Despite a modest start to his career, since 2009, Herath has raced ahead, establishing himself as Sri Lanka’s lead spinner. © Getty Images

Despite a modest start to his career, since 2009, Herath has raced ahead, establishing himself as Sri Lanka’s lead spinner. © Getty Images

On July 2, 2009, when Rangana Herath called Scott Oliver, captain of Moddershall Cricket Club, to tell him he wouldn’t be available for the next game, the first reaction from Oliver was, “Oh, bugger!”

Herath, who had replaced Imran Tahir as the team’s lead spinner in Moddershall CC, had received a surprise call from the team management and flew back to Galle to join the Sri Lankan squad for the Test series against Pakistan.

Herath was included in the playing XI after Muttiah Muralitharan was ruled out by a knee injury, but he failed to make an impact in the first innings, bowling 16 overs for 52 runs and picking up just one wicket. However, he turned things around dramatically in the second innings, returning figures of 4 for 15 and spun Sri Lanka to an improbable win.

With five-wicket hauls in the next two Tests and with 15 wickets in the series, Herath, who had made his debut against Australia in 1999, had finally arrived on the international circuit. “I was of course very happy for him, even more so when he had a big impact on that series, because I knew how desperate he was to make his mark in international cricket,” Oliver told Wisden India.

Herath had a modest start to his career, playing just 14 Tests in nine years, with only 36 wickets to show for it. However, since 2009, he has raced ahead, establishing himself as Sri Lanka’s lead spinner. And, when he dismissed Younis Khan in the second Test against Pakistan at SSC, Colombo, on August 15, he became the fourth fastest spinner to reach 250 wickets after Muralitharan, Shane Warne and Anil Kumble – taking just 57 Tests to get there. It took him the same number of Tests as Joel Garner and one less than Curtly Ambrose and Graeme Swann.

Spinners with 250+ wickets

Bowler Matches Opposition Ground Match figures
Muttiah Muralitharan 51 Pakistan National Stadium, Karachi 8-196
Shane Warne 55 England Old Trafford, Manchester 9-111
Anil Kumble 55 New Zealand Green Park, Kanpur 10-134
Danish Kaneria 57 Australia SCG, Sydney 5-169
Rangana Herath 57 Pakistan SSC, Colombo 14-184

Since July 2009, Herath has picked up 224 wickets at an average of 27.40 including 21 five-wicket hauls and four ten-wicket hauls. While he may not possess as many tricks as Sunil Narine, isn’t tall enough to generate bounce from the wicket, and may not spin the ball a mile, it would be unjust to say he is a line-length bowler who pitches the ball at the right areas and waits for the batsmen to make a mistake.

Clever use of the carom ball and the arm ball with his regulation deliveries is one of the things that has clicked for Hearth. But Oliver feels it is when Herath bowls with an attacking mindset that he is most lethal. “[That] of course in part depends on some encouragement from the pitch,” says Oliver. “You can’t just say right, I’m going to attack on a slow surface that isn’t spinning – which usually means, for a short guy, some bounce.”

Herath picked up 9 for 127 in the first innings against Pakistan in the second Test last week, the first nine-for by a left-arm bowler in a Test innings. He became the seventh spinner with 20 five-wicket hauls. He is now level with Clarrie Grimmett and four behind Harbhajan Singh.

Spinners with most five-wicket hauls

Bowler Team Matches Inns Wkts Five-wicket hauls BBI
Muttiah Muralitharan SL 133 230 800 67 9-51
Shane Warne Aus 145 273 708 37 8-71
Anil Kumble Ind 132 236 619 35 10-74
Harbhajan Singh Ind 101 186 413 25 8-84
Clarrie Grimmett Aus 37 67 216 21 7-40
Rangana Herath SL 57 103 260 21 9-127

While most of his wickets have come on home soil, he hasn’t been able to spin his magic on foreign soil. In neutral venues, he has fared particularly well with 24 wickets from six matches.

Home, away and neutral venue record

Matches Inns Wkts Avg BBM
At Home 31 58 171 23.77 14-184
Away 20 33 65 40.33 9-128
Neutral 6 12 24 36.20 5-158

Kim Barnett, who has 28,593 first-class runs to his name, described Hearth as the third-best spinner he had faced after Warne and Muralitharan. Having battled for a place in the playing XI with Upul Chandana and then Ajantha Mendis, he now is the second-most successful spinner after Muralitharan for Sri Lanka.

For someone who stepped into Muralitharan’s shoes, expectations are always sky-high. Muralitharan was extremely successful in English conditions, having amassed 48 wickets in six Tests at an average of 19.20 while Herath has 14 wickets from five Tests.

Oliver believes one of the reasons Herath hasn’t done well in England is that conditions aren’t too favourable for spinners. “His record in club cricket, and then in county cricket for Surrey and Hampshire, wasn’t particularly good, but I guess English conditions aren’t ideal for spinners,” he says. “And then there’s always the X factor of the confidence you get from past performance, from feeling settled.
While Herath has proved that he is capable of bamboozling the opponents in the limited overs format also, wickets haven’t really come by. His figures of 3.3-2-3-5 in the World Twenty20 2014 against New Zealand are the third-best in T20 Internationals but he has just 56 wickets from 57 One-Day Internationals.

Oliver believes Herath’s main focus should be on Tests and not limited overs cricket. “I think he should stop playing ODIs and concentrate on Test cricket.”

Overall record in the limited overs format

Matches Wkts Avg Eco BBM
ODIs 57 56 32.46 4.31 4-20
T20Is 9 12 14.5 5.89 5-3

A quote attributed to Buddha goes: “No one saves us but ourselves. No one can and no one may. We ourselves must walk the path.” Herath may never reach the heights Warne or Muralitharan did. But, relishing his second chance since making that comeback in 2009, he certainly has carved his own path to success.

Ask Oliver to describe Herath and he chooses, “Quiet, professional, and a lovely guy.” That quiet, professional, lovely guy has ensured his place under the sun.