"This slow, cup-gripping off-spin bowler who curves the ball up high in what is known in the trade as cartwheel breaks, so much does it wheel in flight and turn in spin, is sometimes so keen to give the ball everything that it can take that his elbow becomes twisted. In other words, his elbow bends, and when this happens the purists are hard to satisfy that it isn't a throw; but his style is almost as old as the game of cricket. He is the orthodox off-spinner,"that unique commentator on the game, Jack Fingleton, wrote in the early 50s a description of an off-spinner that would make the modern watcher sit up and take notice.
This could well be the perfect description of Muttiah Muralitharan's bowling, except that it is one of lan Johnson, a former Australian off-spinner and captain.
His action has been the most talked about one in the annals of world cricket. Some say it is perfect, others feel it does not conform to the parameters of being "legitimate." But then, it has been cleared and that arm has been the winning hand of the Sri Lankan side, which, with its eighth successive victory at home, is recognised as a force in its backyard.
Interviewing the 29-year-old, who was here to inaugurate the MAC Spin Foundation programme, could be likened to playing his wares on the pitch. Except that we were doing the probing and he was a batsman determined to play out time. But he could sense a tricky "un when he saw it." Murali has more than one card up his sleeve. And the signature smile. He uses it anytime he feels the answer to a question might compromise him (four such glorious smiles).
Normally, he is not known for his patience as a batsman. Young and aspiring spinners of this country will have the benefit of his coaching: a thought which a couple of decades ago would have made people talk of carrying coals to Newcastle! It must be a great feeling to be the quickest to reach 400 wickets in Test cricket, beating all the great fast bowlers to it (in 72 Tests). This is exceptional in itself.
Nobody, including Australian umpires Darrell Hair and Ross Emerson, who called the bowler for throwing, can take away an iota of credit from him for what is a wondrous achievement.
Excerpts from the interview:
Can you tell us about the immense emotional pressure when two Australian umpires, Darrell Hair and Roy Emerson, called you for 'chucking'? We know you could not believe your ears. What was your first reaction and what did you tell yourself?
I don't want to talk about that. It is a very controversial topic. I'm contracted to the Board, hence cannot voice my opinion on this subject.
Is there any spinner that you admire? What have you learnt watching other spinners like Saqlain, Warne and Kumble, for instance?
I learn a lot by observing other bowlers. Saqlain, Warne and Kumble are different kinds of bowlers, each has his distinct strengths. I watch how they cope with the pressure, their adjustments in terms of field placings in different situations. One learns so much by watching these things.
What is life in a day when there is no cricket?
Cricket takes 75 per cent of my time. I try and relax on days when there is no cricket. Stay home with family, watch television and spend time with friends.
Considering the amount you spin the ball, do you have problems with your bowling fingers?
It gets split sometimes. I haven't really found a remedy for it. I basically bowl with it. And it gets fine by itself.
Can you coach? Coaching is for ordinary people, if you understand what I mean?
I can't coach my style to anybody else. It would be difficult to ask some youngster to bowl like me. I would say impossible. But I can teach them the mental side of bowling. I can tell them other things: like how to prepare, how to practice, the different grips - in short help them get better. Spin alone is not enough; there is a lot more.
How do you control the amount of spin to each batsman? Increasing or decreasing the webbing, spinning the smooth side of the ball ; please explain?
I don't have to control the spin, the wicket controls the spin. I just bowl a variety of balls, rather than control the spin. Like the straighter one, the delivery that goes away apart from my stock ball. These pose a lot of problems to the batsmen.
With eight successive Test wins at home, Sri Lanka is recognised as a force at home - what about overseas where the Murali effect seems less pronounced. Your views?
I wouldn't say the Murali effect is less pronounced overseas. The conditions don't suit the batsmen mostly, the bouncy tracks pose problems to the sub-continent batsmen in general. If we cope with that, we could do a lot better. I am 100 per cent sure that our bowlers are capable of bowling sides out for less than 300.
A man as gifted as you are can bat a lot better. Do you avoid batting long because the fast bowlers might get after you?
That's not the reason. It is just that I don't put much effort on my batting. I like to concentrate on my bowling and, of course, the other department, which is fielding. A good side needs six specialist batsmen, a wicket-keeper who can bat and four specialist bowlers who can chip in with the bat. I believe in being a specialist.
The records indicate that some left-hand batsmen handle you better than right-handers. Any views on this?
It's true to an extent. The ball goes away and is spinning a lot. They don't have to play much. Which is not the case with the right-handers, for the ball comes into them. I would also say that the percentage of left-handers in world cricket is very less. I don't get to bowl to them enough, but then I have scalped almost all the left-handers in world cricket.
Why have you found some Indians more difficult to bowl to?
I wouldn't say I find some Indians difficult to bowl to. I mean, I would put it down to a particular day. It depends on the form a batsman is in. When a batsman is in form, it is obviously a hard day for the bowlers.
Who is the best Sri Lankan batsman you have bowled to ever? And among the current lot of Sri Lankans, who plays you with relative ease?
I wouldn't like to compare two different eras, or, for that matter, two different batsmen. I've played along with and bowled to umpteen fine batsmen. If it was the likes of Aravinda de Silva some time ago, it is the ones like Mahela Jayawardene now.
How does being in the 400-club feel? What's your ambition?
It feels good no doubt (Henry Olonga of Zimbabwe was scalp No. 400). But I'm not really fascinated by records. My aim is to win many more matches for my country, land marks to me are just incidental. I think if I play for another five years, I should get to 600 wickets.
The second half of your career has been far more lucrative, and the last year quite simply astonishing...
On a larger perspective, Sri Lankan cricket in the international arena can be divided into pre-1996 and post-1996. We were recognised as a cricketing force only after winning the World Cup. It was only after that triumph that the other countries wanted to play Test series against us. I made my debut in 1992 and between '92 and '96 we hardly played three Tests a year. But now we play a lot more Test cricket. There are more opportunities and importantly continuity. You play more, you learn faster. One learns and grows with experience.
What kind of role does a spinner have in limited-overs cricket?
That depends of how good a spinner is, and the kind of faith the captain has in him. I think spinners have a big role in the shorter version of the game too.
This interview was first published in Sportstar magazine on 02.02.2002
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