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Muttiah Muralitharan: One-of-a-kind spin wizard

Muttiah Muralitharan: One-of-a-kind spin wizard

Muttiah Muralitharan acknowledges the crowd after playing his last match in Sri Lanka — the 2011 ICC World Cup Semi-final — between New Zealand and Sri Lanka at the R Premedasa Stadium on March 29, 2011 in Colombo © Getty Images

Muttiah Muralitharan, born April 17, 1972, is without doubt the greatest cricketer produced by Sri Lanka. Arunabha Sengupta looks back at the career of the man who picked up wickets in amounts and rates that were almost preposterous.

Through the nineties and the noughties Sri Lanka, that pearl drop suspended in the glistening Indian Ocean, was the enchanted isle of cricket. And Muttiah Muralitharan was Milton’s chimera, lurking amongst the rifted rocks of the emerald island, luring batsmen into the entrance of hell.

He was a freak of nature — a chaos, a contradiction and a prodigy rolled into a phenomenon. ‘An impossibility that never entered before into the heart of man to conceive.’

He was impossible to fathom, physically and through measurement. Who ever heard of a wrist-spinner who bowled off-breaks! But then nobody heard of a bowler whose wrists could perform remarkable feats of contortion — touching the forearm with the little finger, and rotating the metacarpals through a full 360 degrees. Nobody heard of 67 five-fors and 22 10-fors in Test cricket. Nobody ever heard of a legend of his stature, targeted throughout his career by umpires and ex-cricketers for his ‘illegal’ action. Yet, he endured all with that omnipresent smile of his.

It required all possible commitment, application and elements of greatness to convert a nation at the bottom of the cricketing ladder, an irrefutable minnow, into a top team of the world in less than a decade. It required something magical to achieve that. Arjuna Ranatunga, Aravinda de Silva, Sanath Jayasuriya, Chaminda Vaas, Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene — all of them provided the commitment, application and several varying elements of greatness. Finally, Muralitharan performed the alchemy, the conjuring trick, converting absurd to actuality.There were brilliant soldiers in the Sri Lankan cause, but it was on the shoulders of this Colossus that the side was carried across the borderline between decent and struggling to the frontiers of supremacy.

If that seems an exaggeration, please consider the numbers: When it comes to Muralitharan, the wildest eulogies often fall way short of the parameters of greatness.

The Murali Effect T Wkts Ave SR 5WI 10 WM
SL before Muralitharan 38 441 39.87 79.3 19 0
Other SL bowlers in Tests in which Murali played 132 1173 36.47 74.7 29 3
Muralitharan alone for SL* 132 795 22.67 54.9 67 22
SL with Muralitharan 132 1968 30.90 66.7 96 25

*Murali played another Test and captured five more wickets for Rest of the World

The table will demonstrate that the other Sri Lankan bowlers did improve with time, but only marginally, following the rates and rationales of reason. It was Muralitharan’s 795 wickets (he got five more for Rest of the World) at 22.67 and a logic-defying strike rate of 54.9 that hauled the team by the scruff of the neck and made it world class.

The early days

While studying in St. Anthony’s College, Kandy, Muralitharan bowled fast and batted in the middle-order. Those who have enjoyed his brief forays at the wicket down the years will be wistfully wondering of the thrills and spills of his youthful years with the willow. The cricket world will be forever indebted to school coach Sunil Fernando who advised him to switch to off-spin at the age of 14.

The early years were somewhat frustrating for the young man. Murali was included in the Sri Lanka A side to tour England in 1991, but returned without a wicket to show for his efforts.

It was Murali’s lifelong bitter-sweet connection with Australia that played a part in kick-starting his career. When Australia visited the island in 1992-93, the local boy was chosen to play for Sri Lanka Board President’s XI against the tourists at Kandy. Murali picked up just one wicket for 79 runs, but a batsman of the stature of Allan Border failed to read him. Two weeks down the line, the boy from Kandy was bowling against Australia in the second Test at the Premadasa Stadium. He did not take too many wickets, but the world did get an indication of the eventual turn of events. In Australia’s second innings, he pitched two feet outside the off-stump. Tom Moody, batting on 54, shouldered arms to find his leg-stump pegged back.

From his early days, Muralitharan was a prodigious turner of the ball. His supple wrists had a great deal of say in what had until then been a finger-spinner’s craft. Confidence levels rose with each match and in his seventh outing, against South Africa at Moratuwa, he picked up five wickets in the innings for the first time. And when he bowled Sri Lanka to a win in Napier with five scalps on a wicket tailor-made for seamers, his powers were apparent to all. Duleep Mendis maintained that he could turn square on concrete, and few doubted it.

Muttiah Muralitharan: One-of-a-kind spin wizard

Muttiah Muralitharan… an off-spinner with a wrist action © Getty Images

Hair-raising stuff

By the time he visited Australia in 1995-96, he was a force to reckon with — 78 wickets from 21 Tests at 30.73 — brimming with promise to extend his figures into the realms of folklore. And now suddenly arrived the moment when controversy raised its hairy head, and threatened to stop his career — at what would have been a tenth of his haul of wickets.

In the second Test match, the Boxing Day encounter at Melbourne, Arjuna Ranatunga gambled by sending Australia in on a fine pitch. And soon, umpire Darrell Hair called Muralitharan seven times in three overs for throwing. This strong minded, often inflexible, official — whose obstinacy would create the murkiest cricketing history a decade down the line — made his judgment call from the bowler’s end. In the stands sat Ian Meckiff, who retired after being called in Brisbane in 1963. So affected was this old Australian bowler that he left the stands and made for home. Ranatunga made Murali switch ends and he bowled until tea on the second day, and Steve Dunne had little problems with his action. And now, Hair told the Sri Lankans he was ready to call him from square-leg.

The tourists were outraged. Things did not help when the Australian Board vetoed their request of a conversation with Hair to find where the problem lay. Ten days later, during a World Series Cup match, Ross Emerson called Murali for throwing.

Had the spinner been born on the other side of Palk Strait, he might have been taken off the team and sent to camps to rectify his action. Whether he would have continued his international career is a curiously difficult question. But, captain Ranatunga and the Sri Lankan Board stood solidly behind him. Murali agreed to go through a biomechanical analysis at the University of Western Australia and at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. The results convinced the International Cricket Council (ICC) that his naturally bent elbow created the ‘optical illusion of throwing’

The unbelievable success story

Controversy about his action dogged him right through his career. But, in the latter half of the nineties, Murali blossomed into an off-spinner the like of whom the world had never seen before. In 1996, he was a key member of the Lankan team that lifted the World Cup at Lahore, defeating the side with which they seldom saw eye to eye — Australia. In 1997, Murali became the first Sri Lankan bowler to capture 100 Test wickets. Yes, the first bowler from the island to capture 100 wickets. It will be worthwhile to pause here and look back at his final tally of 800 to realise the enormity of the feat in the context of Lankan cricket.

In January 1998, Murali scripted his first 10 wicket haul in Test cricket. And later that year, in the one-off Test against England at The Oval, he established himself as an all-time great. Large bright eyes following the flight of the ball in earnest delight, the broad smile perpetually flashing as he ran in over after over, the spinner picked up 16 wickets in the match — including nine in the second innings. The only other wicket in the second innings was a run-out.

It was this Test that transformed Murali from a good to a great bowler. Highlights of his 16 wickets were replayed with the title soundtrack fromThe Man with the Golden Gun playing in the background. Yes, he was as lethal, without being anywhere near that ruthless. When, years later, he broke Shane Warne’s record to become the highest wicket taker in the history of the game, Muralibremarkedbthat the Oval Test was the turning point of his career: “Everyone thought I was a good bowler then and I didn’t look back from there.”

But, obstacles were in his way. In 1998-99, he was called again, by Ross Emerson, during an ODI against England at the Adelaide Oval. A fuming Ranatunga almost took his team off the ground. Once again Murali was sent for Tests, in England and Australia, and once again he was cleared.

And the wickets kept coming — in both formats of the game. Even the batsmen of the sub-continent fell to his guile. Pakistan struggled against him at home and in his backyard. The Indians lost 23 wickets to him in the three Tests of 2001.  

In the first years of the new century, Murali mastered the doosra. It spun like a sharp, genuine leg-break. According to a few, the doosra made him somewhat less threatening. The ability to deceive the batsman lay in sticking to an off-stump line, keeping them guessing which way the ball would turn. This enabled batsmen to tuck off-breaks easily o the leg side. The huge turn from way outside the off-stick had to be sacrificed to a great extent to keep the surprise element of the doosra intact. And the action involved in the doosra created more furore about the legitimacy of the delivery.

However, the wickets kept coming — in heaps, bundles, bushels. Teams budgeted for 20 Murali wickets in a three Test series, and frequently ended up surrendering more. In his 58th Test, Murali crossed 300 wickets, and 14 Tests later 400. Ten days earlier, he had missed out on capturing all 10 wickets in an innings. Russel Arnold had dropped a chance at short-leg following which Vaas got Henry Olonga caught behind. Murali took it with his trademark smile and shrug. In any case, it made him the second bowler since Jim Laker to pick nine in an innings twice.

Clearing the Tests

Muralitharan captured his 500th wicket in the second Test against Australia in Kandy in March 2004. And again, at the end of the series the legitimacy of the action of his doosra was officially questioned by match referee Chris Broad.

Tests followed at the University of Western Australia, in the Department of Human Movement and Exercise Science. Three-dimensional kinematic measurements of Muttiah Muralitharan’s bowling arm were taken, using an optical motion capture system while he bowled his doosra. After extensive examinations, he was cleared yet again. The researchers recommended a flat rate of 15° tolerable elbow extension as a demarcation point between bowling and throwing. ICC declared the Murali doosra a legal delivery.

In another round of biomechanical testing, Muralitharan was filmed bowling with an arm bracemoulded to his right arm. The world saw that Murali’s spin was not altered even with the brace that prevented any bend or flexion of the arm. The jerk in the action was attributed to his unique shoulder rotation and freakish wrist movement.


 
It converted some critics. Some like Dean Jones revised their views, admitting that the action could not exactly be termed ‘chucking’. However, others like Michael Holding, Bishan Bedi, Adam Gilchrist and Martin Crowe have not been convinced.

In Australia, crowd continued to heckle him, jeering him with ‘no ball’ calls. Even Prime Minister John Howard somehow put on the cricket expert’s hat in 2004, voicing that there was little doubt that Murali was a ‘chucker’.

However, Murali did have enormous support from one voice – feeble with age, but with the weight to drown all the others around the cricket world into depths of insignificance.

After Murali had been called by Hair during the Boxing Day Test of 1995, 87-year-old Don Bradman voiced his dissent saying, “Murali, for me, shows perhaps the highest discipline of any spin bowler since the war. He holds all the guile of the trade, but something else too. His slight stature masks a prodigious talent, and what a boon he has been for cricket’s development on the subcontinent. It is with this in mind, and with the game’s need to engage as a world sport, that I found umpire Darrell Hair‘s calling of Murali so distasteful. It was technically impossible for umpire Hair to call Murali from the bowler’s end. Why was his eye not on the foot-fall and crease? I believe Hair’s action — in one over — took the development of world cricket back by ten years. For me, this was the worst example of umpiring that I have witnessed, and against everything the game stands for. Clearly Murali does not throw the ball. No effort in that direction is made or implied by him. His every effort is to direct the ball unto the batsman.”

The tumbling records

Murali continued to bowl, soon passing Courtney Walsh’s world record haul of 519 Test wickets. The feat established him as the first genuinely great cricketer from the island nation, but he had achieved only a fraction of his final spoils.

Shane Warne, in a fascinating duel between spinners played out over a decade and a half, overtook Murali while the latter was undergoing a shoulder surgery. But, 90 wickets in 11 Tests in 2006 closed the gap. In December 2007, at Kandy, Muralitharan bowled Paul Collingwood to become the highest wicket taker in Test cricket once again. His 709 wickets had come in 116 Tests, 29 less than Warne.

The Test career came to a fairytale conclusion in July 2010. Murali declared that the first Test against India at Galle would be his last. He started the match with 792 wickets, and picked up his customary five wickets in India’s first innings. As the visitors followed on, Lasith Malinga ripped through the innings. Murali had picked up just two when the VVS Laxman was run-out, the ninth wicket to fall. Pragyan Ojha walked in with the champion spinner tantalisingly poised on 799.

However, Murali displayed little in terms of nerves. He ran in with his wide smile and expressive eyes, and destinywas etched out for him on the glorious final stretch. After 15 overs — nerve wracking for all but Murali — Ojha edged and for the 77th time in Tests, caught Mahela Jayawardene bowled Muttiah Muralitharan registered on the scoreboard. The final tally stood on 800, captured at 22.72 at a strike rate of 55. It will perhaps remain unchallenged forever.

There are several other records set by the man which look good to last an eternity. With 67 five-fors, he is a good 30 ahead of the next in line — Shane Warne. In home Tests alone, Murali has 45 five-fors from 73 Tests.

When it comes to 10 wickets in a match, he has 22 — with Warne following way, way behind with 10. In terms of matches played, he is the fastest to 350, 400, 450, 500, 550, 600, 650 and 700 wickets, and  trivially so for 750 and 800, being the only bowler to have captured that many. He has 50 or more wickets against every Test playing country. And if we remove run-out from the equation, the most common method of getting out in Test cricket till now has been ‘bowled Muralitharan.’

In ODIs, his farewell was not as glorious. After the 1996 triumph, and the 2007 final, Murali bowled in the World Cup title round yet again in 2011, but could not pick up a wicket as India famously won at Wankhede. Yet, his haul of 534 wickets places him at the peak in this format as well. Significantly, his best performance, seven for 30, came in 2000 against the best players of spin bowling — the Indians.

Beyond wickets

Apart from his freakish elbow, freakish shoulder, freakish wrists — all adding up to his freakish records — Murali can never be thought of without the ever-present smile on his face. It remained permanently on his face when he bowled and continued off the field, nothing, not even the calumnious criticism of his action could not remove it.

Success, of the grandest kind, moulded him — making the camera-shy young bowler confident in front of an audience, with a twinkle in the eye and a wry sense of humour. But, his feet remained firmly attached to his humble roots.

The heroics with the ball, unparalleled in history as they are, form only a part of the story and legend that surrounds the man. Playing for a country torn apart by civil unrest and ethnic divide, this champion spinner battled on for the team, often the only Tamil in the eleven, a perennial symbol of unification and solidarity. When the Sri Lankan coasts were ravaged by the Tsunami, Murali was among the first to volunteer his services for the devastated.

He not only donated money — which is the privilege and often the substitute of conscience for the rich and famous. He did that, building 1024 houses for the homeless. But, he went beyond. He was there with the relief workers, in the very thick of things, putting in real earthy effort, serving food to the victims, a bucket and a ladle in the hands used to twirling the red cricket ball.

(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He writes about the history and the romance of the game, punctuated often by opinions about modern day cricket, while his post-graduate degree in statistics peeps through in occasional analytical pieces. The author of three novels, he can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/senantix)

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