When Rangana Herath takes the field for one last time in Galle today, there will be tributes for the gentleman cricketer who has an unblemished record on and off field.
Sri Lanka will host England in a three-match Test series but Herath will only play the first Test starting on November 6, thereby ending a career spanning nearly two decades.
With 430 wickets and counting, Herath can walk off the field with his head held high. He has achieved what no other left-arm bowler has done in the history of the game. With five more wickets in his last appearance, he will become number seven in the all-time list of highest wicket takers, led by our own Muttiah Muralidaran (800). It is a phenomenal achievement for a late bloomer. Among them are 34 five wickets hauls out of which 26 came off in home conditions.
Herath lived most of his career under the shadow of Muralidaran–one of the greatest spinners to grace the game. When he finally got an extended run with the magical Murali hanging up his boots in 2009, the burly tweaker grabbed it with both hands.
“I was glad that I could make my debut at the age of 21. Only a few people get a chance to play at 21. When I was drooped the selectors perhaps thought of the combination that was best for the team,” said the retiring great ahead of his final international appearance.
With Murali’s retirement, pundits predicted that Sri Lanka would struggle to win matches with their expected replacements like Ajantha Mendis and Suraj Randiv failing to cement a permanent place in the side. But Herath proved them wrong by re-entering the national fold back in 2009 with bang.
His perseverance paid off. He made a strong statement by leading Sri Lanka to an improbable victory against Pakistan in Galle in a career-defining match. He returned figures of 4 for 15 as Pakistan were bowled out for 117, chasing 168 to win, and walked away with the man-of-the-match award in the very first match he played. This was the beginning of a new chapter, not only in his own career but in shaping Sri Lanka’s cricketing future.
Since then, Herath has spearheaded Sri Lanka’s bowling attack leading the team to many a victory at home and away–including a historic Test win against South Africa in Durban in 2011–a frontier even the great Muralidaran failed to conquer during his illustrious career.
“I don’t see any rocket science (in it). If you take the orthodox spinners what they have is that they are able to maintain the right length and right line. If you get to left-arm spinners there is natural variation. My career last 15 years I gained lot of experience and that helped me,” he explained. “Looking back I feel that I could have done little bit more, but I am satisfied that I gave 100 percent. I have been with Sampath Bank for 18 years and perhaps I will work with them. I would like to share bit of my knowledge with some of the younger players.”
Who will take the baton from Herath and continue his legacy is a conundrum national cricket selectors will struggle with. Finding another talent even close to Herath will be a huge challenge.
Not that Sri Lanka hasn’t been producing unorthodox talent but there has been no system to harness these youngsters and push them to their potential.
Thirty-year-old off-spinner Dilruwan Perera seems the best bet, given his experience and exposure at national and international level. But the focus will be on nurturing the next generation of spinners to take the baton and run a distance without fading away midway as has happened to Ajantha Mendis and Suraj Randiv.
Mendis, in particular, had dreamt of starting his career. Many have falsely assumed that Sri Lanka found the next Murali. But oppositions soon unraveled his mystery and, with injuries further hampering his journey, the ‘mystery spinner’ was soon confined to history.
With Mendis and Randiv falling by the wayside, Dilruwan Perera became frontrunner for the second spinner’s slot. He often played support act to Herath since debuting against Pakistan in 2014. The pair had worked in tandem during the last four years and Sri Lanka should find him a match to carry forward the legacy.
With 125 wickets at 32.82 in 55 Test innings, the off-spinner will now have to shoulder much responsibility as Sri Lanka’s strike bowler. But the question is who will take the second spinner’s spot? Among the new lot, Malinda Pushpakumara, Akila Dananjaya and Lakshan Sandakan have shown glimpses of promise but are yet to stake a serious claim for the job.
“We have Dilruwan in the side with enough experience to a handle a situation,” Herath said, in a recent interview with the Sunday Times. “Then we have Akila Dananjaya, a very fast learner. I think these two could form a great bowling partnership. We also have Lakshan Sandakan. The only issue with him is his lack of control. If he can master that, I think he is also a great prospect for us.”
Out of the three, left-arm spinner Pushpakumara with him a wealth of experience, having collected over 660 first class wickets in a career spanning over 12 years. He is yet to get an extended run, however, having featured in just two Tests with meager success.
“It’s not easy to play 100 first class matches and get over 650 wickets,” Herath reflected. “You need some talent. He has played two Test matches so far and, except for his debut match, he performed in the second one in Kandy.”
“So, if the selectors are looking for a left-arm spinner, I think we have a ready-made one,” he said. “But we must also remember that there’s a big difference between first class cricket and international cricket. So Malinda should know what areas he needs to improve in to fit into the international game.”
Dananjaya has enjoyed an impressive run in limited over cricket during recent months and, with his uncanny ability to deliver a leg-break, googly, carrom ball, doosra and a stock off-spinner, he is likely to partner Dilruwan.
Unlike Pushpakumara, who has played over 100 first class matches and taken over 660 first class wickets, Dananjaya has just 39 first class games under his belt, taking 121 wickets at 26.10. In his three Test match career, the unorthodox spinner clinched 17 wickets at 16.29.
Left-arm wrist spinner Sandakan has played the most international matches out of the three rookies but his place has not been assured in the side. Another prospect is Jeffrey Vandersay, a left-arm wrist spinner. His career hasn’t gotten off the ground due to his off-field antics.
When Herath retires in Galle, one of them—Dananjaya, Sandakan and Vandersay will have to shoulder the responsibility and the best bet is for Dananjaya to take over.