Johannesburg - Rangana Herath is an atypical sporting hero in an era in which bulging biceps and chiselled abs are the norms and charismatic leg-spinners with bleached hair and diamond ear rings receive the accolades.
The orthodox Sri Lankan left-arm spinner operated under the all-consuming shadow of Muttiah Muralitharan for some time, which is understandable, as the off-spinner captured 800 test wickets. But the stocky player has become one of the world’s premier spinners.
The standard phrase of “he won’t have the same impact in South Africa as in Sri Lanka” might not offer sufficient protection against the guile and variety of the 38-year-old slow bowler when the Boxing Day test commences at St George’s Park in Port Elizabeth.
Ashwell Prince, a former South African batsman, acknowledges it, and the statistics of 2011 and 2016 underline it.
Herath almost single-handedly propelled Sri Lanka to their first-ever test win on South African soil in Durban in 2011 when he finished with an astonishing match haul of 9-128.
In 2016, Australia had to surrender the ICC championship mace to Pakistan and to India as Herath struck 28 times and Sri Lanka romped to a series whitewash against the Baggy Greens.
Only Steven Smith, with 247 runs, offered any significant resistance and Herath’s bowling average of 12.75 underlines his enormous impact.
He has captured 54 wickets in only eight tests this year at an average of 17.53.
“You cannot allow Herath, or for that matter, any slow bowler, to bowl at you and remain static. If you play him from the crease, you are at risk,” Prince said.
"You cannot allow him to produce maiden after maiden because you will do it at your own peril," he added.
“But if you want to leave the safety of your crease, you have to do it at the last moment, because you have to know which way the ball will be spinning.
“He possesses ample variety. Rangana bowls the traditional delivery, the slider and he has got the doosra in his armoury. He definitely boasts that ability to spin it the other way.
“South Africa will analyse that and slow down that video so that they study the change of grip. But you have got to read him to leave the crease. And remember, in the middle you have to make split second decisions.
“The South African left-hand batsmen will have an important role to play. Both JP Duminy and Quinton de Kock are aggressive left-handers in the middle-order,” he said.
Dean Elgar, also a left-hander, smashed an aggressive century against Sri Lanka on Sri Lankan soil in 2014 and Duminy also contributed a ton in the same test as the Proteas won 1-0 in a test series, their first triumph on the island since 1993. Both neutralised Herath in that series.
Justin Kemp, a former South African test player, said one of the standout-features of Herath is his ability to beat you in the air.
“He is an old-school spinner with unbelievable control. If he gets a bit of purchase, he will be a threat,” Kemp added. “He doesn’t give you much,” Kemp declared.
“I think our top-seven specialist batsmen have improved immensely in our play against spin,” Kemp added.
Jimmy Cook, a former South African batsman who averaged 50.58 representing the Mean Machine and Somerset, said Herath’s trademark is his accuracy.
He also uses the angle of the crease, a higher or lower arm action and subtle variations to cause uncertainty and unnerve batsmen.
But Cook dismisses the argument that a batsman that plays from the crease, should alter his style of play. “Play your normal game. You have to focus on the ball, and keep the name or reputation of the bowler out of the equation. Be as natural as you can,” he added.
Cook said Herath will be a threat in South Africa, but not nearly as significant as on Sri Lankan soil.
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