Herath's spell: What is Pakistan doing wrong?

Published August 11, 2014
Herath, after recording his best bowling figures in an innings on the fourth day, said he was "just bowling straight." -Photo by Reuters
Herath, after recording his best bowling figures in an innings on the fourth day, said he was "just bowling straight." -Photo by Reuters

A promising start, an indifferent surrender in the middle part and absolute capitulation when it mattered the most. It was a typical performance by Pakistan, one which prompts the critics to hound Misbah-ul-Haq about his 'dull' approach to cricket.

The decision to go into the first Test against Sri Lanka with only four regular bowlers was surely baffling but there was more to the defeat than just the captain's mindset. Ahmed Shehzad and Khurram Manzoor, despite the one decent knock here and there, are clearly not yet geared for the five-day game. Junaid Khan still does not have a solid fast bowling partner at the other end since assuming the role of the striker after the exits of Mohammad Asif and Mohammad Amir in 2010 and Abdur Rehman seems like he is now on a downward slope. Fielding remains as ordinary as usual.

And despite the talk of Pakistan being super "confident" against Rangana Herath, their form against the left-arm spinner remains woeful.

The unassuming tormentor, Herath took six for 48 as Pakistan crumbled to 180 all out in their second innings, leaving Sri Lanka to chase 99 for victory in 21 overs in a contest that looked to be heading for a draw at the start of the final day. Younis Khan and co were better in the first innings, scoring 451 and giving Sri Lanka's ace just three wickets from 38 overs. That was made possible largely due to the fact that the batsmen were a little less circumspect and, importantly, were prepared to use their feet against the opposition spinners.

But when Pakistan came out on the fifth day, it was immediately clear that they were not going to employ the same tactics against Herath and the rest of the Sri Lankan attack. That, in the end, was their undoing.

"He [Herath] knew these conditions very well, especially Galle, he's been so successful here. He varied the pace well, his length, his variations, so I think credit should be given to him, taking nine wickets on this track which was not you could say that type of a turner where spinners get nine, but he bowled really well," Misbah said after the match.

Herath, after recording his best bowling figures in an innings on the fourth day, said he was "just bowling straight."

So why were the Pakistani batsmen finding it so hard to contend with the seemingly innocuous "straight" deliveries?

The answer may be in what Herath himself revealed: psychology. The bowler was in agreement when pointed out whether his haul against Pakistan was largely because of the tendency of his subcontinent rivals to lose the plot in the head; moments where the bat seems a little bit like a toothpick and the pitch too slippery to keep one's balance.

Herath now has 74 wickets to his name in 15 matches against Pakistan and there maybe more coming when the two teams move to Colombo. A quick fix maybe just what the men in green did against another Sri Lankan spinner Ajantha Mendis, who burst onto the international arena in emphatic fashion in 2008, albeit with white ball in hand.

Pakistan were perhaps the best in countering the 'mystery' spin of Mendis simply because they were positive and, crucially, executed the sweep perfectly against him. The latter is something that served Younis Khan well in the first innings, a lack of which brought about his premature downfall in the second. Sarfraz Ahmed in the second innings demonstrated aptly to his teammates that an attacking approach was possible against Herath and the wicket-keeper remained unbeaten on 52.

In 2005 West Indies played Herath at an economy rate of 3.40 in two matches, giving him only one wicket in the series. India, when they hosted Sri Lanka in 2009/2010, played him at 3.61 and gave him 11 wickets in three Tests. When Sri Lanka toured England in 2011, Andrew Strauss' men played him at 3.12 and gave him just six wickets in three Tests. These positive tactics were perhaps best highlighted this year on January 20 when Pakistan smashed 19 Herath overs for 100 runs en route to their thrilling five-wicket win in Sharjah on the last day of the third Test. Unsurprisingly, Herath did not pick up even a single wicket in that innings despite the dusty pitch ripe for big haul.

But as Kumar Sangakkara, Dilruwan Perera and a lion-hearted Angelo Mathews displayed, Pakistan will have more than 99 problems and Herath will definitely just be one.

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