polo tees for men Andrew Fidel Fernando meets Rangana Herath
It was perfect that Rangana Herath’s parents bought the family their first television shortly before Aravinda de Silva’s 1984 debut, because soon de Silva was Herath’s favourite player. “When Aravinda is smashing sixes and fours,” Herath remembers, “who doesn’t want to watch?”
There was sometimes a crowd in the house. In the lush village of Waduwawa, on the southeastern tip of the Northwestern Province, this was one of the first black and white television sets. Matches drew friends and neighbours to the lime green living room, and when games finished, the mob scattered into the front yard. Beneath thambili palms, with birdsong in the trees, and the Buddhist temple’s bana on the breeze, they poured out pent up aspirations into matches of their own.
When no friends were around, older brother Deepthi was cajoled into games. “Aiyo I could never get away from him,” Deepthi says. “He was always wanting to play. I had to learn batting left handed even, so that I wasn’t breaking windows when I hit to the leg side. He batted left handed from the small days, so he was always whacking balls into the trees. If I couldn’t play, he’d hang a ball in a sock from the mango tree, and hit it by himself. He had more than enough shots.”
It was partly on the strength of these shots that Herath was recruited to Kurunegala’s Maliyadeva College. Sometimes he opened the batting for his school’s age group teams. He even bowled fast until the coach told him he wasn’t tall enough. His mother, who worked at the provincial council in town, would take his lunch to the matches: rice and curry, sometimes with his favourite fried okra. If Herath missed the 8:30pm bus into the village after games or training, Deepthi would pick him up on his motorbike. Years later Herath’s shots helped him get a trial with a first class club in Colombo.
“I think he was with Colts at that time,” says Chandika Hathurusingha, the former Sri Lanka allrounder, and current Bangladesh head coach. “But he wasn’t getting matches not even with their Under 23 team. Luckily he happened to be working with my brother Chaminda in a shipping line, I think. Around the same time I moved to Moors, which had just been promoted to the Premier level, and as the captain, I was looking to build a team.
“One day my brother told me: ‘Aiya, you have to see, there is this fellow in my office who bats like Sanath Jayasuriya and bowls as well.’ You know, this was the time Sanath was scoring so many runs. I said: ‘If he can bat half the way like Sanath, ask him to come.’ So two days later Ranga came for practice. When he bowled in the nets I thought he was a good bowler I was actually quite impressed.
“But I have to say, that was the last time I ever listened to my brother when it came to batting.”
On a breezy July afternoon in Colombo, Herath and two other men are stood in the shade of a tree whose future they are contemplating. The issue is worth careful thought, because of all the island’s victims of urban sprawl, little is mourned in Sri Lanka like the felling of a tree bearing jackfruit. It is the crop that gives and gives.
In the early season, the jackfruit’s hard, green flesh is pickled, or cooked in a sour polos curry. Fruit harvested later is carved up, shared with neighbours, and poached into creamy kiri kos. For dessert, the jackfruit lends its sweet, fleshy seed casings (or aril). And though by this stage most have had enough, the seeds themselves may then be dried and mixed up in a mellum, or made into a curry of their own.
This tree stands just beyond the walls of Herath’s own family home, east of Colombo, where the city’s fringe melds with the countryside. At the top of the road, rowdy rows of buses, vans and three wheelers roar along. From the bottom of the hill, a little way down from the Heraths’ house, verdant fields of paddy are glimpsed. The family’s driveway is paved and the garage’s roller door shut, but sometime during the afternoon, a rat snake squeezes through a grate, then quickly slithers out again.
“Well, I will probably have to remove some branches on that side,” the shorter of Herath’s companions says, pointing at the canopy. He is the owner of the vacant plot adjoining Herath’s, and it is on his land that the tree grows. “But that is all I will do,” he hastens to add. “The rest, of course, I will never cut.” The tree’s safety assured, the men may take a relieved breath and move on to neighbourly chit chat. Plans for home improvement are discussed. The uneven road is lamented. Space for a badminton court is mentally plotted out, though it may never come to fruition.
Soon, inevitably, cricket comes up. “So malli, what is this I hear about you retiring from one dayers?” the neighbour asks. “You could have easily kept playing, no?” As he says this, the other man the neighbour’s friend nods along. Both fellows are probably nearing 50, but show no white hairs, and are fairly lean. Herath is the shortest of the three, wears a polo shirt that clings to his belly, has a light dusting of grey at his temples, and as for his chest let us be kind and say it is generous. If a stranger were to pick the elite sportsman from among them, Herath would be the dead last choice.
“I really do think you did a foolish thing retiring, ah.” The neighbour has now worked himself up to a small rant. “How many wickets were you still getting? Everyone knows you were still bowling really well. If you have problems with your knees, why not give up Test cricket and keep on playing T20s? Four overs that would have been very, very easy for you. You could have played for a few more years.”
It eventually comes to Herath to respond, and he does so with a single smiling sentence: “If they have stopped picking me for one dayers and T20s, it must be for a reason, no?” The neighbour remains unconvinced and indignant, but Herath is still smiling when he leaves the men and re enters his own home. He is still grinning when he settles into a chaise couch in his large living room lit by a skylight, and thinks over what was said. “What that aiya was talking about it’s all harmless,” he says, the gurgle from a small indoor pond accompanying his lilting Sinhala. “I hear these things all the time. Everybody is very free with their feedback. That’s the thing about being a Sri Lankan cricketer.”
Unsolicited advice flies at Herath from all directions: from long time friends, from team hangers on, from reporters, from coaches, from supermarket strangers. Where in others this might inspire indignation maybe even disdain it draws from Herath a chuckle. “Sri Lankan fans are the best in the world, I think. Look, they will talk, but they will let you live your life. When you play well they will support you. When you lose, there are no big problems. You can live a normal life. If I’m home, I do everything. I don’t send anyone on errands. I don’t even have anyone I could send on errands.” In the one car garage is a mid level SUV, a Kia Sorento, in which he ferries his two little boys to kindergarten, or makes trips to the bank, or the market, or weddings in Waduwawa.
He is almost infuriatingly chipper about much of his life, and most of his career. It would be easy to look at his record to make note of the 296 wickets since 2009 and think this is a man who should feel cheated at being overlooked for a stable place in Tests until he was 31. Herath, though, is not an “It would have been so much better if” sort of person. He is an “I am lucky that” kind of guy.
Years in a domestic system as poorly paid as Sri Lanka’s, for example, feels for some like rambling in the wilderness. Herath, though, is grateful for the coaches like Hathurusingha, who continued to encourage him, and the job at Sampath Bank that kept the lights on. For the record, he has never been a clerk: he used to work a nine to five at the card centre during the domestic off season, and played for the bank’s mercantile team in partial exchange for employment. Lately he has been a sort of ambassador, luring big money accounts. “You always remember the people who helped you when times are tough, isn’t it?” he says. “For me, the bank was like that.”
Where others might snipe at selectors who have told them they are “too short for Test cricket”, Herath remembers the matches he did get to play; the tours that were thrown his way. “It’s not like I was completely ignored those days,” he says. “I went on an overseas Sri Lanka U 17 tour when I was still at Maliyadeva. Then when I started playing Tests, there were probably a few games where I didn’t perform that well.
“Still, I always thought I’d get a proper run at Test cricket, because they kept picking me in the Sri Lanka A team. That’s something worth mentioning also, no? It is also a big thing.”
It makes sense this is the way Herath is wired. It fits that a serial optimism has been hardcoded within. Because how else could a man of his workaday method have become one of his nation’s greatest match winners? Who else could have imagined the five wicket hauls against each one of his opponents, or the fightbacks, or the hat trick, or the many collapses sparked and games settled? Maybe no one else but him.
When Herath’s fingers twitch, and the ball flits between hands at the top of his mark, he is a grainy, flickering, black and white marvel. Watch him. His legs begin to move like the wheels of an old steam train. There’s an amble, then a shuffle, then a delicate jog. He gets side on, and the belly turns towards the batsman like a planet rotating to face the sun. The ball leaves the hand, and oh, its tilted seam is in perfect orbit. It is drifting all the way down the pitch.
If Muttiah Muralitharan romped and rattled, and shook a surface down for all the turn it was worth, Herath has spent time learning pitches and building trust. Eventually he and the clay are in collusion. Some balls grip to clip the bat or the stumps. Others skid on and rap the pad. There are days when he has tangoed happily with the rough for hours and hours, though also other times when nothing he tries not the ripper, not the floater, not the roundarm darter comes good. His is a gentle manner of working. But that is not to say it always gets gentle results.
Between 2007 and 2014, Sri Lanka played in five major tournament finals, succeeding only in the most recent of them. Another way to put this: Sri Lanka failed to win a global title this century until, at last, they had Herath playing in a final. If this seems too generous, consider his record in marquee matches.
In the 2012 World T20, Herath played only two of Sri Lanka’s first five games but took two key wickets in successive balls to seal the semi final, and claimed the game’s best figures of 3 for 25 all up. He was dropped for the final. Why, you wonder? It is also a mystery to him. Just 16 months earlier he had taken a wicket and returned the most miserly figures in the World Cup semi, against New Zealand. But for the final at the Wankhede, another spinner was flown in, and Herath missed out.
Later there was his 4 for 20 in a tri series final in Port of Spain. There was also a 3 for 36 in another one day final in Adelaide. But only when he delivered perhaps the greatest T20 spell ever, did he really graduate from the fringes of Sri Lanka’s big tournament teams.
Five for three in Chittagong: two more wickets than runs. Fans will rave about Aravinda’s 66 at Eden Gardens in 1996, but these numbers by the boy from Waduwawa are no less worthy of enshrinement. They make a good pair too, Herath and his hero; both tenacious, both pint sized, striking flint on metal, sending sparks through the dressing room, watching the fire spread.
That spell is great fun, so of course worth reliving, but encased within it also are the themes of Herath’s career. Doubted by selectors, this match against New Zealand was his first of that World T20. It being a virtual quarter final, and with Sri Lanka having to defend 119, the stakes could hardly have been higher.
And what vintage Herath modes of dismissal. His tight lines had Brendon McCullum pottering around the crease for four deliveries before the ball jived laughingly past him when he finally ran down the pitch. Ross Taylor looked like he might have trouble making contact if he was holding a hangar door instead of a bat, until eventually he and his front pad surrendered to a straighter ball. James Neesham was bowled by a delivery that connived its way through the gate. Luke Ronchi had his bat beaten and his back leg pinged. All through the innings, batsmen committed to more wrong lines than drunks at a karaoke, and to finish off there was the carrom ball Herath had devised on rainy days at school, playing tennis ball cricket indoors. “I think I must have the worst carrom ball in international cricket now,” he chuckles. Sure, but has any other carrom ball capped a heist quite as brazen as this? Or come in such a cataclysmic spell?
“Actually, from a long time ago, he’s someone who took responsibility in difficult situations,” says Hathurusingha. “I remember at Moors in one match in the semi final of a premier tournament, the other team had about a 80 run lead in the first innings, and then had hit 190 for 1 or something. This stage, we had all given up. Rangana had a good lunch on day three and he comes out, takes the ball and suddenly starts taking wickets. He took five and wrapped their innings up.”