A legend and a match-winner

Whether answering questions on the legality of his bowling action, or overcoming a worrying shoulder injury, or remaining unfazed even when he is targeted by a boorish crowd, Muttiah Muralitharan has proved to be a great survivor, writes S. Dinakar.

Once when asked what made a cricketer a legend, the feisty former Australian opening batsman, Justin Langer narrowed his brows, thought for a moment, and then replied: “Players who transform the game in one way or the other have got to be legendary cricketers,”. He was spot on.

Muttiah Muralitharan’s unique wrist action has added a bewitching brand of spin bowling to the game, given it a new dimension. This Sri Lankan is a legend, and a winner.

In a long and eventful journey on the cricketing highway — he has now surpassed Shane Warne’s Test record — milestones are incidental. Muralitharan’s boundless spirit shines through stronger than his tally of victims. His laughter is infectious and those big eyes tell several tales. Here is someone who refuses to be overwhelmed by circumstances or situations.

Over 35 years of age and with over 700 Test wickets, Muralitharan retains the hunger and the passion for the game. Mentally, he is hard to break. Whether answering questions on the legality of his bowling action, or overcoming a worrying shoulder injury or remaining unfazed even when he is targeted by a boorish crowd, this sunshine man from Sri Lanka has proved to be a great survivor. The off-spinning genius roars back each time because of his confidence, which is an off-shoot of his successes and self-belief. Mentally, he enters a zone that is the realm of the champions.

Muralitharan’s former team-mate Russell Arnold shed light on the off-spinner’s mind-set the other day. “We call him the ‘motormouth’, for he never stops talking in the dressing room. On those occasions, when fresh doubts are cast over his action, he turns silent. He introspects and we can see the quiet determination in him. We also know he will fight back.”

A deformity on his bowling hand forced Muralitharan to bowl with a bent arm. He discovered a way to surmount the hurdle in a manner that surprised and tested the batsmen.

Given that the spinners work in tandem in order to create pressure from both ends, it is remarkable that Muralitharan has achieved greatness and beyond without a competent spin support from the other end.

The weight of expectations sits lightly on him. The combination of a dexterous wrist and supple fingers probe a batsman’s technique and temperament. His incisive mind puts a batsman’s technique to scrutiny; he discovers the chinks quickly and exploits them.

Former Sri Lankan coach, the influential Dav Whatmore, revealed that Muralitharan’s patience was perhaps his greatest asset. He lays a trap, waits and waits, and then swoops on the batsman at the opportune moment. “This is precisely why Muralitharan is so dangerous at any point of his spells. And he loves to bowl long spells. Even if a spell is unsuccessful, he can bounce back at any stage of the day,” says Whatmore.

His remarks indicate that Muralitharan can retain his intensity over long spells. Although gifted, countless hours of practice has given him enormous control over his craft. He manipulates the extent of turn — this is extremely difficult — uses the crease to change the angle, has the loop to beat the batsman in the air, and the spin to leave the most accomplished of players defeated.

The prodigious off-spinner — he can turn the ball on any surface — is quite lethal with the doorsra, a delivery turning away from the right-hander. He also nails batsmen with the top-spinner and traps them with the slider. The Lankan explores the angles, mixes his length and trajectory very well. A batsman seldom settles down against Muralitharan.

He is a destroyer on turning tracks. He can also cut through line-ups on first day wickets with a greenish tinge if the surface offers bounce. The Indians were caught out on such a pitch during the third Test of the 2001 series in Colombo’s SSC ground. The Indian batsmen did not quite know which ball would bounce and which would skid through. Yes, like most great spinners, Muralitharan enhances his spin with bounce.

The Sri Lankan has been called more than once, and has undergone correctional measures to ensure that his bowling arm did not breach the 15-degree flexion rule while sending down the doosra. However, his action has supporters. There are eminent cricketers who swear that Muralitharan does not chuck. Australia’s Ian Healy believes Muralitharan has a unique wrist action. “He flicks the ball out of his hand with an exceptional range of moving his wrist like no other bowler in the world and has the ability to spin the ball with a bent arm,” he says.

Indeed, Muralitharan is one of a kind. The nature of his wrist means that he can deliver from varying heights. He sells the dummy to the batsman, gives them nightmares in daylight.

Muralitharan’s strike rate of 54.00 from 116 Tests (at the end of the Kandy Test against England) is incredible. If the yardstick is 100 Test wickets or more, only four spinners have a better strike rate, and three of them bowled in the era of uncovered wickets. Johny Briggs, Colin Blythe and Bobby Peel, all left-armers, sent down plenty of overs on rain-affected pitches. It is also known that left-arm spinners are at their most dangerous against the right-handers in such conditions.

Among modern day bowlers, only the under-rated Stuart MacGill (203 wickets in 42 Tests at 53.1) scores over Muralitharan in strike-rate. Yet, the leg-spinner does not quite possess the consistency of Muralitharan. Besides, MacGill tires quickly and is prone to sending down one poor ball every over.

Despite the doubters, Muralitharan has sliced through formidable line-ups. He has 59 wickets in 13 Tests against Australia at an average of 36.06, 79 in 14 Tests (average: 23.31) against Pakistan, 67 in 15 Tests (average: 32.47) against India), and 104 in 15 Tests (average: 22.22) against South Africa. Few spinners have performed better against the two sub-continental giants. His performances away from home, 272 wickets in 51 Tests with 20 five-wicket innings and six 10-wicket match hauls, are better than what most spinners manage in an entire career.

Muralitharan is among those off-spinners who is more effective against the right-handers — the Indians have often pushed Sourav Ganguly to the middle-order to counter Muralitharan in the ODIs — since he can set them up with his off-spin and terminate them with the doosra.

The doorsa is nullified while operating against the southpaws. However, Muralitharan brings into play his off-spin or straightens the ball from round the wicket. He also lures the left-handers with flight and consumes them on the drive with his drift, with a short mid-off in place.

Ask Sri Lanka’s quality batsman-wicketkeeper Kumara Sangakkara and he would tell you how the ’keepers need to concentrate on every delivery that Muralitharan bowls. “He is the ultimate test for a ’keeper. Every ball is different and there is enormous spin on the ball. He varies the pace and trajectory, turns the ball both ways. It’s hard to pick him,” says Sangakkara.

A shrewd coach in Kandy prevailed upon Muralitharan to make the switch from pace to spin and then that grandmaster, Arjuna Ranatunga, backed him through thick and thin. The Lankan blossomed.

The man from Kandy remembers his roots. Says Arnold, “Despite his achievements, he remains such a simple person. He silently helps those in need.”

In a country torn apart by the ethnic strife, Muralitharan acts as a unifying force. The man cuts across all barriers so easily.

One cannot forget Muralitharan’s great sprint during Sri Lanka’s practice session on a cloudy morning in Kandy. Whatmore said, “This man is deceptively fast.”

In several senses, Muralitharan’s career has been a long-distance sprint, of miles and milestones. His is a spirit that gleams.

* * * THE CHAMPION’S JOURNEY

1991: Goes on the tour of England with the Sri Lanka ‘A’ team.

1992: Makes his Test debut, against Australia in Colombo.

1995: Umpire Darrell Hair calls him for ‘chucking’ in the Melbourne Test against Australia.

1996: He is called again for ‘chucking’, this time by Ross Emerson, in a one-day international against West Indies in Brisbane.

Later, his action comes up for investigation and after conducting scientific tests on his bowling, the ICC clears him.

1997: Claims his 100th Test wicket — Stephen Fleming of New Zealand — in the second Test in Hamilton, New Zealand.

1998: Takes his first ten-wicket haul — 12 for 117 — against Zimbabwe in the first Test in Kandy in January.

Takes 9 for 65 in the second innings of the one-off Test against England at The Oval in August, which enables Sri Lanka post its first Test victory in England. Muralitharan’s figures for the match, 16 for 220, are the best by a Sri Lankan.

1999: Is no-balled for ‘chucking’ once again by Ross Emerson in a one-day international against England in Adelaide, which forces the Sri Lankan skipper Ranatunga to storm off the field with his players for a brief while.

2000: Playing in his 58th Test in Durban, Muralitharan claims his 300th wicket — Shaun Pollock of South Africa.

2002: Playing in his 72nd Test in Galle, Muralitharan becomes the fastest to take 400 wickets. His victim is Henry Olonga of Zimbabwe.

2004: His ‘doosra’ comes under scrutiny during the Colombo Test against Australia in March. Chris Broad, the match referee, reports to the ICC that Murali’s action is suspect.

In April, the Sri Lankan undergoes tests at the University of Western Australia in Perth. The ICC outlaws his ‘doosra’, confirming that they are not about to increase the permitted five-degree tolerance level for spin bowlers to accommodate Murali. They later extended the limit to 15 degrees.

In Harare in May, Muralitharn eclipses West Indian Courtney Walsh’s record of 519 wickets to become the highest wicket-taker in Tests. His 520th victim is Zimbabwe’s Mluleki Nkala.

2006: Playing in his 101st Test, Muralitharan claims his 600th wicket — Khaled Mashud of Bangladesh in Bogra in March.

2007: In the Kandy Test against Bangladesh in July — his 113th Test — Muralitharan scalps Syed Rasel as his 700th Test victim.

On December 3, in the Kandy Test against England, Muralitharan bowls Paul Collingwood to get past Shane Warne as Test cricket’s leading all-time wicket-taker.