These days, Sri Lanka’s chief selector Sanath Jayasuriya, by his own admission, dreads the word transition. With each passing defeat, the tenor, and the implication of the word acquires a gruffer tint. The fit-for-all tone is a readymade answer, accompanied by that wide smile. “It’s not easy to replace legends like Mahela and Sanga,” he would repeat. Somehow, he always misses the name of his contemporary, Muttiah Muralitharan. Rather, his successor Rangana Herath hasn’t made the Mr 800’s absence felt acutely.
It would seem like a seamless transition. But it was not a gradual, planned ascension. It was rather accidental. Herath was the caretaker who became the king. For by the time Murali bid farewell, he was already 32 and perceived as stopgap, hoping that they’d stumble on a gem like Murali. But it never materialised, and soon forgotten when Herath began wrecking sides single-handedly like Murali. They were in a state of repose, like the indulgent monarch who never foresaw famine. They were forewarned several times that Herath is approaching the sunset, but they lived in the illusion that Herath was in possession of some kind of magic dust that would keep him bowling eternally. Being laid-back is a typical Sri Lankan trait, and it’s no surprise that it has sneaked into their cricket too. Not for them the laboured art of nurturing a player.
Then, abruptly, with Herath rested for the third Test, it hit them, the imminence of his farewell. It might be that he will be gradually phased out or preserved for big matches, as skipper Dinesh Chandimal says: “If you look at Rangana, he is in his forties. That’s what the team management is doing now. That’s why we’ve rested Rangana for this game. In future also we just want to do that.”
But it doesn’t distort or deflect the eventuality that Herath is on his last legs. There were visible signs that he was struggling physically in this series. He would sometimes clutch his shoulders or back in discomfort, would take an eternity to get up from his clumsy lunges near the boundary ropes, and would give up chasing the ball if he felt even remotely that it was beyond his grasp. It reflected on his bowling too, as there was less of body and shoulder in the action. It was just like he was just coming there and bowling darts. Subsequently, even on a spinner-friendly surface at the SSC, the kind of snake-pits he habitually thrives on, he seemed a spent force, unable to sync his body and mind.
The wear and tear is understandable, for since Murali’s retirement, he has missed just two Tests—once when he was dropped against Pakistan in 2015 for lack of form and before that against New Zealand when he sustained a leg injury. Recently, his workload had only swelled, as there is little support from his accomplices, both seamers and spinners. Against Zimbabwe alone, he bowled 71.1 overs in just one Test, while in this series, he stacked up 91 overs. This was on the back of a productive but strenuous effort against Australia last year, wherein he bowled 145 overs in three Tests. Add to that, the 105.4 overs against Bangladesh. That is, in the last 12 months, he has bowled 2477 balls, which at his age is a staggering achievement, but which would also risk burnout.
But Sri Lanka, in the transitional throes they are in, were in mood or juncture to brood on benching him so that he would be refreshed for bigger series. If not for him, they would’ve been embarrassed by both Zimbabwe and Bangladesh. Finally, it took an inconsequential match to instigate their wisdom — had the series been undecided, he would have played with his stiff back. It’s guaranteed that unless Sri Lanka had already won the series, he would play in each of their Test matches until his retires.
The third Test, inadvertently, presents an ideal opportunity for Jayasuriya and Co to audition his heir apparent. It’s widely assumed that off-spinning all-rounder Dilruwan Perera will temporarily fill in his space, and left-arm spinner Malinda Pushpakmara will be groomed to eventually succeed Herath. Perera is a canny but extremely limited bowler, much like Murali’s long-time foil Kumar Dharmasena, or a slightly improvised version. Pushpakumara has a phenomenal domestic record, 558 wickets at 19.88. But he has a reputation of running through sides, albeit on doctored wickets that his club, Chilaw Marians Cricket Club regularly supplies him with.
A more futuristic alternative is Lakshan Sandakan, the chinaman bowler who can purchase inordinate turn both ways even on flatbeds. Though he can be a touch expensive, he’s an outright attacking bowler who can win matches single-handedly. And at 26, it’s the right age to give him a more sustained place in the side.
But there seems to be no urgency in them to find Herath’s successor. They are dwelling on the sheer hope someone will burst from nowhere whenever Herath bids goodbye. Even at the Max Cricket Academy the focus is primarily on grooving pace bowlers. The high performance director Simon Willis has his logic too.
“Traditionally, they have been producing great spinners, whereas there is a shortage for fast bowlers. So we have more coaches for fast bowlers,” he said.
But now they are in such a pitiable shape that they are running thin on both counts, and seemingly under-prepared for Herath’s farewell. If any, Herath’s shoes will be bigger to fill than Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene. So much so that the word transition would make the legendary batsman scramble for cover.