Rangana Herath is the first left-arm spinner to reach 400 Test wickets and he reached the milestone in just 84 Tests. © AFP Rangana Herath is the first left-arm spinner to reach 400 Test wickets and he reached the milestone in just 84 Tests. © AFP
Nov 16, 2017

The incredible 400-wicket journeyman

On Wednesday, July 1, 2009, Rangana Herath was in the Moddershall Cricket Club nets, preparing for their next game in the North Staffordshire and South Cheshire League. With Imran Tahir as the overseas pro, they had won the title the previous year, but with just 14 wickets from seven outings, Herath was struggling to match the standards set by his predecessor.

That evening, he repeatedly bamboozled Scott Oliver, the club captain, with his version of the doosra. Oliver remembers trying to keep his spirits up, after a succession of green surfaces had blunted his effectiveness. On Thursday afternoon, Oliver's phone rang. It was Herath, informing him that he'd miss Saturday's league match. He was on his way to Heathrow and a flight to Colombo, after Sri Lanka's selectors had named him as cover for the injured Muttiah Muralitharan. "I'll probably be back for next week," he told his captain.

When Oliver checked the scores on Monday night, Pakistan were 71 for 2, needing just another 97 to win the game. Herath had taken 1 for 52 in the first innings, and his only over in the second had cost six runs. Oliver called the groundsman and asked him not to bother preparing a fresh deck. "We'll play on the dusty, worn one," he said with a laugh, certain that Herath would soon be flying westward. "Be like Galle."

When he woke up on Tuesday morning and logged in to Cricinfo, the headline said: 'Herath Spins Sri Lanka to Improbable Win'. His spell that morning read 10.3-5-9-4. An hour later, once he had congratulated his overseas professional, Oliver began to look for a new one. Herath wouldn't be coming back.

It's the sort of charming story that makes us keep going back to stadiums the world over. Since making his debut as a 21-year-old a decade earlier, Herath had been the very epitome of a 'journeyman' cricketer. The Oxford Dictionary defines the word as "a worker or sports player who is reliable but not outstanding." Herath Mark 1, in other words.

At the stage, he had taken 36 wickets in 14 Tests, at an average just under 40. There had been four-wicket hauls against Australia, Pakistan and Bangladesh, but none of the drama or excitement associated with Ajantha Mendis, for example. Herath was the perennial substitute, who didn't even get regular games.

After the series-winning heroics against Pakistan, the tour of India was a chastening experience. Herath was there as Murali's deputy, and Sri Lanka had high hopes of improving on their displays in 2005, when the 2-0 scoreline in favour of the hosts hid the closeness of the contests. They got a dream start too, in Ahmedabad, with Chanaka Welegedera and Dhammika Prasad slicing through the top order to leave India 32 for 4.

Herath came on to bowl just before lunch, with Rahul Dravid and Yuvraj Singh trying to rebuild the innings. The final ball of his first over deceived Dravid in flight, but having sauntered down the pitch, he went through with the stroke anyway. On another day, a miscue might have landed in mid-on or mid-off's hands. But Dravid, not a batsman usually associated with such demonstrations of intent, had given it the full flourish, and the ball sailed over long-on for six.

Despite Sri Lanka taking a mammoth 334-run lead on an utterly placid pitch, the match petered out into the dullest of draws. Sri Lanka were then hammered in both Kanpur and Mumbai. Herath finished the series with 11 wickets at 48.81. Murali struggled too, and Sri Lanka left Indian shores no closer to knowing who they could anoint his successor.


The wily tweaker made his Test debut in 1999 but it wasn't until after Muttiah Muralitharan's retirement that he was given a regular place in the Test side. © AFP

Herath played just three Tests in 2010, when Murali took his last bow in whites, and truly came into his own in 2011, the first calendar year of a new era. His numbers — 41 wickets at 29 in 10 Tests — weren't spectacular, but they included match figures of 9 for 128 as Sri Lanka sealed one of their most famous victories at Kingsmead in Durban. On a pitch supposed to favour South Africa's pacemen, Herath ran rings around the lower order in the first innings, and dismissed both Jacques Kallis and AB de Villiers in the second.

The following year, his 60 wickets at 23.61 included 12 in Galle against an England side then ranked No.1 in the world. After consolidating his position as the team's go-to man in 2013 and '14, age appeared to catch up with him in 2015. He played his part in one of cricket's most remarkable come-from-behind victories, taking 7 for 48 in the final innings after Dinesh Chandimal's century for the ages had raised the possibility of an upset in the shadow of the old Galle Fort. But in the remaining two matches, which India won to clinch the series, his eight wickets cost 350 runs.

Pakistan too played him with a measure of comfort, and it was only a 15-wicket showing in the two Tests against an enfeebled West Indies that gave his figures some respectability. But 2016 was another matter, with Steve Smith's Australians arriving soon after an underwhelming Sri Lankan tour of England. Defiant batting set the tone for Sri Lanka's renaissance, but it was Herath's 28 wickets, including 13 for 145 at the Sinhalese Sports Club Ground, that pushed the visitors into the abyss.

Herath finished the year with 57 wickets at 18.92, stunning figures for a man into his 39th year. He was an anachronism in a world of svelte figures, tattoos and gelled hair, but he more than held his own. Softly spoken and humble, he was happiest varying trajectory and pace, and watching some of the world's most accomplished batsmen come undone.

Along the way, he also had the honour of leading the side, away in Zimbabwe and on home soil against Bangladesh. His fifth, and likely last, game in charge came against India at his favourite stomping ground in Galle last July. This time, he and Sri Lanka got a pummelling, and with a finger injury adding to his woes, there were doubts aplenty over his future after a series in which he took 5 for 347.

But as with Oliver and his chat to the groundsman years earlier, Herath has a penchant for proving people wrong. In the United Arab Emirates, against a Pakistan team that had never lost a series in their adopted home, he took 16 wickets in a 2-0 victory. That included 6 for 43 on a gripping final day in Abu Dhabi, as Pakistan imploded while chasing just 136 for victory.

It was almost as though Herath was completing the circle he had first started sketching in Galle those years earlier, when he was a league professional given a rare lifeline. How he seized it is one of modern-day cricket's most incredible, and heart-warming, stories.

By Dileep Premachandran

Dileep Premachandran is the former editor-in-chief of Wisden India