Immy (left) looks on as Ranga celebrates the win...
Ask the good folk of Moddershall CC in Staffordshire who was the better spinner – Imran Tahir, club professional in 2004, 2005, and 2008, or Rangana Herath, his successor in 2009 – and it is almost certain that they would say the much-loved Pakistani South African leggie, an opinion that would be heavily supported by their statistics in the North Staffs and South Cheshire League, small sample-size for the latter notwithstanding. However, anyone who happened to tune in to last week’s Boxing Day Test match from Durban – Imran’s new home city – might not have been quite so readily convinced: 48–4–165–3 plays a Man of the Match-winning 50.3–14–128–9, Herath not only more economical, but carrying a greater wicket threat during what was, for a few of us, the slightly surreal spectacle of two ex-teammates of ours battling it out as key protagonists in an international fixture.
Anyway, aside from both being affable spinners (albeit one excitable, the other reserved) from Asia who have pro’d for Moddershall and Hampshire CCC, the two men are bound, like Vladimir and Estragon, by a shared history of waiting...
|Stepping out of the shadows|
Having debuted for Sri Lanka in 1999, aged 21, Rangana had been waiting over a decade for the all-time leading Test wicket-taker to tire of whirling away in the long form of the game – which he did, finally, in July 2010, signing off with his eight-hundreth scalp – and then had to establish himself as the first-choice option in front of Ajantha Mendis, having previously tussled with leggies Upul Chandana and Malinga Bandara. Imran, meanwhile, had been waiting for the first half of the noughties to get a break for Pakistan, with the considerable talents of Mushtaq Ahmed and Danish Kaneria in front of him (indeed, Moddershall’s top-of-the-table clash with Longton – who had Alfonso Thomas pro’ing for them – in 2005 was, somewhat surreally, watched by an international cricket coach: the late Bob Woolmer, who had travelled up from his Birmingham home to check on Immy’s worthiness to attend a national training camp). Once having wed his future to Sumayya and South Africa, he then had to wait another four long years from the date of his last Pakistan ‘A’ appearance to officially become a Protea – whereupon he endured another 18 months of confusion and red tape – before finally getting the opportunity to play at the highest level of the game, a dream I’ve written about elsewhere.
Both, at times, must have wondered what sort of career they would ever have at the pinnacle. Both must now cement a place in their respective sides.
Immy: settling in...
Regardless of the comparative merits of the two bowlers, Rangana’s place is notionally a good deal more secure, largely because of the weakness of the Sri Lankan attack in the wake of the retirements of both Murali and Chaminda Vaas, as well as Lasith Malinga’s decision to play only limited-overs cricket. Imran, meanwhile, has gone from an itinerant club pro three-and-a-half years ago to someone who made one of the most eagerly anticipated international bows since Graeme Hick, clearly a function of his new country’s long hankering after a match-winning spinner. Will this instinctively conservative team (and perhaps people) understand how to treat the exotic new creature in their midst? Will each Graeme Smith six-of-one-half-a-dozen-of-the-other field turn up Imran’s tension dial, perhaps bringing about another nervy full toss that arouses in a few of his teammates those yearnings for the steady undercutters of ‘Harro’? Will they simply expect too much from him?
A rare block from Immy (proof of which being extra cover wearing a helmet...)
This modus operandi was far too good for most – though not quite all – batsmen in the North Staffs League, and certainly allowed yours truly to set fields in a largely headache-free manner. (And yes, I set a 6-3 offside field, but then I’d often forsake mid-wicket for a silly point.) In 2004, after a sketchy start as joint-favourites for the title (Imran had helped his previous club, Norton-in-Hales, to 3rd the previous season and the title in 2002, breaking Sir Garry Sobers’ league-record haul of 104 wickets in the process), our captain walked out four games in to the season, beating a mutiny by hours, and I took over; thereafter, our league results were OK (only one defeat in the remaining 18 matches but far too many draws to challenge for the title) but it was in the cups that we excelled, losing the Talbot Cup final (the intra-league competition) and winning the Staffordshire Cup for the only time in our history. In 2005 we pushed hard for the title, leading until the third-last game as Imran bagged 86 wickets at 12.6, yet ultimately came up short behind a very strong Longton side that contained six or seven Minor Counties players alongside Alfonso. Finally, in 2008, the title was won, Imran taking 80 wickets at 11.14 this time, and at an improved strike- and economy-rate, with no less than 12 five-wicket hauls in the process. And all this having been picked up by Hampshire in mid-July, taking 44 wickets in 7 games for them to help avert relegation. In short, he had secured his legend.
Immy (back row, third from left) celebrates his last act in the small time
In 2009, then, the wee Herath Mudiyanselage Rangana Keerthi Bandara Herath (as I greeted him – and told everyone they must, too – when he arrived three games into the season) certainly had a tough act to follow. All ten or twelve of the Moddershall ultras unhelpfully wrote him off before he had even really started (with a game in near-Baltic conditions on our exposed, hilltop ground, incidentally). However, I had chosen him not on a whim, but with a great deal of care and forethought (Immy, incidentally, had recommended his Titans team mate Roelof van der Merwe, who he told us, either as warning or commendation, “liked a beer,” but who turned out to be a shade expensive). My reasoning for picking Ranga was as follows:
(1) Firstly, a lengthy perusal of scorecards on Cricket Archive informed me that he’d made 88 not out for Sri Lanka ‘A’ in a 50-over game in Benoni against South Africa ‘A’ that winter, coming in at 94 for 6 and seeing them past the victory target a further 200 runs ahead. Impressive. Immy might look like an out-and-out start-the-roller merchant, and it’s true that there was little point in asking him to bat sensibly, but he biffed his way to 431 runs in our championship season and we couldn’t afford a rabbit as replacement.
(3) Thirdly, although he’d played a Test against Bangladesh as recently as December, he’d only taken 1/115, while his 14 games had been spread over nine years (36 wickets at a shade under 40) and Murali still didn’t seem like retiring; ergo he wasn’t likely to get called away, as had Imran for Hampshire…
Here’s how all that panned out:
(1) I now know that Benoni is a road. An utter featherbed. Sponsored by Slumberland. And irrespective of the fact that the attack contained Wayne Parnell, it was, for a bottom-handed biffer with three shots in his repertoire (pull, sweep, slog and hybrid forms of those shots), infinitely less taxing than facing clubby dobbers on soft green seamers. Fair to say, the posh side was only really used for leading edges. All this thrust and thrape saw him average a slightly disappointing 22.25: i.e. only about 6 runs better than his current Test average!
(2) With the exception of the Bunsen on which we played Kim Barnett’s Knypersley (always Barnett!) – on which Ranga returned underwhelming and unflattering figures of 21.2–10–31–1 en route to smashing the world record for beating the outside edge (apart from in his first over, when he did induce an edge from the former Gloucestershire, Derbyshire, Checkley and Leek stalwart, only for yours truly to drop the sort of ultra-simple chance that has direct marketing companies pushing laser surgery leaflets through your door) – the wickets were just too green, greasy and skiddy, or slow and tacky when they took turn, rendering his carom ball the proverbial ashtray on a motorbike.
(3) I mentioned above that Ranga was a quiet guy who didn’t show a great deal of passion on the field – certainly not in comparison to Immy, whose kid-jumping-off-the-school-coach celebrations are not an affectation developed for TV cameras – but he was just starting to settle and come out of his shell a little when – guess what? – he was called up for Sri Lanka to replace Murali, who had a shoulder problem. Bollocks! OK, his stats of 112–27–333–14 in his 8 games are nothing to get frisky over, but he was improving…
Ranga (front row, left) with a trophy: False Dawn
To me, it was evident that he was a quality bowler – Barnett reckoned him the third best spinner he’d ever faced, which made him, in his eyes, superior to Vettori – but, lacking the coruscating variations of Imran, he also had to work much harder for his wickets, in part because our catching was truly abysmal that year, which in turn may have depressed him somewhat, preventing him from emotionally connecting to his new environment as fully as he might. Vicious circle. Furthermore, despite his pudgy, samosa-munching frame, he was also an excellent fielder in the backward point region, and incredibly accurate when throwing down the stumps, a trait that was twice in evidence in his third week with us, when we won the Barney McCardle Trophy (essentially, the NSSCL version of the Community Shield, in which we played the winners of the other three divisions in a four-way T20 competition).
Yet, where Immy blazed through the league like a horde of horny and skint Vikings, all the Moddershall faithful saw with Ranga were their damned lies and statistics: the debut in which, despite bamboozling former Worcestershire all-rounder Roger Sillence, Mike Longmore (who Immy rated one of the best two local batters) scored 104 not out against us (me again spilling a dolly at slip when he had 20); they saw the second game, when ex-Moddershall batter ‘Milky’ Holloway blazed a ton; the trouble-free 80 for Derbyshire’s Dan Redfern at Leycett; the slog-sweep assault by Khalid Malik at Burslem; the 1-fer on a beach against Knypersley… They refused to heed the potential in the phenomenal T20 spell of 4 overs for 5 runs against Porthill, or the sticky-dog ‘Michelle’ against Leek.
So it was that, with us left to hire a succession of overpriced sub pro’s (one of whom – at the time in the first-class game, though not now – was among the most despicably exploitative and self-regarding bandits it has been my misfortune to meet), off scooted Ranga to Galle, where, just hours after stepping off the plane, he would go on to snare his first Man of the Match award (the one in Durban being his second), adding a decisive second innings spell of 11.3–5–15–4 to a couple of useful cameos with the bat as the Lankans beat Pakistan by just 50 runs. In the next game, another victory, he bagged a maiden Test 5-fer as
lost 9 wickets for 35, a
feat he promptly repeated in the third game.
He then sat out the First Test against Pakistan New
Zealand – Murali returning and the (at the time) red-hot Mendis preferred
– before picking up another 5-wicket haul as won the Second Test by
96. So much for our 2 wickets per game pro!! Sri Lanka
It was a veritable head-scratcher, alright. Perplexing. Bewildering.
Perhaps, ultimately, it was a warm weather thing. Y’know: needing to have feeling in his fingers – neshness like that. For no sooner had he bagged his Kiwi five than he was back in the UK for a three-game stint as overseas pro with Surrey, picking up dismal aggregate figures of 8 for 431 from 108.2 overs of toil in three Division 2 runfests (being outbowled at Wantage Road by Nicky Boje, incidentally). He wouldn’t fare much better for Hamsphire the following spring, either, nor for his country last summer, aside from a decent spell at Lord’s. But the key drawback he faced at Moddershall was that, where everyone knew Immy could rip out a side’s heart in half-a-dozen overs or so, he simply could not. Had it been Lancashire, ’appen t’members’d’ve brok ’is fingers ’n’ put ’im on next boat ’ome...
But I could see a good cricketer – a good club pro – in that shuffling approach and snappy, narrow pivot; in the chest-on delivery that imparted all the revs (and the curve, the drop) from the shoulder; in the clever use of the crease – something Imran, less guileful, more heavy artillery, didn’t do – and in the round-arm variation that either undercut or would spin sharply; in the lesser-spotted carom ball; and in the cultic slogging. It’s a shame, I guess, that he saved his best performances for the Test arena…
While Ranga was bagging wickets in the Tropics, Moddershall, meanwhile… Christ, where to begin? With a thrice deferred PhD thesis to finish and my motivation at what I thought was an all-time low (it wasn’t: the following season was worse), we were slipping inexorably toward relegation, a fate I thought all but inevitable when, four games from the end, our never-before-seen-or-heard-of hired help arrived at Little Stoke looking like Dev from Coronation Street’s rotund elder sibling, and proceeded to bowl (half-decent off-breaks) in silver Nike trainers while sporting some horrible, generic baseball cap – backwards!! – doubtless to conceal his bald patch. Oh Lordy.
Incredibly, we won the game… I say ‘incredibly’ – actually, it was pretty much down to an utterly ludicrous decision by our opponents to play on a very badly worn pitch (they cannot have thought that ‘Dev’ was a seamer, surely?!), the sort of deck on which either Ranga or Immy would have taken 7/30, at least. Anyway, this performance (3-fer and 30) bought him two more matches before he was mercilessly axed for the final game, for which, unable to persuade (Joe Sayers to persuade) Ajmal Shahzad that £700 was preferable to a weekend in London, we went back to our right-armed bandit, whose 9/39 on a rug kept the club safely in the Premier League in what was the most unsatisfactory, sour-tasting, last-ditch escape imaginable.
During all this hoo-ha, I had discovered that nothing is quite so tiring as talking to cricket agents all week, trying to get value for money in what was always a seller’s market but became even more so in the wake of the UKBA’s tightening of its immigration policy and the ECB’s more stringent rules for qualification of overseas cricketers. Add to this the fact that our league administrators deemed that any player who had subbed for any club in any of the four divisions could thereafter play for no other club in the league that season (a change brought about by Shahid Afridi playing for and against the same team in consecutive weeks in 2003) and it was very tough indeed to find quality replacements. So, for the 2010 season, I simply had to select a pro who would absolutely never get called up for representative honours, be that county or national.
After much searching we dropped on a seamer who, by October 2009, had played just the two first-class matches (for Khan Research Laboratories), about whom the reports were good, and whose height would be a useful tool on damp English pitches. And boy, was he tall – so tall, in fact, that he didn’t exactly slip under the proverbial (or literal) radar; so tall that he might have shown up in Air Traffic Control, but was certainly spotted by the Pakistan national coaches, who first invited him along to a training camp and then, a couple of weeks before our season started, fucking went and fucking picked him for the tour of fucking England. This bowler was the 6’10” (or 7’2”) Mohammad Irfan.
|I like the look of the bloke on the right...|
And so it was that I spent another 12 longs weeks on the phone to agents that season, slowly but surely cracking up. And so it was, too, that, barely 20 months after Imran finished with us – 20 months after the pinnacle of my cricket-playing days – my desire to play cricket was finally extinguished.