by Champika Fernando
The timing and manner of a cricketer’s retirement can often tell you much about the player’s career. In Rangana Herath’s case, both seem, if not perfect, nearly so.
Herath is still at the top of his game, arguably the world’s number one spinner at present. It may justifiably be asked why he chose to retire. His aging legs, however, seem to offer him a message that they cannot take the physical strain any longer. His knees were operated on and he often takes injections for relief from constant pain.
This is just one reason for his imminent retirement. He could still risk a trip to New Zealand, Australia and South Africa, Sri Lanka’s next three international assignments after the homes series against England. This would allow him to complete 100 Test matches, a feat only a few have enjoyed. He says, however, that it is the right time to step down. Rangana is just eight short of reaching the 100 Test match mark. And if he plays the entire three-match series against England, he will be five matches short. But he isn’t least concerned about the milestone.
“I have had a wonderful career playing for Sri Lanka and I have no regrets,” Herath said this week. "Of, course I can play a few more series despite the physical constraints. But, by doing so, I am doing great injustice to the game at large. The selectors need time to rethink their strategy and find a replacement going forward.”
The finer details are yet to be decided, like the venue at which he would bid adieu after nearly two decades. But the forthcoming home series against England will be his last.
“I have to discuss it with the selectors and see because, at the end of the day, what matters is Sri Lanka winning the series," said the 40-year-old former Maliyadeva College cricketer. "I would prefer to win the series and hang up my boots than to be at the center of attraction during the series."
Herath shuns the spotlight and expresses gratitude for what the game has given him, the opportunities bestowed upon him by fame and the people who contributed towards his success. He recalls the time and money his parents unconditionally spent on him; his schools, coaches, clubs, his employer and, importantly, Chandika Hathurusingha, the man who had faith in his potential and offered him a career at Moors SC.
Herath has moved beyond the fine line that separates good from the great. He does not have the variations that Ajantha Mendis exploited during his short international career but he is a master of consistent accuracy bowling at a perfect line and length. He is no big turner like Muttiah Muralidaran or Shane Warne. Instead, he deceives batsmen with guileful variations in pace and flight while bowling with unerring accuracy, often forcing them to try something different and inducing mistakes in the process.
This is why he is the most successful left arm bowler ever to grace the game despite a good ten years of his career living under the shadow of Muralidaran. Herath made his debut against Australia in 1999, as a 21-year-old, but his career didn't take off till 2009 when an injury to Muralidaran earned him a recall to the side. He was in England to play domestic cricket when the career-defining call came his way, summoning him back to play a Test against Pakistan. Landing under 24-hours before the Galle Test, Herath knew it was his last chance to impress. The rest is history.
Herath left a lasting impression, leading Sri Lanka to a famous win by taking four wickets in the second innings as Pakistan collapsed to 117 chasing a modest 168 runs. He was named man-of-the-match, a defining moment for the then 31-year-old cricketer.
“At times it was bit frustrating not to get a regular run but I think it really helped me toughen up my career,” Herath reflects. “If I had given up at the time, I would not have played for this long. In hindsight, I had always believed I would get the opportunity. After all, I made my Test debut at 21. If I was good enough to play for my country at that age, that meant there was some talent in me. When the opportunity finally, I told myself, ‘Look this is your last chance and you need to grab it'. I did just that.”
In statistical terms, Herath’s career ranks among the top players, and the best among spinners during the last decade. He has taken 430 wickets at 27.95. Among them are 34 five wickets hauls. Only eight bowlers have ever taken more wickets than him. Herath played 15 matches during the first ten years, picking 41 wickets. While this was a rather ordinary performance, he became a ruthless performer during his second stint, claiming 389 wicket in 77 matches.
“I don’t think I have done half of what Muralidaran has done but I certainly would have picked up more wickets had I been given more chances during the first phase of my career," he says. Like I said before, however, I have no regrets. I am extremely satisfied with my contribution to the game."
Herath led Sri Lanka to many a victories at home and away. Of all, he says his best spell was against South Africa at Durban in 2011. After losing the first Test, Sri Lanka were expecting a similar fate in the second. But the T M Dilshan-led team put on a terrific effort to record their maiden win in South Africa. There were others who contributed: Thilan Samaraweera, with a fighting century in the first innings (102); and a five for 52 by Chanaka Welagedara. But Herath stood out with a match mag of 9 for 128.
“This was probably one of the most cherished moments of my career," he remembered. "Of course, winning the national cap at 21 will always be special but this win, as well as the series win in England under Angelo Mathews, are two great achievements in Test cricket. And when it comes to limited-over cricket, it was great to be a part of the 2014 T20 World Cup winning team."
With his going, Sri Lanka will have a gaping hole in team’s spin department. Dilruwan Perera will take the lead, having shared the responsibility with his retiring partner during the last four years. But Herath stresses the importance of introducing an able partner to bowl in tandem to enjoy success in Test cricket.
“We have Dilruwan in the side who has enough experience to a handle a situation," he continued. "Then we have Akila Dananjaya, a very fast learner. I think these two could form a great bowling partnership. We also have Lakshan Sandakan. The only issue with him is his lack of control. If he can master that, I think he is also a great prospects for us."
“But don’t expect these young guys to do what I have done over the years," he warned. "Given them enough opportunity for them to establish themselves in the side. You need a great level of perseverance and patience to be successful in Test cricket. Sometimes, you might not get wickets on the first two days. Still, you should be able bowl at a consistent line and length, putting pressure on the batsmen. This is what Dilruwan and I did. These young guys must learn to do that.”
If Sri Lanka wants a left-arm spinner as his replacement, he says there is an experienced bowler in Malinda Pushpakumara. "It’s not easy to play 100 first class matches and get over 650 wickets," he explained. "You need some talent. He has played two Test matches so far and, except for his debut match, he performed in the second one in Kandy. So, if the selectors are looking for a left-arm spinner, I think we have a readymade one. But we must also remember that there’s a big difference between first class cricket and international cricket. So Malinda should know what areas he needs to improve in to fit into the international game."
Herath has clear plans for post-retirement: a career in coaching after acquiring proper qualifications. “Just because you’ve played the game at the highest level, it will not make you a good coach,” he says. “I will dedicate at least six months after retirement to earning skills and qualifications for coaching."
Opposition team will be grateful, come November, not to have Herath bamboozling them with his guile. But the world will miss a true gentleman cricketer who played a full part in carrying forward a famous spin-bowling legacy and will now leave an enormous hole to fill.