Illustration- Vasim Maner
Illustration- Vasim Maner

Sri Lanka were awarded Test status only in 1982. However, it was not until their World Cup success in 1996 that the island nation became a real force in Test cricket. Though they have produced a number of great batsmen in this period, it is in their bowling where they have lacked quality and stability. Not surprising, then, that there have only been seven bowlers from Sri Lanka who have played 30 or more Test matches in their career.

Of course, they have produced the great Muttiah Muralitharan – the highest impact bowler in the history of Test cricket.

But, who else?

The popular notion is that Chaminda Vaas is the only other significant bowler from Sri Lanka.

But there is another – who has taken 332 wickets from 73 Tests (more than Shane Warne did in his first 73 Tests!) – who just gets a casual mention and has certainly not got his due.

The surprising fact is that not only does Rangana Herath emerge as a higher impact bowler than Vaas (and that too by a substantial 35%; Vaas has taken more wickets), he is also the second-highest impact player (min. 30 Tests), after Muralitharan in Sri Lanka’s Test cricket history. He is followed by Sangakkara and Vaas.

It does not end here.

Herath is the fifth-highest impact spinner (min. 50 matches) in the history of Test cricket after the Bradman of bowling, Shane Warne, Anil Kumble and Richie Benaud. That makes him an all-time great.

And the eighteenth-highest impact bowler in Test cricket history.

A SRI LANKAN GREAT

Herath’s propensity to pick top/middle order wickets, ability to restrict opposition batsmen, break significant partnerships, build pressure by taking two or more quick wickets and his consistency with the ball (failure rate of 36%) are all second only to Muralitharan in Sri Lanka’s Test history.

His wicket-taking ability has been outstanding and is the main reason for his higher impact than Vaas.

But Herath was not always such a high impact bowler.

Between his debut in 1999 and 2010, ie, till Muralitharan’s retirement, Herath had played just 22 Tests out of a potential 102 for Sri Lanka. He was not a regular in the side. He was Sri Lanka’s fourth-highest impact bowler (min. 20 Tests) after Muralitharan, Lasith Malinga and Vaas in this period.

THE POST-MURALITHARAN ERA

Herath’s elevation as Sri Lanka’s lead spinner (and bowler) post the retirement of Muralitharan in 2010 brought out the best in him. Remarkably from the age of 32.

Not only is he the highest impact bowler for Sri Lanka in this period, but the third-highest impact bowler in the world (min. 30 Tests) after R Ashwin and Dale Steyn. And the fifth-highest impact player after R Ashwin, AB de Villiers, Dale Steyn and Mitchell Johnson.

His propensity to pick top/middle order wickets in this period has gone up by 84%. His failure rate has gone down from 45% to 32% – a remarkable improvement.

It gets better. Herath has been the most restrictive bowler in the world in this period with the best ability to break partnerships and build pressure (by picking wickets in quick succession).

But above all, he has added another quality to his bowling – the ability to rise and perform in the big-matches.

Not surprisingly then, that his overall Bowling Impact in this period (since July 2010) has gone up by a whopping 129%.

Sri Lanka vs Pakistan, First Test, 2012, Galle: Sri Lanka amass 472 in the first innings. Herath (3-30 in 21 overs) and Suraj Randiv dismiss Pakistan for 100. Sri Lanka set Pakistan 510 in the fourth innings. The visitors fare better but still fall well short. They are bowled out for 300. Herath picks up two crucial middle-order wickets (of Azhar Ali and Asad Shafiq) and is again very miserly conceding just 91 runs in his 42 overs.

The second and third Test end in draws.

Herath gets his first SD .

His second SD also came against the same opposition in 2014 – for giving two high impact performances in a victorious series. He picked up 9 wickets in Galle including 6-48 in 30.2 overs in the second innings. In Colombo, he returned with figures of 9-127 and 5-57 in the two innings.

Australia in Sri Lanka, 2016

Australia came to Sri Lanka as the highest ranked Test side in the world. They were victorious the last time they toured Sri Lanka in 2011 (1-0 in a three-Test series). They had swept the series 3-0 in 2004.

First Test, Pallekele: Herath 4-49 and 5-54. Sri Lanka 117 and 353. Australia 203 and 161. Sri Lanka won by 106 runs.

Herath also contributed an invaluable 35 in the second innings as Sri Lanka fought back after capitulating in the first innings and conceding a substantial first innings lead.

Second Test, Galle: Herath 4-35 and 2-74. Sri Lanka 281 and 237. Australia 106 and 183. Sri Lanka won by 229 runs.

Third Test, Colombo: Herath 6-81 and 7-64. Sri Lanka 355 and 347 for 8 declared. Australia 379 and 160. Sri Lanka won by 163 runs.

Sri Lanka swept the series 3-0 against the best side in the world.

Herath was the leading wicket-taker with 28 wickets in the series. His phenomenal consistency throughout the three Tests (three high impact performances) meant that not only was he the highest impact bowler but also the highest impact player of the series.

So that makes it 3 SDs in 72 Tests. Overall, in Sri Lanka’s Test history, only Muralitharan – 10 SDs in 133 Tests has more SD ’s with the ball than Herath (Vaas also has 3 in 111 Tests).

The timing of these SDs is what makes them even more significant.

ROLE IN SRI LANKA’S TRANSFORMATION PERIOD

In the five years prior to Muralitharan’s retirement (July 2005 to July 2010), Sri Lanka had the second-best win-loss ratio in Test cricket (in terms of matches played; only after Australia).

Post his retirement, there are down to number 7. They have played 23 series during this period and won just 7 (six at home or subcontinent).

Thus, Herath’s role in the team as the lead bowler became even more vital.

Besides his three SD performances, Herath has played a pivotal role with the ball in almost every series in this period.

He was the highest impact bowler in the home series against Australia in 2011.

His 4-49 and 5-79 (a man of the match effort) in Durban in 2011 was instrumental in Sri Lanka’s first ever Test win in South Africa – a historic moment in Test cricket for them.

He was the highest impact bowler for Sri Lanka in the home series against England and New Zealand in 2012.

He was also the second-highest impact bowler for Sri Lanka in their maiden series win in England in 2014 – another landmark moment in their history. He played a crucial role with the bat too at Leeds when in the second innings he partnered with skipper Angelo Mathews (at 277 for 7; Sri Lanka faced a deficit of over a 100) and put together a 149 run-stand (Herath contributed 48) which completely changed the course of the match and the series.

Herath has been Sri Lanka’s highest impact player (by a fair distance) in a transformation period for them where, (in spite of their success in South Africa and England and now at home against Australia), Test and series wins have been far and few between. Post the retirement of Dilshan, Jayawardene and most recently, Sangakkara, the burden on an ageing Herath will not get any lighter.

But Sri Lanka are finally showing signs of building a strong nucleus of talented players in the longer format.

Herath’s success during this re-building phase for his nation is his true legacy to Sri Lankan cricket.

 

 

Nikhil Narain

 

 

 

Note: This piece has been updated post the Warne-Muralitharan Trophy in August 2016.