Muralitharan bowls a straight one: 'Little by little Test cricket will lose'

The highest wicket-taker in Tests admitted he feared destructive batsman Virender Sehwag the most, and also learnt a lot from the Indian opener's attitude.

One of the greatest spinners of all time, Muttiah Muralitharan, dictated terms in cricket and made many a batsman dance to his tunes. The owner of 800 Test wickets in 133 matches at an average of 22.72, with 67 five-wicket hauls and 22 ten-wicket hauls, ruled the longest format of the game.

The off-spinner, who sits atop the wickets chart in Tests, doesn’t mince words when commenting on the decline of the longest format. Muralitharan felt Test cricket was losing ground amid the glut of cash-rich short-format leagues.

“Little by little Test cricket will lose. Players these days don’t have any defence. Sadly, it is all about attack. Players are adapting to new ways of playing cricket," he told Sportstar on Saturday.

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He felt this was the result of how society had evolved. “There is no limit for performance and money today. Tournaments like the Indian Premier League are good in terms of money for the players. At the end of the day, a cricketer has to play and enjoy.”

Muralitharan, who was in the office of The Hindu to promote Ferit Cricket Bash, an amateur cricket league, said his heart still belonged to Test cricket. “It is real cricket because you can challenge yourself and the opponent. In the shortest formats, you can't do much in three to four overs. I became the best because I wanted to play every match."

As the discussion veered towards the World Cup, he said India had potential match-winners in Kuldeep Yadav and Jasprit Bumrah.

On left-arm chinaman Kuldeep, he said, “Wrist spinners always have a higher chance of getting a wicket than finger spinners. They can turn the ball both ways. They will be match winners. They can win you matches more than any other bowler as it is tough in reading their action."


'Tough to read Bumrah'

In pace bowler Bumrah, he saw a parallel with his compatriot Lasith Malinga. “Bumrah is different from the rest as he bowls from an angle and with a different action. Playing Bumrah when the ball straightens after pitching is a difficult task as you are constantly watching the arm and the ball is released from an angle.

"Malinga had that advantage when he was at his peak. It was tough to read him because of the angle he created. These kind of bowlers are difficult and unusual. We don't know how long they will stay in the system, but as long as they are, they will be match winners.”

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Muralitharan, who played five World Cups, said Sri Lanka's tactics in the 1996 edition were instrumental in its triumph.

“We had a talented team with a lot of experience in playing in the subcontinent. Our spin attack was the best at that time. We played four spinners and just two seamers in the World Cup.

"Also, when Arjuna (Ranatunga) asked Sanath (Jayasuriya) and Kalu (Romesh Kaluwitharana) to open the innings and score quick runs at the top, we seized the advantage. Teams could not read us.

"Their (the openers') job was to go after the bowling and even if they get out for no score, the team had senior players in the middle order to stabilise and control the damage. Such strategies helped us to win the Cup,” he said.

Sorry state of affairs

Muralitharan admitted Sri Lankan cricket was passing through a tough phase. “The cricket structure in Sri Lanka is very different. Our school cricket was the strongest in the world. We had around 500 schools competing in various levels of cricket, from U-11 to U-19, from one-day matches to two-day matches and four-day matches.

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“During our days, we all graduated from school cricket. From school, we (Arjuna Ranatunga, Aravinda de Silva, Kumar Sangakkara, Mahela Jayawardena etc.) played 18-19 years of Test cricket. I never played a first-class game before a Test match.

"The standard was so good then. We were so competitive. We had five to six cricketers from schools in the Sri Lankan squad then. But now, sadly, there are none. The advent of various short-format leagues has led to a surge in the number of people playing, but the quality has dipped," he said.

“All our cricket is concentrated in Colombo. The system needs to be relooked into.”

'Virat has matured'

Discussing some of  the best batsmen he bowled to, Muralitharan said, “I feared Virender Sehwag the most. He didn’t allow me to bowl to my strengths." Eyes twinkling like days of yore, he added, "I feared him and he feared me." 

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Muralitharan said he learnt a lot from Sehwag. "He used to say, ‘There is always the next ball awaiting you. Every day is different.'"

On the batting phenomenon that Indian captain Virat Kohli has become, Muralitharan said, "I never bowled to him in Test cricket. I bowled to him only in ODIs. He has matured a lot, improved a lot and is a different player now."

He also had words of praise for Brian Lara, Saeed Anwar and Mohammed Azharuddin as some of the best players of spin.