Kumar Sangakkara (left) and Rangana Herath    AFP
Kumar Sangakkara (left) and Rangana Herath AFP

Sri Lanka, Pakistan and 2009: a mention of the three in the same sentence evokes memories of Younis Khan s triple ton, and the episode of terror attack that blotched cricket. It did not end there. Younis men went on to beat Sri Lanka to lay hands on the ICC World T20 the same year. The two events in a short span of time had overshadowed the return of Herath Mudiyanselage Rangana Keerthi Bandara Herath completely.

Herath loves things uncomplicated. He does not believe that a phone call in 2009 was his career s turning point . When he bowls, he believes in the simple philosophy of pitching the ball at the right spot and obtaining whatever the pitch offered him. He lives life the same way, with a well-grounded, firm-footed yet efficient approach.

It is difficult to say how Sri Lankan cricket would have panned out in this decade had Herath not taken the call on July 2, 2009. It was an off day during his training at Staffordshire. Herath had set off for a post-lunch gym session. He answered the call when the phone rang. It was from skipper Kumar Sangakkara, with Muttiah Muralitharan at his side. They had a Test to play the day after on July 4. Sri Lanka needed the service of the discarded spinner who was in a different continent thousands of miles away.

At that point he was probably recognised more at his bank than by fans. That changed once he took field that day. Since then he remains the most successful spinner in Tests cricket with 364 wickets. Only James Anderson (378) has more.

But let us return to 2009, Sanga was set to captain Sri Lanka in Tests for the first time when his worst came true: Murali was ruled out due to a knee injury. Sri Lanka had Ajantha Mendis in the squad. The selectors also felt that the time was ripe for Suraj Randiv to be groomed as next in line. Malinga Bandara s name was doing rounds. But Sanga was not satisfied: he wanted a man who could win Tests, like Murali.

Sanga vouched for Herath s comeback. Murali backed it. Herath did not have a contact with Sri Lanka cricket at that point. He was in England representing Moddershall CC in Staffordshire League.

Sanga recalled the incident in an interview with Cricbuzz: I remember in one Test match against South Africa, Rangana played in the absence of Murali and took seven wickets. Then he was cut off for four years as he had failed to make it to the Inter-Provincial First Class cricket tournament. He was far, far better to not to get a slot in the Provincial side. I was chatting to Murali after he had been ruled out and we were wondering just what the hell has happened to Rangana. We felt that he should be back playing Test cricket.

We had Ajantha, who had just made his debut and he was this mystery bowler. I remember in 1999 when the Australians were in town, in Rangana s debut series, Ricky Ponting was all at sea against him. Right-hander or left-hander, Rangana knew how to outsmart the batsmen. He had this knack and he was very intelligent. I had known him since we were playing for our respective schools at Under-15 level and he was a fearless cricketer, said Sanga after his arrival from England post his famous Surrey stint.

Sanga lauded the then selectors for backing his thoughts. Ashantha de Mel, the then Chairman of Selectors, was willing to call him back. It is immaterial who or how we called him up and all. What is important is that Rangana was never bitter. He always wanted to pay for Sri Lanka. He was out of the radar, but he had done the homework keeping himself fit, hoping that his time will come. The moment he was called up he was ready to go, Sanga added.

Herath was home just 24 hours before the Test and spun Sri Lanka to a win, claiming match figures of 5 for 67 and the Man of the Match award. Pakistan were chasing 168; just like the recently concluded Abu Dhabi Test, they collapsed to 117. Herath finished with 15 wickets in the series as Sri Lanka won 2-0.

His affinity towards Pakistan has not ceased even after eight years. At 39-and-a-half, he became the first bowler in history to take over 100 Test wickets against Pakistan. He won a Test for the faltering Sri Lanka at a venue where Pakistan had never lost a Test despite playing six different teams. Herath also became the first left-arm spinner with 400 Test wickets. Another 15 will see him get past Wasim Akram as the most successful left-arm bowler to grace the game.

Sanga might have left Sri Lanka at his peak and witnessed them suffer a slump. However, at the same time he wants Herath to go on: Very impressive to watch him and what he has done. The amount of games he has won for Sri Lanka single-handedly is just unbelievable. I have scored some runs and won a few matches, but what Rangana has done is truly remarkable. He should play beyond 40. He should be taken well care of.