Sri Lanka can be thankful that when the great Muthiah Muralitharan called time on his glorious career there was someone by the name of Rangana Herath around to take over his mantle and bowl the country to victory over all kinds of opposition in all three formats.
For the past six years since the retirement of Muralitharan, Herath has projected himself as the country’s leading spinner and has left no doubt that he is in fact the best left-arm spinner produced by Sri Lanka and would compete for a place to be the best among the world in contemporary cricket.
The only left-arm spinner who would rank close to Herath is New Zealand’s Daniel Vettori who has played more Tests (113 to 63) and taken more wickets (362 to 278) than him. However the Sri Lankan left-armer has a better strike rate than Vettori taking a wicket every 65.3 balls to Vettori’s 79.5.
But with the impending years the strain of shouldering the burden as key strike bowler of his team coupled with injuries is taking its toll on Herath who at 37 is not growing any younger.
The upcoming two-Test series against West Indies represents another challenge to Herath who admits he is struggling with his knees that underwent surgery four years ago.
“I did an operation on both knees in 2011 for damaged cartilage. I had a clean-up and I had no problem playing after that. But of late I have been getting pains. It is four years since the operation and the effect of it must have worn off over the years due to the wear and tear while playing,” Herath told The Nation.
“I sometimes get the pain on my knees when I start to run but not when I am bowling. I have been working with the physios, trainers and the medical staff how best to manage my injury and taking tablets and taping myself when I play in matches,” he said.
To reduce the pain Herath went to Australia shortly before the 2014 T20 World Cup and got a C-rp (C-reactive protein) injected on both his knees, but now it is a over a year since and the pain has returned.
“With my age you cannot perform the way you did some 10-15 years ago. From my fitness I am doing the maximum with the injury, I am struggling a little bit on it,” admitted Herath.
“I cannot give a guarantee with my bowling or my fitness. I am trying to retain whatever energy I have and to prolong my career I have reduced the number of one-day matches and play only Tests,” he said.
Following the retirements of Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara, Herath is one of the few experienced hands around for skipper Angelo Mathews to turn to for advice.
“Even when Mahela and Sanga were around as a bowler I offered advice and assistance to Angelo. In future Angelo will require the support of all the team members. As a senior player I also have a responsibility to support him especially from the bowling side,” said Herath.
“If you take our bowling unit apart from Dhammika (Prasad) and me the rest have not played many matches. When you play with an inexperienced bowling unit the captain will need to have a lot of patience because you will not get the breaks every time you need them.
“In the past 5-6 years it has been this bowling unit which has been shuffled around and played. We always look as a team to build partnerships with the bowling unit. If anyone is bowling well from one side, not consistently bowling maiden overs but lessening the number of loose balls and not allowing batsmen the freedom to score, the strike bowler has more chances of taking wickets.”
This was something that didn’t happen during Sri Lanka’s Test series against Pakistan where young off-spinner Tharindu Kaushal leaked runs from the other end which affected Herath who could manage only two wickets in the series and found himself dropped from the third Test.
“I don’t blame anyone for my poor performances against Pakistan. From my side I had room to improve myself which I managed to do during the Indian series,” said Herath.
“PHT (Kaushal) is a newcomer to Test cricket we cannot expect too much from him like building pressure and things like that. He needs the experience to do that. With experience only you can improve their performance. From my side I could have bowled better than I did against Pakistan.
“Technically you cannot put your finger on anything that’s wrong. It is against Pakistan that I have performed very well taken about 90 Test wickets. What I found was that the Pakistan batsmen played me better than in the past and although I did not concede as many runs what stood out was that I could not get any wickets,” he said.
Herath believes that Kaushal is the best option Sri Lanka has to succeed as spinner after him.
“If you take our spinners it is Kaushal who has played a lot and has the wicket-taking ability. Even Dilruwan Perera has it but Kaushal from the wicket-taking angle is the most successful and promising, we should pursue with him for the future. He has a problem with his doosra but I believe he can go a long way with his off-spin,” said Herath.
“PHT does not spin the ball as much as Murali. Murali had a wrist from which he could impart sharp spin and turn. Kaushal does not have that advantage, but he definitely has turn.”
In contrast to all other opposition it is against West Indies that Herath has a poor record taking only eight wickets in five Tests but he is confident that he can put the record straight in the upcoming series.
“I am confident that I can do what I have been doing in the past and have great belief if I bowl well we have a good chance of winning the series,” said Herath.
The turning point for Herath was in 2009 in the home series against Pakistan where he was flown in from England where he was playing league cricket to replace Muralitharan who was injured. He took four wickets in the second innings to bowl Sri Lanka to a sensational 50-run win in the first Test at Galle. Sri Lanka went onto win the series 2-0 and Herath ended up taking 15 wickets.
Herath’s most productive ball has been his stock ball the normal left-armer’s spin. He also uses the arm ball and the crease and varies his pace to get wickets. “If you can out think the batsmen creating doubts in his mind you can take wickets.”
Herath has not made up his mind when he plans to retire but he said “it will be very soon”.
“If I put a target to end my career I will not be able to give my maximum to the team. Every time I play I look to give 100 percent to the team. But before long I will have to take a decision on my future. I will decide after the World T20 which is to be played in India next year. We are the reigning champions and we have a good chance of defending it with the present team although they lack in a bit in experience,” he said.