Toga: The Tireless and Triumphant Twirler

Rangana Herath of Sri Lanka celebrates with teammates after dismissing Trent Boult of New Zealand.

An immaculate spell that earned Sri Lanka their sixth straight semi-final spot in ICC events: Rangana Herath of Sri Lanka with the astonishing figures of 5 wickets for 3 runs celebrates with teammates after dismissing Trent Boult of New Zealand. Sri Lanka successfully defended their meagre total of 119 on 31 March 2014 in the 2014 ICC World Twenty20 at Zahur Ahmed Chowdhury Stadium, Chittagong, Bangladesh.

On yet another wet, slippery and gloomy early summer day in England, two Sri Lankans were heading to Heathrow Airport. The owner-driver, a UK resident, picked up his mild-mannered, chubby-looking passenger, from Stoke-on-Trent in the northern country. Even at the end of a five-hour journey, they barely knew each other, save for their names and what they did for a living. This of course, is not a typical taxi-driver-and-passenger story. The wheelman was doing a favour to a friend. His unknown passenger in the shotgun seat, having received ‘summons’ from a cricketing heavyweight in Sri Lanka an hour before, was in a hurry to catch a flight to Colombo, departing in seven hours’ time. Feeling nervous to perform once again on the biggest stage, the passenger’s thoughts wandered around his childhood dreams. Never a bragger, he was focused, conserving all his energy for the forthcoming event.

Closer to the airport, the driver’s patience ran out. In Sinhala, he asked, ‘Malli (younger brother), up to what level of cricket have you played?’

Politely the passenger replied,

‘Test cricket.’

He being an ordinary fan and not an aficionado, was left speechless. In retrospect, it was hard to remember someone who had played only 14 Tests across nine years.

Affectionately known as ‘Toga’ by a few teammates, ‘Rangayya’ to others, Rangana Herath could vie for the title of most loved cricketer in world cricket today.

Herath’s first challenge was to make it to the airport on time. Who knows, it could have resulted in his last international appearance. A few days after arriving in Sri Lanka on that fateful flight in 2009, defending a small target, he picked up four crucial wickets in the last innings, enabling Sri Lanka to seal off a sensational victory. Not only he repaid the captain’s faith, but a new Sri Lankan hero was also born.

Eight years later, of his ilk, only Muttiah Muralidaran, Shane Warne, Anil Kumble and Harbhajan Singh rank above Hearth in Test cricket. Affectionately known as ‘Toga’ by a few teammates, ‘Rangayya’ to others, Rangana Herath could vie for the title of most loved cricketer in world cricket today.

No left-arm spinner has taken more wickets in Tests than this man, and only two have picked up a greater number of ten-wicket hauls. He had his Test baptism in the late 1990s and survived a decade almost in the cold, sometimes in frozen reality in Blighty’s club circuit. It was no lesser mortal than Kumar Sangakkara, who made that decisive call from Colombo, having convinced the selectors with the blessings of Chandika Hathurusingha (then the shadow coach of Sri Lanka) and Murali, to snatch Herath from Moddershall CC’s campaign in the North Staffordshire and South Cheshire League. With the legendary Murali injured on the eve of the 1st Test against Pakistan, Sangakkara, in his very first Test as Sri Lanka captain, took a huge gamble in doing so. And boy, didn’t Toga live up to his expectations in grand style?

Murali left us in tears when he retired in 2010, creating a huge vacuum. Seeing Sri Lanka’s future with Herath, Murali announced his Test retirement in 2010, during the ODI series that followed the Tests. Fortunately, Herath seamlessly stepped in. Since Murali’s retirement, Herath averages 25.68 with a strike rate of 56, in 63 Tests, which is almost identical to Shane Warne’s. Murali being the freak bowler he was, maintained an average of 22.72 and strike rate of 55 for his 800 wickets. Since Murali’s retirement, Herath has been as good as any other spinner in the world. To date, Herath has 405 Test wickets in 85 matches. His average of 27 and strike rate of 59 compare favourably with contemporary Asian spin legends like Anil Kumble and Harbhajan Singh.

Most times, the stakes are high for a spinner in the fourth innings, especially for the strike bowler in the pack. Remarkably, Herath’s last innings match-winning heroics, averaging 18.67 with a strike rate of 45.6, compare exceedingly well even with Murali and Warne’s 21+ average. It speaks volumes for Herath’s ability to respond when the team needs him most.

Herath’s magical spell in limited-overs happened in a do-or-die game at the 2014 ICC World T20. At Chittagong against New Zealand, Sri Lanka crawled their way to a mere 119 all out in the 19th over.

In describing this enthralling passage of play, Ranjan Mellawa – in his splendid story, Winds Behind The Willows – wrote:

Watching on the telly, my energy level sank at the change of innings, an uneasy feeling that Sri Lanka were at least 30 runs shy on the board.

New Zealand got off well with 18 for no loss after 3 overs before Rangana Herath, playing his first game in the tournament, was introduced into the attack. From the very first ball, he ran out Martin Guptill with an athletic piece of fielding, not generally associated with the likes of his girth. Brendon McCullum was scoreless and looked clueless facing the next four balls before being stumped off the final ball, tossed up slow and wide. In Herath’s next over, Ross Taylor survived a plumb lbw shout but was out to a straighter one just after. Come the next ball, James Neesham seemed to play all over and was bowled. At that stage, Herath had taken three wickets without conceding a run. From the third ball of his third over, Luke Ronchi was trapped in front, and the stunned New Zealanders were reeling at 30 for 5 after 8 overs. Kane Williamson batted gamely, hitting 42 off 43 before being run out. Herath then returned for his final over and sealed the game in fitting fashion by having Boult caught, to complete a five-wicket-haul, and his amazing figures read 3.3-2-3-5.

New Zealand could only manage 60 in 15.3 overs and Sri Lanka, through to the semi-final, winning by a whopping 59 runs.

Herath’s modesty matched his skills when he later said, ‘I just bowled in the right place.’ What a way to describe the greatest T20 bowling spell that I had seen to date.

Sangakkara echoed my sentiments when he wrote in 2016, ‘Herath had bowled four of the most unplayable overs you will ever see in T20I cricket. It just seemed that he got every single ball to turn and drag.’

Sadly, Herath’s ability to step-up at crucial moments sometimes went abegging for Sri Lanka in white-ball formats. His 1 for 31 of 9 overs against New Zealand in the 2011 ICC World Cup and 3 for 25 against Pakistan in the 2012 ICC World T20, both in semi-finals, weren’t good enough to fetch him a place in the finals’.

In tandem with Graeme Swann (debut in 2008), a comeback Herath triggered a generation of finger spinners to Test cricket. A significant contribution that has gone somewhat unnoticed.

Fearsome fast bowlers dominated Test cricket in the 1970s and 1980s. In the next two decades, it was the turn of wrist spinners, led by Murali, Warne, and Kumble. Since their retirements, in tandem with Graeme Swann (debut in 2008), a comeback Herath triggered a generation of finger spinners to Test cricket. A significant contribution that has gone somewhat unnoticed. Their success, no doubt inspired the likes of Ravichandran Ashwin, Nathan Lyon, Ravindra Jadeja and even Monty Panesar. In 2017, ten of the top fifteen wicket-takers, including five of the top six, are finger spinners, with Herath still leading the way. More on the line with emerging Moeen Ali and Kershaw Maharaj.

If there is a tiny shadow in Herath’s delightful career, that is his record away from the sub-continent. Since his comeback, his average and strike rate in Australia, England, New Zealand and South Africa move up to 42 and 87 respectively. While these numbers are no-match to Murali’s, they are still better than his contemporary spin rivals from Asia, Ashwin or Yasir Shah. Both have 55+ average and higher strike rates. Jadeja’s respective figures are 46 and 102. However, non-Asian spinners – Lyon, Swann, and Maharaj – have an average under 35 during the corresponding period.

In his comeback series in 2009, Herath took his 50th Test scalp in his 17th match, since his debut in 1999. After the series ended, when asked about the milestone, Herath, 31, in an interview with Sa’adi Thawfeeq on ESPNcricinfo said, ‘My only disappointment was that it took me a long time to achieve it – 10 years. I have another target, 100 Test wickets. A lot of spinners can go on until the age of 36. If I can maintain my bowling form and my fitness, I don’t see why I can’t play for another five years’.

Eight years later, Herath has 355 more wickets.

Isn’t this crazy for a man who didn’t get a long run in Tests until he was 31?

Herath is still moving upwards and onwards, with great guns. Quiet and unassuming, at this stage of his career, he has small targets. One series at a time.

Let’s hope Toga continues to deliver many more of his left-arm lovables for Sri Lanka.

(The above is a guest post by Praveen Samarasinghe, a Sri Lankan, currently domiciled in Canada. True to his Twitter ID: @SLCpissek, Praveen is madly in love with Sri Lanka cricket. A creative artist while awake and a World Cup winner in sleep, he blogs at Free Hit Cricket. Also, offers some pearls of wisdom on Sri Lankan cricket with his podcast, ‘බයිලා නැති cricket ටෝක්’.)

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