked Australians. On the first day of the first Test in Pallekele, the hosts were bowled out for 117 as the Australians sensed a massive lead.
But that was as good as it got for the Aussies, because Rangana Herath hadn’t come into play yet. Herath accounted for opener Joe Burns (bowled), Usman Khawaja (leg before) and skipper Steven Smith (stumped) and it allowed the Sri Lankans to keep the Aussies’ first innings lead to just 86.
Kusal Mendis scored a great ton in the second innings but it was Herath who gave the hosts the opportunity for a comeback. In the second Test, Herath was at his reliable best, picking up six wickets to help seal the series.
Rangana Herath is the only Asian to take 10+ wkt hauls in Tests after the age of 36 and he has now done it twice!#SLvAus— Mohandas Menon (@mohanstatsman) August 17, 2016
It seemed both Australia and Herath had settled into a routine where the batsmen didn’t try too many things against the spinner and looked to minimise the damage.
But in the third Test, the situation changed. Herath got hit on the box while batting and had to retire hurt. It’s a painful situation to be in, whether or not you are 38 years old. However, the left-arm spinner turned adversity into an opportunity.
As skipper Angelo Mathews explained, Herath was bowling on one leg as his movement had been hampered. For a spinner, the pivot and final push is everything. And Herath had to tweak his bowling mechanics during a Test to firstly bowl a respectable line and then attempt for wickets.
How he managed to do that and pick up 13 wickets in the Test will one day become a spinner’s manual, I am sure. It was reminiscent of the 1984 Headingley Test, when West Indian pace ace Malcolm Marshall broke his thumb at two places.
The Englishmen were glad as they thought they didn’t have to face his bowling. But Marshall was no ordinary bowler. He came out, his hand plastered, and bowled to terrorise, picking up seven wickets to blow England away.
Herath’s effort is remarkable because his is not an outrageously talented bowler like Marshall or Muralitharan. He is a regular bloke, holding a proper job at the Sampath Bank headquarters in Colombo. Whenever national duty beckons, Herath asks for leave from his manager, who duly obliges.
As far as his game is concerned, Herath has subtle variations to his bowling, nothing more nothing less. With the bat, he is dogged. But what sets Herath apart is he has squeezed every ounce out of his abilities, giving others hope that ‘traditional’ players can go far if they are willing to push themselves.
Muralitharan is a once in a generation bowler, whose action and exploits might never be replicated. But in Herath, we have a hero who is a lot more relatable, a cricketer whose work ethics and discipline players can replicate.