For the first time in the series, Rangana Herath lost his fabled composure. At his accomplice Dilruwan Perera, who bowled what seemed like the zillionth short ball of the day. He shouted furiously and gesticulated wildly at him, flapping his arms sideways as if quipping, “Do you know where the stumps are?” It was strange of Herath, usually unflustered and unperturbed. But this has been a strange series for him, wherein he had looked not only bland but also troubled, treated around like a muck-as-any spinner, with disdain and not with the respect his age and achievements command. The outpouring was a reflection of his torn mind, the helplessness to produce his best and the haplessness in being unable to inspire his fellow spinners.
His stats make for an appalling read. In three innings this series, he has whittled out only five wickets, each costing him a shade less than 70 runs and 110 deliveries. There is something anomalous about it. In the three previous series here he has averaged 22.63, 18.00 and 12.75, stamped his imprint in each of their wins and looking half his age, and plotted heists out of thin nothingness.
But against India, he has looked every bit his age, a man knocking on the doors of his 40s, in a perpetual struggle to rekindle his wonted tricks. It was not the weariness of age, but the concrete plans the Indian batsmen had chalked out to neutralise him that has made him look out of depth. For they knew that if they could subdue him, half the battle will be won.
The consensus the Indian batsmen had reached was not rocket science. But to use their feet more often against him, and more importantly, do so early in the innings, before he settled into his rhythm, before his mind started conjuring entrapments. A classic instance was Shikhar Dhawan shimmying down the track in only the second over of this Test and clouting him over the long-on fence. This was after he was squarely beaten by a couple of deliveries. Now Herath was forced to shorten the length. And Dhawan could just lean back and cut him or clip him through the leg-side.
Thus each time Herath began a new spell or slipped in a few quiet overs, Indians would instinctively step out to him. Like on Thursday, soon after he had nailed Virat Kohli, Ajinkya Rahane creamed Herath through mid-wicket so that the pressure was back on him. “When I went in to bat with Pujara, we decided to change our momentum because Virat got out and we wanted to put pressure back on them and that’s what we did,” he said. He was soon replaced with Nuwan Pradeep.
It was a template his teammates adhered to. “The idea was to attack him more often on the front foot so that you could score more runs on the back foot. Especially on this kind of wicket, it is very slow and dry, so we knew that if we use our footwork we will get more runs on the back foot,” Rahane explained candidly.
The strategy was devised after Herath slit through them in Galle in 2015. It has been a highly successful ploy too, as since that match where he took 7 wickets for 48 runs, he has added only 13 scalps at 53.61 against India.
That said, it’s not like just coming down the track and trying to thread the boundaries. For Herath is masterful at altering his flight, length and pace. But what Indian batsmen have strategically done is that they’ve almost always covered the line of the delivery when stepping out. They don’t look to fetch him over cover, but rather play him down the ground or whip him through the leg-side with the knowledge that he doesn’t rely too much on side spin.
Pujara did this habitually in Galle. Almost every delivery, he shed the crease and came forward. Not necessarily did he attempt a big shot each time, but he defended so resolutely that it upset Herath. Even if the latter pulled up the length or bowled wider, Pujara’s reach and whippy wrists would ensure that he was always to the pitch of the ball.
Thus, Herath began to err on the shorter side, because he knew his trusted method – that’s to draw batsman forward and ping them with the slider – was not working. He had to conceptualise an alternative. He did so by bowling a little short and slipping the slower, flighted ball. But the Indian batsmen, especially Pujara, were so quick with their footwork and their mind, it hardly harassed them. As a result, Herath was not only unable to prise out wickets but also strangle them.
Another stroke that disrupted him was the sweep, which both Dhawan and Rahane unfurled regularly. If the strip is not dual-bounced, there is no better stroke than a hefty sweep to unnerve a spinner, as it gives the batsman a wider arc, the bowler gradually loses his flight and length, and the captain begins to change his field desperately. Even Pujara, a reluctant sweeper, played it against Herath on Thursday to force Dinesh Chandimal to remove the short-leg fielder. Rahane abstained from the sweep on the second day, as the bounce had become uneven.
By subduing Herath, India have killed the contest and rendered it wholesomely one-sided. Unless he can conjure up some novel tricks, the series will trickle down to one of the most lopsided ones in the history of these two teams. Herath, is no stranger to comebacks. But at 40, against an emboldened Indian batting line-up, it would be a mighty difficult task. If he can, it makes for an engrossing narrative.