Every accomplished sportsman bestows a definite and symbolic memory. It's not always about the numbers. A certain idiosyncratic quirk, the emotional journey and seminal moment promising immortality all have greater enduring power.
During the recently completed Galle Test against Bangladesh, Rangana Herath etched his name in record books as the most successful left-arm spinner in the game’s history. Yet, his legacy will be a lot more than just that. Not too long before the curtains fall on his memorable career, the veteran has entrenched an abiding memory which can’t be erased even if his final wickets-tally were to be surpassed eventually.
Herath’s lingering souvenir lies in the serene effect caused by his bowling. When the small, portly man trips towards the crease and releases the ball from his imaginary string, he not only deceives the batsman but also manages to take the viewer into a trance-like state.
Possessing neither an imposing presence nor a stock ball generating ripping turn, he entices in flight and emanates in wiles. When a Herath spell is set in play, the sheer tranquillity felt is the equivalence of experiencing cricket Nirvana. Much like his propensity to land ball after ball on the same spot, the man’s journey has been built upon persistence rather than illumination.
An odyssey of self-discovery
In sharp contrast to his single-minded approach of the present, Herath grew up aspiring to be a stroke-filled batsman. Maybe, such an inner urge could explain the charm in his pugnacious batting from the lower-order. A few years into his first-class debut, he was fast-tracked into the Sri Lankan Test team in 1999. However, the halcyon did not last long.
Despite showing signs of promise, he was surprisingly consigned to the wilderness. As opportunities were being provided to unworthy competitors, lesser men would have relented. However, Herath refused to budge and kept sending messages from the domestic scene. Until 2009, he had a stopgap career with those 14 Test caps spent playing second fiddle to the legendary Muttiah Muralitharan. Amidst dissipating confidence, the rhythm in his bowling was threatening to abandon him.
As is often said, ‘Hope springs eternal’. Herath’s moment of reckoning fittingly came in Galle, a venue where he would spend the rest of his career ambushing visiting teams. In front of the historic Dutch Fort, he wrote his redemption song in the 2009 Test against Pakistan. Slowly beginning to capture an unwavering line, the southpaw not only delivered an exhilarating triumph but also rediscovered himself in the process.
The flowing baila
Arguably, the most powerful form of Sri Lankan expression is the baila. Literally meaning to dance, the musical genre is an embodiment of the way of life in the Emerald Isle. With verses fuelled by themes ranging from humour to satire, the melange of instruments helps celebrate free-spirited joy.
When in full flow, Herath’s bowling is a baila of its own. With chirps of ‘Rangaiyya’ (aiyya translating to elder one in both Sinhalese and Tamil) in the background, his steady run-up and smooth release resemble the bass guitar's finesse. The final act sees him devour the batsman in subtle flight even as the echoes of band-choon ring across the stands. Seldom does an atmosphere encapsulate the triumph of spirit over adversity.
Over the course of his spell, the set-up is as important as the knockout blow. Possessing extensive reservoirs of concentration, he brings with him a medley interspersing enticingly loopy deliveries and sharp variants of arm-balls. On a similar note to the natural ebbs and flows of a melodious refrain, Herath’s relentlessly haunting performance leaves the batsman entangled in his grip.
One for the ages
In order to remain fresh for Tests, Herath only featured sporadically in white-ball cricket. However, he left a lasting impression therein too. During the decisive 2014 World T20 clash against New Zealand in Chittagong, the left-armer’s classical bowling style helped him script the most breathtaking spell seen in the shortest format.
On a viciously turning track, he sliced open the game with his bare hands and subsequently cleared the team’s route to the knockout stages. Had it not been for his virtuoso performance, the myriad dreams of his countrymen might not have met succour.
As with Sri Lanka’s finest, Herath seems to have gotten better with age. Like a majestic bottle of wine taken from cold storage, his bowling has become much more refined with time. He will turn 39 this Sunday. The moment of walking into the sunset is not too far away. When the departing hour arrives, he can do so with the realisation that his legacy will be one of enriching memories and not mere numbers.