x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Herath: a sting in the tail

Bowler whose status with Sri Lanka has been tenuous proves he can bat a bit, too. Dileep Premachandran reports.

In the first week of July last year, Rangana Herath was playing at Barnfields in England, representing Moddershall in the North Staffs & South Cheshire Premier Division. He took 14 wickets at an average of 23.8 from his first seven outings, decent enough on green-tinged pitches but hardly headline-worthy.

The 31-year-old's signing had been quite a coup for the club, though with just 14 Test caps spread over more than nine years, it appeared as though his time at the top was over. Then, with Muttiah Muralitharan's fitness in doubt, Sri Lanka's selectors sprung a surprise by sending an SOS to northern England. Herath headed for the airport, and called his captain, Scott Oliver, to tell him that he would miss the Saturday game, but "probably be back for next week".

By the time Oliver went to bed the following Monday night, Pakistan were in touching distance of victory, and Herath had unspectacular match figures of 1 for 52. Oliver had already told the groundsman not to bother with preparing a fresh strip for the Saturday game. "We'll play on the dusty, worn one," he said. "Be like Galle." When he woke up the next morning, the Galle Test was already over. Kumar Sangakkara, in his first game as captain, had thrown the ball to Herath for the second over of the morning. With his first delivery, the left-arm spinner trapped Mohammed Yousuf, first-innings centurion, in front. He went on to take 4 for 15 in a spell that saw Pakistan routed by 50 runs.

Back in Staffordshire, pride in their teammate's achievement was tempered by the realisation that they would now need to search for another overseas professional. Ranga, as he was known in those parts, went on to take 15 wickets in the series, but when New Zealand arrived on the island soon after, he was jettisoned in favour of the Murali-Ajantha Mendis combination. There was no time to bemoan his fate though. By the time the series moved to the SSC ground in Colombo, Herath was back, and an eight-wicket haul sealed the game for the hosts.

He continued that fine form in India, easily the pick of a spin trio that was often treated with scant respect by India's imposing batting line-up. On Wednesday, back at the venue where his career was rejuvenated, Herath revealed another facet of his cricket. He came to the crease with Sri Lanka experiencing something of a stutter and Ishant Sharma in the middle of a fine spell of seam bowling. With a previous best of 33 not out and 28 runs from four innings in India, it is safe to say that Mahendra Singh Dhoni and friends would not have expected him to be a huge obstacle in their quest for closure.

But Herath started aggressively, and with Prasanna Jayawardene also in the mood to play some shots, the score swelled to 393. Then, Lasith Malinga, another with no great pretensions to batting excellence, came out. After remaining scoreless for 14 deliveries, he started tonking and scything the ball as only the unfettered tail-end batsman can. India have embarrassing history when it comes to letting the tail wag. At Kolkata in 1999, Pakistan recovered to 185 from 26 for 6 and went on to win the Test match. At Karachi seven years later, the scoreboard showed 39 for 6 before a Kamran Akmal century took the hosts to 245 and resounding victory.

Here, confronted by two limited batsmen, the pace men who had bowled so well under overcast skies in the morning, lost the plot. Too full or too short, or wide enough for the full-blooded flail through the covers. The specialist spinners gave Dhoni no solace either, bowling 58 wicketless overs. By the time Abhimanyu Mithun ended the 115-run partnership to finish with four wickets in his first outing, the pendulum had swung decisively Sri Lanka's way.

Herath's contribution was a 93-ball 80, a strike-rate matched only by the inimitable Virender Sehwag late in the day. There would have been a few cheers of appreciation at Barnfields. sports@thenational.ae