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Sri Lanka off-spinner discussed a number of issues including the upcoming series, his impressions of Yasir Shah and how the Pakistan leg-spinner will fare in England, and his thoughts on overseas coaches.

By Shayan Siddiqui (18th May, 2016)

Rangana Herath has done a commendable job for Sri Lanka since taking over from Muttiah Muralitharan as the side's leading spin bowler. Renowned for his relentless accuracy and deceptive variations in pace and length, the left-arm orthodox bowler was the world’s leading Test wicket-taker in 2012, proving his star quality and match-winning ability.

Now a Test specialist having retired from the shorter formats, the thirty-eight year old is closing in on three hundred Test wickets and continues to make useful runs down the order. Speaking to ahead of what will surely be his final tour of England, the wily spinner discussed a number of issues including the upcoming series, his impressions of Yasir Shah and how the Pakistan leg-spinner will fare in England, and his thoughts on overseas coaches.

Pakistan arrive on English shores for the first time in six years this summer, hoping to improve on a tumultuous tour in 2010 in which they lost all three series to the home side. The Tests in particular were a chastening experience for the visitors, being dismissed for under 100 on three occasions and never reaching 350. The challenge to topple England at home is by no means easy however, with only one visiting side having got the better of the hosts in a Test series since 2012. That one side is Sri Lanka, who in 2014 followed up a nail-biting draw at Lords with a thrilling victory with one ball to go in the Test match at Headingley to win the series 1-0. One of the architects of that famous victory was Rangana Herath, who scored sixty-two important runs, captured three second innings wickets, and took the match-winning catch off the 81st ball that James Anderson faced. This summer, as Sri Lanka embark on another series against England, Herath expressed his confidence in the visitors' ability to be victorious once again.

“We had an unforgettable match in 2014 when we won the match and the series against England. It was a big achievement for me as an individual and also for us as a team, it was truly unforgettable. Hopefully this time around we can produce a similar performance and do the right things at the right time. Partnerships will be important, both in terms of bowling and batting, and if we get that right I’m confident we can repeat the 2014 result.”

Subcontinental sides have historically found it difficult to adapt to English conditions and this has become an even greater factor in recent years with the quantity of international cricket resulting in limited time for preparation and practice matches for touring sides. Herath was all too aware of the challenges facing the Sri Lankans and the importance for himself to adapt to conditions that are less spinner-friendly than the ones he is used to.

“The weather, the seam bowling, the tough task for the batsmen – these are definitely all aspects we think about when coming to England. As a spinner, I know there won’t be much turn in the pitches here but I won’t really make any technical changes to my bowling, it’s more about what I will do with the mental aspect of the game. I will try to assess the situation and identify the batsmen’s weaknesses as early as possible so I have an idea of what line and length I should be bowling. Obviously it’s also important to have a strong technically correct bowling action to execute these plans. In the subcontinent, spinners play much more of an attacking role whereas the fast-bowlers prosper more in England, particularly at the start given the helpful conditions. I have more of a supporting role here to start with but as the game wears on to day four and five, I will have a greater chance to take some wickets.”

Despite Sri Lanka’s victory in 2014, few rate their chances of dismantling a strong, confident England team once more. While England have grown remarkably in the last few years with the emergence of the likes of Joe Root and Ben Stokes, this is only Sri Lanka’s second overseas tour since the retirement of arguably their two greatest ever batsmen. Herath however was confident that Sri Lanka’s up and coming young batsmen have the tools necessary to succeed at this level stating, “As everyone knows, we are now playing without two of our legends, Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakarra, but we have some young talented players coming through who have the requisite skills. I’m sure their application in Test cricket will also be good so I am very confident in our batting lineup."

Immediately after Sri Lanka’s tour comes to an end, Pakistan will meet England in the first Test at Lord’s and a lot of attention will be focused on Pakistan’s own spinner, Yasir Shah, who caused England all sorts of problems in the UAE last year. Herath, who has played almost a third of his sixty-seven Tests against Pakistan, spoke very highly of Pakistan’s talented leg-spinner and fully expects him to do well in England, “Yasir Shah is a very good find for Pakistan. He has a lot of variation, gets turn and bounce, and also doesn’t bowl many loose balls. As a bowler, Yasir Shah has got everything. He has only played twelve Tests and has already taken over seventy wickets, so that gives us an idea of how good he is. In England, he will need to bowl patiently and will get help from the pitch later in the game. I’m sure he will take a lot of wickets here.”

Whilst bowling has historically been Pakistan’s strength, it has been the batting that has always been the Achilles Heel on overseas tours. A lot will be riding on the experienced duo of Younis Khan and the skipper Misbah-ul-Haq and they will need to put runs on the board if the visitors are to have a chance. The pair were brilliant in Pakistan’s last away tour in Sri Lanka, and Herath feels that they can do the business in England also, “Misbah-ul-Haq and Younis Khan are the two batsmen that are experienced enough to play in any conditions. Both have played all around the world so I’m sure they will do well in England this summer,” he stated.

This will be the first assignment for Pakistan’s newly appointed coach, Mickey Arthur, after a lengthy selection process in which the Pakistan Cricket Board ultimately opted for a foreign rather than a local coach. Sri Lanka have historically chosen to have an overseas coach in charge, with the likes of Dav Whatmore, Tom Moody, Paul Farbrace and Trevor Bayliss all having enjoyed stints with the national side. Graham Ford is the man in charge at the moment and while Herath was full of praise for the South African, he highlighted that it is the coach’s performance rather than his nationality that ultimately matters.

“I don’t see a huge difference between having a foreign coach or a local coach. The important thing is that we get confidence and the right technical advice – we don’t mind whether the coach is from overseas or from Sri Lanka as long as we are getting the right directions. In Graham Ford we currently have one of the best coaches going around. I have real admiration for him because he has worked a lot with us and also took us to the World Twenty20 title in 2014. I have a lot of confidence in him.”

A wonderful ambassador for Sri Lankan cricket and a stalwart of the game, Herath’s own career is drawing to a close, as demonstrated by his recent retirement from the shorter formats, a decision perhaps somewhat unusual given the fortunes on offer from Twenty20 cricket nowadays. Herath however was clear on the reasons for his choice, “I’ve played very little ODI and T20I cricket and a lot of Tests. I’ve done reasonably well in Test cricket so I thought that that’s my game, that’s my strength, so that’s why I chose to continue playing Tests,” he concluded.

Sri Lanka play the first Test of the series against England on Thursday at Headingley, the scene of their 2014 triumph, before heading to Durham followed by Lords for the final Test. The visitors' fortunes on this tour will probably set the scene for the upcoming series between England and Pakistan. A robust performance by Sri Lanka could well do wonders for the confidence of the visiting Pakistan team and the players and management would do well to keep a close eye on how the series pans out.