Rex Clementine, courtesy of The Island, 20 May 2016, where the title is “Herath – Sri Lankan cricket’s most loyal man”
How many of you knew that Rangana Herath made his Test debut before former great Kumar Sangakkara? Herath debuted aged just 21 when the Steve Waugh’s Australians toured the island in 1999 in Galle. In a rain affected game, the Australians batted just once and Herath picked up four wickets for 97. Despite a promising start, opportunities were few and rare for Herath due to the presence of champion spinner Muttiah Muralitharan. Sri Lanka also had in their line-up all-rounder Sanath Jayasuriya, who bowled left-arm spin as well and an overdose of spin wasn’t required.
However, whenever he was given an opportunity Herath had decent returns. In the first decade of this millennium, Sri Lanka’s coaches had this interesting theory about Pakistan’s perceived weakness against left-arm spin and he was an automatic choice for Tests against Pakistan.
But against other opponents the team heavily depended on Muralitharan. Then with various mystery spinners coming through, Herath was thought as history.
When Kumar Sangakkara was elevated as captain in 2009, he was impressed by Herath’s loyalty to the team. Sri Lanka were playing the World T-20 in England that year. Their games were scatted all over England from Nottingham to London and elsewhere. The team’s hierarchy noticed that Herath traveled with friends to support the team in England. Sri Lanka fell in the last hurdle in that competition losing the final to Pakistan.
Back at home, Sangakkara was set to captain his first Test match with Sri Lanka hosting Pakistan. Although generally Herath would have been an automatic choice against them, with the rise of mystery spinners, he had lost that ‘right’. The selectors preferred other options.
However, two days before the opening Test in Galle, Muralitharan pulled out with injury. Herath was in England playing league cricket and although there were little hope, before going to England, he had given the selectors his contact details. The captain pushed for his inclusion despite the odds of him turning up on time were little. The selectors called Herath up and he landed in Colombo less than 24 hours before the game and headed to Galle. There Sri Lanka came from behind to secure a famous win with Herath playing a pivotal role.
With the mystery spinners unable to replicate their form over a period of time, Herath again became the second choice spinner after Muralitharan. When Murali retired from Tests a year later, he had established himself as the leading spinner in the side. Herath had been part of Sri Lankan teams that had quite a few run ins with the administration. Despite being a senior player, he never took on the administration holding his own during heated debates. There were instances when he was controversially left out of the team for shorter formats of the game. But Herath never expressed his opinions in public despite having enough ammunition to fire at the selectors.
In 2014, during the World T-20, an event that Sri Lanka went onto win, Herath was just a passenger and the selector were using up all spin options available. After much media pressure, Herath was played in the must win game against New Zealand and he helped the team to a sensation win. Defending a modest total of 119, Herath helped Sri Lanka bowl New Zealand out for 60 taking the team to the semi-finals against West Indies. Herath’s figures in that game were mesmerizing as he took five wickets for just three runs.
On Saturday, here at Chester-le-Street there was another milestone for him as he became the third Sri Lankan after Muttiah Muralitharan and Chaminda Vaas to claim 300 Test wickets.
“When I made my debut in 2009, I didn’t dream of getting to 300 wickets. Before 2009, I was in and out of the team. But for six or seven years now, I’ve been consistently in the side, and have been the first-choice spinner. I’ve just tried to think about what I need to do for the team. I hadn’t thought about the number of wickets, really. When I took 250 wickets, I knew that we had quite a few Tests coming up. With my fitness, I thought that, yes, I should be able to get to 300. But that wasn’t a focus for me. I have to thank my teammates for helping me along the way.”
Herath has featured in many famous Sri Lankan wins and the most memorable being the win in Durban, Sri Lanka’s maiden Test win in South Africa. “Every bowler will remember his first Test wicket, and that’s the same for me. When we won a match in Durban and I took nine wickets, that was special too. Those are the major memories.”