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Muttiah Muralitharan leads the Sri Lanka team off the pitch after taking nine wickets against England in the second innings at The Oval. Sri Lanka won the match by 10 wickets © Getty Images

On August 31, 1998, Muttiah Muralitharan produced a match-winning spell of nine for 65 which made England capitulate to his tunes. The match total of 16 for 220 — the fifth Test-best analysis — was a stellar performance that helped Sri Lanka register a 10-wicket win over England at The Oval. Sarang Bhalerao talks about magician Murali’s mesmerising bowling display.

The angular run-up has always had the sense of purpose. The eyes of this smiling assassin are transfixed at the spot to deliver the ball. The rhythmic run-up now reaches the popping crease the left leg pivots, the ball has copious amount of flight, call it guile if you may. Often the ball goes above the eyeline of the batsmen. The batsman has to read the ball from the hand, concentrate relentlessly. Welcome to the rigours of Test cricket. A momentary lapse of concentration against the champion off-spinner Muttiah Muralitharan and it puts a period to the innings. At The Oval, England batsmen realised how facing the wily old fox on a spinning wicket was an onerous task. Out of a total 20 wickets, 16 fell to Murali.

At The Oval in 1998, Murali’s stellar bowling performance became a compelling case study for off-spinners all over the world. The amount of spin on offer was encouraging. It was a case of ‘home away from home’ for the off-spinner since the surface was akin to a sub-continental square that often takes turn early on from the match.

Sri Lankan captain Arjuna Ranatunga bowled first and England scored 445 thanks to centuries from Graeme Hick and John Crawley. The wicket aided spin from the first day and Murali was in action right away. He picked up 7 wickets that included the debutants Steve James, who came in for the injured Mike Artherton. James popped up a tame return catch to the off-spinner to give him his first wicket. Mark Ramprakash fell just before the end of the first day’s play to Murali and England realised that unless they dictate terms to the spinner they will be tortured by him. Crawley on the second day used his feet against Murali to negate any spin and that ploy worked. The positivity failed to rub on to his colleagues as they tried to negate the off-spinner from the crease and falling to the trap set by him.

Ben Hollioake was beaten in the air and was dismissed. Dominic Cork tried to defend the ball stretching forward but left a little gap between the bat and the pad. That small opening was enough for Murali to breach the gap and the stumps were shattered. Ian Salisbury walked too far across the stumps trying to nullify Murali’s off-breaks and in the process lost his leg-stump. The lower order was forced into submission. If Crawley was confident facing the off-spinner, the lower-order had no clue how to crack the Murali deliveries, call it the secret code. Darren Gough tried to employ the sweep but he got an under edge that popped up and wicketkeeper Romesh Kaluwitharana took an easy catch. The last-wicket partnership of 89 between Crawley and Angus Fraser troubled the visitors. Murali took the last wicket that of Fraser, bowling around the wicket and beating the No 11 in flight. His bowling performance of 59.3-14-155-7 was absolutely flattering. England’s total of 445 looked safe.

In reply, the Sri Lankan batting looked purposeful. Sanath Jayasuriya in particular took the attack to England. His innings of 213 from 278 balls gave Sri Lanka a solid platform and put them in the ascendancy. Aravinda de Silva, who surpassed 5,000 Test runs, scored 152 and Sri Lanka got a decisive lead of 146.

That was all Murali needed — a substantial lead. The match had now reached a stage where only one team could win. It was the battle of attrition as far as England were concerned. Sri Lanka skipper Ranatunga employed an attacking field just to force the batsman into making mistakes. Against Murali, Ranatunga kept the men around the bat. Mark Butcher was willing to be positive against the off-spinner. Murali beat the edge of Butcher’s bat. Round one to Murali. He then kept the English opener quiet. Butcher had had enough and he danced down the track to break free but the ball dipped and turned beating Butcher in the air. He was stumped and it was game, set and match to the off-spinner. The hopes of any resurrection were with Hick, who had bolstered his Ashes claims with a fine first innings century. But the spinning ball and an inspired Murali were too hot to handle for the English No. 3. Hick played back to Murali and he was trapped leg-before for a two-ball duck. England ended Day Four at 54 for 2. Debutant James was batting on 20 while Alec Stewart was unbeaten on 15.

Muttiah Muralitharan (centre) took 7 wickets in the first innings against England © Getty Images
Muttiah Muralitharan (centre) took 7 wickets in the first innings against England © Getty Images

On the final day morning, the equation was simple for England. Bat out Murali’s overs and save the Test. James fell early morning, caught at silly point off Murali. Recalling the incident James, now a popular columnist wrote in The Telegraph, “I batted for 85 overs in two innings on a pitch specially transported from Colombo (amassing the grand total of 61 runs), but the rubber-wristed one eventually snared me on both occasions.”

The onus of getting England out of the quandary lay with the most experienced England batsman, Stewart. He was needlessly run-out for 32 and that’s when the collapse seemed inevitable for the home team.

England were battling time, the deficit and inspired Murali. From here on they needed to pull out a determined effort to save the Test match. Ramprakash and Crawley provided dogged resistance for 19 overs. But on the stroke of lunch, Murali went through the defence of Crawley and the end was nearing for the home side. Crawley was beaten in the air as the ball dipped taking the first innings centurion out of the crease and reaching out for the delivery. The sharp turn defeated Crawley and his middle-stump was knocked back. That was lunch on Day Five.

Hollioake was bamboozled by a routine off-spin on the first ball after lunch. He played across the line to a straight delivery thus highlighting the fact that how much of a psychological effect the off-spinner had on England. At 116 for six, with a deficit of 30 runs England needed a streak of inspiration from somewhere. Murali was simply unstoppable.

Ramprakash was hell-bent on keeping the Sri Lankan bowling at bay. He needed support. But there was going to be one winner when Murali was against the English lower-order. And as expected the lower-order failed to negotiate the guile of Murali. Cork and Salisbury fell to the off-spinner. Sri Lanka were on the verge of a famous win. But England were still determined to play out the overs.

Ramprakash and Gough batted for more than 40 overs, and helped England take the lead. It was the matter of batting out time. Gough, the No. 10, batted for more than two-and-a-half hours. Ramprakash was shielding Gough from Murali. Ranatunga would often try to change Murali’s end hoping to have a full over at Gough. But soon the vital cog in the English defiance, Ramprakash fell to Murali. His 220-minute stay ended when Murali, bowling round the wicket, beat him in the air and had him caught bat-pad at forward short-leg. Gough went one run later falling to a doosra bowled from round the wicket. Gough missed the sweep shot and the ball cannoned on to his stumps.

Murali’s figures read 54.2-27-65-9. Had Stewart not been run-out, may be Murali was destined to take all 10 wickets. The match tally of 16 for 220 is the best bowling performance ever by a Sri Lankan in Test cricket.

Sri Lanka needed 36 to win which they scored in five overs without losing any wicket. This was a bright moment in Sri Lankan cricket history as they tamed the home team with consummate ease mainly because of Murali’s heroic efforts.

About facing Murali, opener James wrote in The Telegraph, “It was a mental trial beyond comparison. There was no physical threat, just an unremitting battle against a bowler of supreme accuracy and stamina, with pace and degrees of turn being varied almost imperceptibly.”

After Sri Lanka’s inspiring victory, England coach David Lloyd took a dig at Murali talking about his action which he termed “unorthodox” which upset the Sri Lankan board. Lloyd said, “I have my opinions which I will make known to the authorities, match referee, officials and the ICC. I’m not prepared to make any further comment.”

The President of the then Board of Control for Cricket in Sri Lanka (BCCSL), Thilanga Sumathipala urged the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) to take some action over the coach’s unkind comment.

Murali had to battle such unwarranted criticism time and again. But that never deterred his spirits. He only knew one thing: relentless bowling with truckloads of passion and belief in his guile. He picked up 800 Test wickets, which is no mean feat. All 16 of those wickets at The Oval were special. The Sri Lankan history book will have a glorious chapter reserved for the famous win — of course starred by the champion off spinner Murali.

Brief scores:

England 445 (Graeme Hick 107, John Crawley 156*; Muttiah Muralitharan 7 for 155) and 181 (Mark Ramprakash 42; Muttiah Muralitharan 9 for 65) lost to Sri Lanka 591 (Sanath Jayasuriya 213, Aravinda de Silva 152; Angus Fraser 3 for 95) and 37 for no loss (Sanath Jayasuriya 22*) by 10 wickets.

Man of the Match: Muttiah Muralitharan.

(Sarang Bhalerao hails from a family of doctors, but did his engineering. He then dumped a career in IT with Infosys to follow his heart and passion and became a writer with CricketCountry. A voracious reader, Sarang aspires to beat Google with his knowledge of the game! You can follow him on Twitter here)