Rangana Herath was awarded the man of the series for his brilliant display with the ball in the Test series against Australia © AFP
Rangana Herath was awarded the man of the series for his brilliant display with the ball in the Test series against Australia © AFP

“I haven’t decided anything on Tests; we will go series by series. Hopefully, I will play next series.” Rangana Herath’s words were followed with roars, whose basis was relief. Herath, 38, claimed 28 wickets in 3 Tests at 12.75, as Sri Lanka registered their first whitewash against Australia. The old warhorse or a bank clerk, if we say, has anchored the sinking Sri Lankan ship that seemed to be plummeting at a rapid pace since the retirements of stalwarts, Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene. FULL CRICKET SCORECARD: Sri Lanka vs Australia, 3rd Test at Colombo

A banker, the team banks upon

Less than 5’6” with a roundish face and a rotund physique, Herath can well be mistaken for a bank clerk. Mistaken? No. He is a marketing clerk at Sampath Bank in Colombo. No, it is not the positions Indian cricketers are usually conferred with. Herath actually works for a bank, doing the usual jobs bank clerks do. For cricket tours, he walks up to the human resource department to apply for long duty leaves.

During his younger days, after the regular toils in the cricket maidans, Herath spent time with books. In retrospection, it proved to be a wise call as it helped him secure a regular job. COMPLETE UPDATES: Sri Lanka vs Australia, 3rd Test at Colombo

Why would a cricketer need a day job?

You would if you were competing with Muttiah Muralitharan for a Test berth. Herath is one of the very few active Test cricketers who made their debut in the 20th century. His rise has been slow, as slow as his run-up or loopy flight, or let us say, his running between the wickets; however, he has surpassed his physique and established himself as a giant in annals of Sri Lankan cricket.

Since Murali’s retirement in 2010, Herath has been world cricket’s most successful spinner and third-most prolific bowler (after James Anderson and Stuart Broad). With 261 wickets at 26.21, Herath has won most Tests for Sri Lanka in this time span.

Yet, Herath is not your billboard guy, even in a cricket maniac nation like Sri Lanka. He is the regular bank clerk, who, on normal days, will stroll to the canteen and pack his bags for home at 5 pm. In an interview with ESPNCricinfo, he had once said, “Being a cricketer in Sri Lanka is no hassle at all. It’s just my wife, our baby and myself at home, so I’m the one who goes to the markets and runs all the errands while she stays back. I’ve never had any issues.”

A country that has produced superstars like Sanath Jayasuriya, Aravinda de Silva, Sangakkara, Jayawardene and Murali amongst others, it is tough to fit Herath into a category. He would not make heads turn, neither will he make big statements nor give opponents sleepless nights. Match Report, Day 5: Sri Lanka complete Australia whitewash

Maybe, he has created a niche for himself. A separate type. The Herath type.

The turning point

Herath loves to keep things simple. He does not believe that a phone call in 2009 was the “turning point” in his career. He rather focuses on turning the ball and pitching it on the points in the surface that can do the trick for him. However, Herath’s career got resurrected, thanks to the phone call in 2009.

July 2 was an off-day in his training schedule at Staffordshire. Herath Mudiyanselage Rangana Keerthi Bandara Herath was heading to the gym after his lunch. Luckily, he was carrying his phone and more importantly, he took the call.

The mention of 2009, Sri Lanka and Pakistan, immediately transports us to the horrors at Lahore when terrorists attacked the visitor bus. That was March. Almost three and half months later, Pakistan beat Sri Lanka to crowned as the new ICC World T20 champions.

A few days later, Sri Lanka sought revenge, in another format, when Pakistan toured them. They suffered a big blow when Murali had injured himself. The legend himself recommended Herath to be called as a back-up to new skipper Sangakkara. READ: Rangana Herath and Australia: A sweet, sweet love story

Sanga and Murali called up Herath and requested him to try and make it for the Test at Galle, which was to be played on July 4. The rest was history. Herath not only made it on time but spun Sri Lanka to a win, claiming match figures of 5 for 67 and winning the Player of the Match. Herath picked up 15 wickets and contributed in Sri Lanka’s 2-0 victory. There was no looking back.

Till then to now, Herath is Test cricket’s most successful spin bowler.

Emerging out of Mural’s shadows

“(Sri Lanka’s) main weapon is Rangana Herath. Other than that, they don’t have any other bowler to get wickets for them,” Murali told Cricket Australia before the series started.

The shadow of Murali will loom forever over Sri Lankan spin bowler. You may be brilliant, but you will be compared with international cricket’s most successful bowler. For Herath, the major part of his career was spent in the sidelines with Murali taking centrestage.

If Herath was shrewd character, he would have drawn solace from the 3-0 whitewash. Murali was Australia’s spin consultant when the tour begun. Australia were the top-ranked Test side while Sri Lanka were languishing at No. 7. Not many gave the Lankans a chance. On top of that, Murali was providing insights to the Australian bowlers and was training them in an arena where he was the king. READ: Rangana Herath becomes oldest to take Test hat-trick, wrecks Australia

Do note the use of the past tense. Murali was the king of spin in Sri Lanka. Herath is.

A sweet victory for Herath, if a rivalry ever was?

It was always a healthy competition. There was no question regarding Murali’s supremacy when the careers coincided, but it cannot be denied that Murali’s deeds are a thing of the past. Herath, even at 38, is contemporary. And while Murali had a Herath as successor, Herath does not have any. There are the Sandakans and Dilruwans, but they are not ready to take over the mantle yet.

Having retired from limited-overs, Herath’s international games can be counted with hand. He is at the top of the game and that’s why when he said that he hopes to play the next series, Sri Lankan fans must have breathed a sigh of relief.

The circle turns full

Rewind to the summer of 1999. Steve Waugh’s Australia had buried the ghosts of 1996 final when they lifted the ICC World Cup at Lord’s. With enhanced reputation, Australia travelled to the emerald island.

Sri Lanka won the first Test and in the second Test of the series, at Galle, Herath made his debut. He impressed with figures of 4 for 97. The two Tests he featured in ended in draws. Thanks to Murali’s presence, the next decade meant sporadic appearances for him.

It was Herath’s debut series, when Sri Lanka had last registered a series victory against Australia. Yes, even before Sangakkara made his international debut. It is sweet that Herath, now a veteran was instrumental in spinning the young, struggling and rebuilding Sri Lankan side to one of their greatest moments in cricketing chronicles.

From a debut against Australia in 1999 to the Player of the Series 17 years later: sweet, is it not?

The bowler

“Test cricket is dying.” It is a phrase we hear every now and then. In times like these, stands get filled with David Warner’s machismo or Steven Smith’s unorthodox strokeplay.

In contrast, Herath is not box-office material. He is your traditional bowler who has managed to easily fox the above. He does not rely on carom-balls or doosra; he does not have malleable wrists to match Mustafizur Rahman’s.

You will not hold camps to specifically face Herath as there is no mystery around him. He is no Ravichandran Ashwin or Sunil Narine. When cricket books and databases refer to him as ‘slow left-arm orthodox’, they mean the last word.

Herath has an easy action. He thrives on variations of flight. If a batsman gets aggressive, he alters his length. He has an arm-ball that he often uses to dart in. And most importantly, he is extremely accurate. READ: Rangana Herath continues the Asian tradition of producing quality spinners

Are these not the basics for every left-arm spinner? But there is more to Herath than this, for he has a quality that is often lacking, even in the most successful, most unconventional of spinners: Herath is an exceptional thinker who can read batsmen early; he knows what to bowl, and when, and how much rip to impart.

“When I’m bowling, I don’t stop thinking. Batsmen aren’t afraid to step out and hit you. If you are thinking about every one of your six balls every over, you give yourself the best chance to succeed,” Herath once told ESPNCricinfo.

Herath claims he had gradually realised his importance to the side and when he does not perform to expectations he feels he has let the side down. The responsibility and the importance shown to him have pushed him to be a better bowler and that is something Sri Lankan cricket must be credited for. READ: Rangana Herath: An ode to the rotund banker

In times of bulging biceps, long locks, tattoos and ever-growing unorthodoxy, Herath is not your everyday hero. A short roundish man, a bank clerk who goes to the market, uses the bat like a broom or a sledgehammer, takes stunning catches (how?), bowls Sri Lanka to wins, has won a World Cup, Herath is one of a kind — and a rock of Sri Lankan cricket.

(Suvajit Mustafi consumes cricket for lunch, fiction for dinner and munches numerous other snacks throughout the day. Yes, a jack of several trades, all Suvajit dreamt of was being India’s World Cup winning skipper but ended up being a sports writer, author, screenwriter, director, copywriter, graphic designer, sports marketer , strategist, entrepreneur,  philosopher and traveller. Donning so many hats, it’s cricket which gives him the ultimate high and where he finds solace. He can be followed at @RibsGully and rivu7)