Rangana Herath is Sri Lankan cricket’s most valuable asset today. The left-arm spinner, a late bloomer at the international level, is within touching distance of the 400-wicket mark in Test cricket but at 39, he is on his last legs, so to say. He is a master at winkling teams out on home patch, but his accuracy and his craft make him a dangerous prospect in less helpful conditions too.
That, even at 39, Sri Lanka are looking to manage his workload with an eye on the immediate future is in ways as much a tribute to Herath’s wondrous skills as a reflection on the paucity of resources in the island nation with a much limited pool compared to, say, India.
Sri Lanka are pencilled in to play five more Tests in 2017 – two in the United Arab Emirates starting late September, and then three in India in November-December. Herath will have to lead the attack on those two tours where the surfaces are likely to be more favourable to the spinners than the faster bowlers, of whom Sri Lanka have an impressive if not always available crop. In light of what lies ahead, and the burden that Herath has had to shoulder in the last three and a half weeks alone where he has sent down more than 160 overs in three Tests, Sri Lanka Cricket have decided to rest him for the final Test against India.
Herath told Wisden India the other day that he is still feeling fit and young and energetic, that he hasn’t even flirted with the idea of retirement. Clearly, Sri Lanka are in no rush to send him on his way either, which is why they are wrapping him in cotton wool, especially given that this particular series has been won and lost.
“Managing the (workload of the) players is really important,” Dinesh Chandimal, the Test captain, said on Friday (August 11). “Especially these days, you get tours one after the other. If you look at Rangana aiyya, he is almost 40.
“That’s what the team management is doing now, managing the resources. That’s why we’ve rested Rangana for this game. In future also, we want to do just that,” he added, referring to a systematic approach to looking after the players so that they don’t succumb to injuries stemming from an unbearable workload.
India are at the completely opposite end of the spectrum. There is a vast and richly talented pool to dip into, with reserves snapping at the heels of the established stars and waiting for a chance to showcase their wares. As the season gone by has shown, there is more than one stellar option for every position, and almost everyone who has been summoned on a temporary basis has done his bit to put the selectors in a bit of a quandary. MSK Prasad and his co-selectors have a happy headache to address, because a problem of plenty is never a bad thing. And yet, India are happy to keep playing the same XI as far as possible, even if they haven’t managed to do so for various reasons for even two consecutive Tests under Virat Kohli.
India’s contention is that while workloads need to be managed, players must not be rested merely to give the bench a go, and more so in Test cricket. Umesh Yadav, for instance, played in all but one of the 13 home Tests last season and has figured in both Tests on this tour, but it is doubtful if, given the choice, he would opt to sit the third Test out. It is not because he is insecure or uncertain if he will reclaim his place in case his replacement has a good game; it is just that when you are in rhythm and when the body is in a good place, there is no need to fix something that ain’t broke.
India address the workload-management issue in white-ball cricket; they have rested key players from time to time, primarily with the intent of keeping them fresh and well rested for Test matches. Ravindra Jadeja and R Ashwin were both left out of a largely meaningful Twenty20 International series in January against England so that they could recharge their batteries ahead of the Test series to follow against Australia. They have switched their pace attack for the white-ball internationals. But when it comes to Tests, unless there are overwhelming reasons such as injury or illness or suspension, they have tried not to tinker with the core group, either against ‘lesser’ opposition or even during dead rubbers.
“We have to understand that to play consistent cricket, you need to make sure that people are playing on a regular basis,” Kohli pointed out. “Those who are performing should continue in more games than not. To be a consistent side, we need to have continuity as well. We want to play the same kind of cricket that we have and hopefully retain the team that played the last game as much as we can. Especially in this format because you don’t want to start taking things for granted and lose that momentum.”
While India have the luxury of this line of thought, Sri Lanka’s hand, especially in the Herath case, has been forced. In a further acknowledgement that things aren’t exactly going swimmingly, the Sri Lankans turned to Aravinda de Silva, the former captain and hero of their victorious campaign in the 1996 World Cup, for support and encouragement.
A day after the SSC Test loss, de Silva was invited by Asanka Gurusinha, the current cricket manager of the national team and one of de Silva’s at the World Cup, to meet with the players and coaches in what was labelled a brain-storming meeting. The Sri Lankan team had received plenty of flak, especially on social media, following the embarrassing losses in the first two Tests against India, and needed for their spirits to be lifted. Dr de Silva delivered the perfect antidote, speaking from a position of strength and authority that the team both recognised and respected.
De Silva’s message was simple, much like his batting – shut criticism out, back your abilities, don’t be fearful and half-hearted, commit yourself to whatever you do with passion. Whether the message is implemented in the third Test remains to be seen, but Chandimal revealed that the team had taken the champion’s words to heart.
“He is a legend, one of the greatest batsmen that Sri Lanka has ever produced,” Chandimal said, the awe resonating in his voice. “We had a chat with him three days ago. After that, the players look really confident. I hope players follow that advice and continue to perform. It was a very important meeting and we discussed how we could take our game forward, how we could lift our game. A lot of positives came out. At the end of the meeting, all the players were in an upbeat mood and that is a very good sign.”
Sri Lanka have fallen on hard times in the recent past. They failed to advance beyond the first stage of the Champions Trophy, lost an ODI series to Zimbabwe at home for the first time ever, and are wiping the floor in this Test series. Herath may not be around to bail them out in Pallekele, but if de Silva’s pep-talk can catalyse the arrival of a new hero, they might start seeing light at the end of what must surely appear to be a long, dark, endless tunnel.