By Madan Mohan
As England bask in their perch of No.1 Test team in the world and speak cockily of resting seniors for the upcoming ODI series against India, my mind turns to several moments from the ‘90s that underline what a transformation this is. In the last few days of August 1998, the Sri Lankan wizard of spin Muttiah Muralitharan bearded England in their own den – at The Oval, to be precise.
I remember watching this match then, as I barely missed any international cricket telecast from around that time. My interest in English fixtures had been stoked by England’s Test series victory over South Africa; yep, the one that featured the legendary Michael Atherton-Allan Donald battle. We were, of course, already familiar with Muralitharan’s prowess over off-spin and I was curious to see if Mohammed Azharuddin’s claim that Murali could turn the ball square on glass was not exaggerated.
Then, as now, the Oval surface probably gave Murali his best chance on English soil. Even so, it was no Ferozeshah Kotla or Kandy. And there was no indication of the impending carnage when England batted first, having been inserted by Arjuna Ranatunga. John Crawley compiled a breezy 156 to steer England to a healthy 445.
Like against India a year earlier, Sanath Jayasuriya made light of this total with his whirlwind 213 (off just 278 deliveries), peppered with stunning shots. Aravinda de Silva supported him with a majestic 152. Sri Lanka amassed 591 by Day Four. The batting had been good, but the match now seemed poised for a tame finish. So there seemed to be nothing too remiss about passing over the fifth day action. England had closed on 54 for two and only had to bat out the last day to secure a draw.
But I was shocked to read the day that Murali had picked up nine wickets in the innings. Remember that Anil Kumble’s perfect 10 was yet to come at this point, so this looked impossibly daunting. It testified both to Murali’s brilliance and England’s characteristic ineptitude of the time. England could neither bat out substantially enough of the last day nor score enough runs to put the target out of Sri Lanka’s reach. A total of 181 all out from 129 overs says it all. The hero of the England first innings (Crawley) crawled to 14 off 58 upon which he was castled by the “Smiling Assassin”. Just as in a typical sub continent encounter, England had been lulled into comfort and complacency by mountains of runs and caught napping as too much happened too soon in the dying moments of the game.
In retrospect, Murali’s feat must have given them a serious shake up because from this point, English cricket would be saddled with riches of embarrassment. They would endure one humiliation after another. A familiar 3-1 drubbing in the Ashes introduced them to a new spin nemesis going by the name of Stuart McGill. After this came the ignominy of being outqualified by Zimbabwe in the 1999 World Cup (played in England!), followed shortly thereafter by a series loss at home to New Zealand.
This last result was too much to bear for English spectators and they booed then England skipper Nasser Hussain. It is now said that things only improved from this nadir as England won miraculously at both Sri Lanka and Pakistan and moved to bigger things under Michael Vaughan. But the road to redemption was more gradual and painful than such descriptions suggest. In spite of his best efforts, Hussain’s team never truly took off and achieved their victories more by scraping and fighting to the finish. It would not be correct to say greatness eluded them because greatness was not even in the frame at this point. More Ashes losses and a squared series at home against India, who had been beaten in their previous two trips to England, testify to this.
There is probably no bowler in the world today capable of thoroughly zapping the opposition the way Murali did. Could he indeed turn the ball square on glass? I do not know, but he did shatter England’s glass house to pieces with his 16 wicket match haul at The Oval in 1998.
(Madan Mohan, a 25-year old CA from Mumbai, is passionate about writing, music and cricket. Writing on cricket is like the icing on the cake)