The Cuddly “Rangaiyya” is Wily Danger

Osman Samiuddin, courtesy of ESPNcricinfo, 3 October 2017, where the title reads “The truth about Rangaiyya

Frankly, Pakistan would like to call bullshit. For years – pretty much his entire career – Rangana Herath has been made out to be this cuddly, pudgy little teddy bear. No piece on him goes by without reference to his belly. And look, he works in a bank except he’s not a banker like JP Morgan was a banker. Cricket’s normcore legend. Drops his kids to school and runs errands himself. He’s happy to be normal, shed off the celebrity psychosis of subcontinent cricketers. He’s the not-Murali Sri Lanka spinner. Doesn’t really do much with the ball either. Keeps it simple. What can he do? He’s SLA, the dad joke of bowling.

Bullshit. Pakistan know the truth of Rangana Herath, which is that he is a mean-ass, conniving devil of a spinner who has, for over a decade, taunted and harassed them like very few bowlers before him. To this generation of Pakistanis, he is what Warne and McGrath were in the 90s and early aughts, only without the sledging. And to be honest, it would have been better if he did throw in the occasional chirp or glare because then at least the world would see the truth as Pakistan sees it.

On Monday, in Abu Dhabi, he took his 100th Pakistani wicket, a quarter of all his wickets by numerical proportion, but, to Pakistan, they may as well represent his entire career’s work. He’s the first to take that many against Pakistan. Over 20 Tests, with eight five-fers, two ten-fers, it doesn’t come across as quite the reign of terror it actually is (Warne had 90 in 15, at a much more eye-catching average and strike rate).

But it is, as a look through the list of Pakistanis he has dismissed most often will show. Misbah-ul-Haq, 9 times in 15 Tests, Asad Shafiq, 9 times in 14 Tests, Azhar Ali 9 times in 12 Tests, Younis Khan, 8 times in 18 Tests, Umar Gul – a lower-order anomaly – and Mohammad Yousuf 6 times in 6 Tests. That is a roll call of the best batsmen Pakistan has produced over the last 15 years. There are as many as eight Pakistanis among the ten batsmen he has dismissed most often.

The other day he was asked about it. His answer was barely an answer – nothing special, just that he had played against them so often. Which is true: because he’s played nearly a quarter of his Tests against them. But nice charade, because it masks the nature of the wickets he has taken, and his hold over a generation of Pakistan batsmen.

These are accomplished players of spin. Azhar is probably the least assured, but Younis, Misbah and Yousuf have been among the finest players of spin in the modern era – and Shafiq is also good against it. Since 2001, as the table shows, Herath has taken 41 wickets against this quintet, at an average of 32.15 and strike rate of 78.49. Ordinary you might think, except look at all the other spinners who have bowled to them in that time.

Also recall how often he has made them look like Englishmen playing legspin. The carrom-ball from the first time he took a Pakistani wicket, in his second Test against them in Faisalabad way back in 2004. It’s easy to joke about how bad spinners make Australian and English batsmen look in the subcontinent, but do you remember the arm-ball to Yousuf on the fifth morning in Galle in 2009? His bat and head were in the wrong country in expectation of where that ball would arrive.

Calling it the arm-ball actually is where this whole charade begins. In Herath’s hands it has been every bit of fun and joy and danger as a googly or the doosra and yet, the arm ball? Is that the sexiest way we can sell it? Call in Don Draper already.

Upon the genius of that wicket also, the nature of this rivalry shifted. Before that Test, Sri Lanka had won just one and lost six Tests against Pakistan at home. Including the win in that Test – built on a collapse every bit as memorable as Monday’s and sparked by Herath – and after, they have won six and lost just two in 11.

Fresher in the mind is his working-over of Shafiq in the first innings in Abu Dhabi. It’s easy to say that Shafiq got himself out, having been fairly settled at the time, on a slow, slow surface. But go through the over that Herath bowled to him, or the overs that he bowled to him before then. Very slowly he was pressing down on Shafiq’s arms and feet like he was a spring, pitching around off, or off and middle, so that the only movement he allowed him was to be able to move forward and pat the ball down.

He did it for long enough so that it felt like Shafiq was more or less in control. In reality Herath was pressing down further and further each ball, until, with a new ball in hand, he threw one higher and further outside off, and also shorter. In other words, Herath taking his weight off the spring and Shafiq, suddenly uncoiled, had almost no option but to reach out for it. Poor shot? Masterful bowling.

Both dismissals are illustrative, in that he has done the batsmen on both the outside and inside edges of the bat, which leaves nowhere safe. Misbah, happy to put bat out in front of pad, edged to keeper or slip six times out of his nine dismissals to Herath; Younis, happier keeping bat and pad closer, was bowled or leg-before four times out of eight, and the arm ball that did for him in Galle three years ago was as comprehensive a working-over as Yousuf’s.

It actually took Pakistan a while to start taking him seriously. In the past, they happily made plans for Murali (Herath’s record against Pakistan is comparable to Murali’s) and even Ajantha Mendis, who, back in early 2009, looked a successor. For Herath nothing specific until after the 2014 series, which he owned so completely they should’ve named the series trophy after him, and by which time he had 88 wickets against them.

A year later when they returned, Pakistan came ready. With input from Misbah, Younis and Grant Flower, they resolved to sweep him more, to use their feet more; to put him off, in other words, from his plans. It worked, Pakistan giving him just two wickets in two Tests and forcing Sri Lanka to drop him for the third (they lost that, though imagine it if Herath had been leading a defense of 382).

And even though Herath had a difficult time against India, Pakistan made similar plans ahead of this series – a sign, belatedly, of how seriously they now take him. Except look at the mode of some key dismissals in Abu Dhabi – Shan Masood sweeping, Azhar Ali and Sarfraz Ahmed (and even Sami Aslam to some degree) coming down the track. Pakistan worked him out. He just came back and worked them out again.

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