Rangana Herath’s presence meant that the transition for the spot of lead spinner once Muttiah Muralitharan quit was an easy one for Sri Lanka.© AFP

Rangana Herath’s presence meant that the transition for the spot of lead spinner once Muttiah Muralitharan quit was an easy one for Sri Lanka. © Wisden India

It was a pleasant surprise to see Rangana Herath’s name in the 15-man Sri Lanka squad for the Asia Cup and the upcoming World Twenty20 2016.

Since his appearance in the final of the 2014 World T20, which Sri Lanka won by beating India, Herath hadn’t been seen in the Sri Lankan Twenty20 International jersey at all. He is a Test man, after all. In appearance and in deed.

He is portly. Actually, that’s being kind. There is a potbelly that the shirt can’t quite hide. When not actively involved in doing something, he stands with his hands tucked into his pockets. To put it simply, he is old world. A bit of an outsider in the ultra-fit, ultra-athletic world of T20 cricket. Under Duleep Mendis or Arjuna Ranatunga, he would have fitted in. With Angelo Mathews and the like being the norm, not quite.

That’s about his appearance. As for what he does – no mystery deliveries, no fancy action, nothing out of the ordinary that every modern-day spinner supposedly needs to survive – he sticks out with his ordinariness.

But with the Sri Lankan team far from at its best in recent times, many of the youngsters not quite fulfilling the early promise, and the dreaded phase of transition hitting them hard, the selectors turned to Herath as they plotted their defence of the World T20 title, to be played in India this month.

“The thing is that I didn’t play any T20 games between that World T20 and this Asia Cup, only a couple of domestic matches. That’s because I had an injury, plus I was playing Test cricket primarily. But I think the selectors had a feeling, they had confidence in me, that I would be able to come back strongly in T20Is for the World Cup,” says Herath in his usual modest and understated way to Wisden India.

Tests remain the priority for him, Herath stresses, but if the team needs him in other formats, he is game for it. “In my case, it’s very important to keep playing Test cricket. The situation is such that… we have done well in World T20s in the past, we won the last trophy, so the selectors wanted me to be in the team, I suppose.”

It hasn’t gone terribly well for Sri Lanka at the Asia Cup, losses against India and Bangladesh knocking them out of contention for the final with a game in hand, a dead rubber against Pakistan. Herath hasn’t set the Sher-e-Bangla Stadium in Mirpur on fire either, but has held his own, returning 2 for 22 against United Arab Emirates, none for 24 against Bangladesh, and 1 for 26 against India.

“Pace, flight, length – if you do those things at the right time, it’s all right. What I mean is, you need to know the right time to vary your pace and length and flight. I don’t have a mystery ball or anything. But I have variations in pace, flight, trajectory … and I work on the length a lot, the length and the dip, and there’s the arm ball. And you need to be proactive. You need to outthink the batsman. That’s more than enough, I think,” he says, before adding quickly, “And loop. I have loop. Loop is very important.”

Sri Lanka’s failings in recent times in T20Is are the flavour of the season, and after losing 2-1 away to India, they have struggled in Bangladesh, their bowling going fine, the batting anything but. It goes back to the retirements of Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara, according to Herath.

“Pace, flight, length – if you do those things at the right time, it’s all right. I don’t have a mystery ball or anything. But I have variations in pace, flight, trajectory – and I work on the length a lot. You need to be proactive. You need to out-think the batsman. That’s more than enough, I think. And loop, I have loop. Loop is very important.”

“It is a period of transition for us, as everyone knows. Mahela and Sanga are not in the team any more. Even when they were there, everyone knew how big they were, how important they were to our plans. Now that they are gone, you have proof. We are missing them a lot. But this is what it is. We need to improve our skills and meet the skill levels of the other teams. We are trying, but it will take more time,” offers Herath.

Probe a bit more – the retirements were always on the cards; shouldn’t the likes of Dinesh Chandimal and Lahiru Thirimanne have gone higher by now? “No, I don’t think so,” says Herath. “Players like Sanga and Mahela… it’s difficult to replace them. Chandimal and Thirimanne and the others will need a lot of time. I am hopeful that they will rise to the occasion soon. Especially Chandimal. Thirimanne is not in the (T20I) squad at the moment. They need to keep playing. We need to play more Tests around the world and get the right combination, which we haven’t managed.”

Herath’s presence meant that the transition for the spot of lead spinner once Muttiah Muralitharan quit was an easy one for Sri Lanka. Prior to Muralitharan’s retirement, Herath was the support act. He debuted in 1999 and has played 67 Tests since then. His 22nd Test was Muralitharan’s last, in July 2010, as he kept going in and out of the team.

The story all along had been one of Herath being called up when needed, bowling the long spells while Muralitharan did the star turns. It wasn’t an unfair situation, of course, seeing that Muralitharan was, and still is, one of the greatest spinners in the game. But it couldn’t have been easy to deal with.

“The selectors, when I was 21, thought I had some kind of skill. Playing with Murali was not an easy thing. But I got confidence from Murali and the team management. I got dropped at some stage too, many times actually, but I didn’t mind. I thought there must be a reason why I had been dropped. I went back to club cricket. I learnt from domestic cricket and A-team cricket. I knew that once Murali retired, I would become the strike bowler,” recalls Herath.

That spell started in November 2010, when Sri Lanka hosted West Indies at R Premadasa Stadium in Colombo. Since then, in 45 Tests, Herath has picked up 226 of his 297 wickets, averaging 27.35 as against a career average of 29.85, the 9 for 127 and 5 for 57 he returned in a 105-run win over Pakistan at SSC in Colombo the highlight.

To some, however, he never bowled better than he did when he picked up 4 for 49 and 5 for 79 in Sri Lanka’s first Test victory in South Africa, a 208-run win in Durban in December 2011.

By then, the support bowler had become the strike bowler and was revelling in his new role.

Ask him, though, and Herath continues to keep it simple, exactly as he prefers to keep his bowling. “I think in that case also, what helped me the most was my length and loop,” he says. “Wherever I go, I try not to change anything. I give the ball air and try to get the batsmen out. I did the same thing in that series, and then in Australia. I figured out the conditions… I had faith in me that I can adjust with the conditions. And, yes, the length changed a lot there.”

“Every cricketer needs to stop at the right time. I have a few desires left, but I am not getting any younger. I will decide after the World T20 what I am going to do. I want to play some Test cricket after that, so I might stop playing ODIs and T20s.”

But how does one go from being a backup spinner to the main one? What changes? Surely, even as the supporting act, picking up wickets remains the primary responsibility of a bowler?

“That’s interesting. I actually don’t know how to explain this,” agrees Herath as he thinks about the answer. Then he says, “I think your mentality is important. Your skills are also important, of course, and how you develop as a bowler. But the mindset is the most important thing. I knew I had the skill to bowl for a long time and pick up wickets. I had confidence in my skills. I was out of the team for six-seven years, but I knew that the chance was on the way. You need to do your fitness, your skills. I did all that and learnt as much as I could from the people I met. So, by the time Murali had retired, I was ready to take the responsibility.”

It’s interesting that now, at least in Test cricket, Herath is that No. 1 spinner, while a lot of others, younger than him, are in the same position that he was in when Muralitharan was around.

Almost 38 now, Herath, as is his wont, talks up the reserves. “When you come to one-day cricket, we still have Ajantha (Mendis) on the scene. Sachithra (Senanayake) and (Jeffrey) Vandersay are here. There is Seekkuge Prasanna. We have some good spinners, a good stock. But we need to give them some good confidence. We need to give them a good run. In Tests, we have Dilruwan Perera and (Tharindu) Kaushal. They are playing domestic cricket right now. I am sure they will do good things in the future. I have lot of faith in Dilruwan and Kaushal,” he says.

We go back to the transition phase before wrapping up: So Sri Lanka are trying to fill the gap left behind by Jayawardene and Sangakkara right now, but Tillakaratne Dilshan, Lasith Malinga and Herath himself don’t have too long to go. Once they move on, there might be even more holes to fill, isn’t it?

Herath breaks out in a laugh, nodding in agreement. “Yes, yes, but what can an individual do,” he asks rhetorically. “Every cricketer needs to stop at the right time. I have a few desires left, but I am not getting any younger. I will decide after the (T20) World Cup what I am going to do. I want to play some Test cricket after that, so I might stop playing ODIs and T20s after that.”

His teammates are calling him by now, and he needs to join their training session, so we slip in a final question – about his contribution to Sri Lankan cricket, what he thinks he has achieved. “I am happy with what I have achieved, of course. I am 100% happy. I don’t mind that I did not play some matches. I am happy that I have played almost 70 Tests. I have a bit more left. I am happy with what I have done for Sri Lanka cricket.”

And off he goes, after a warm smile and a warmer shake of the hand, to join his mates. Soon after, he is strolling around, his hands in his pockets, looking on as the rest of the players kick a football around. That’s not for him. He knows what he needs to do come game time, and running around in the Mirpur sun isn’t going to help him do that.