A mind-boggling strike-rate

S. DINAKAR

EFFORTLESSLY clearing barriers, changing scripts, winning battles, and conquering new ground - this man's on the fast track to cricketing immortality.

Muttiah Muralitharan, the 'Spin King' from Kandy, is running hot these days, rapidly banishing the batsmen to the much cooler confines of the dressing room, often leaving them with bruised egos and shattered dreams.

N. SRIDHARAN

The records have tumbled too as the off-spinner is sending 'em on a tailspin with his exotic mix of deadly turn and subtle variations, developed over the years. Teasing and tormenting the batsmen before consuming them.

And wicket No. 400 may just be the beginning of another surge for Muralitharan...towards Courtney Walsh's world record haul of 519 Test scalps. It could be a stirring dash to the very top.

At 29, he is already the youngest to go past the magic figure, and having achieved it in just 72 Tests, he is quickest too, eight matches faster than the 'Sultan of seam and swing,' Richard Hadlee.

It's a mindboggling feat from the Lankan who has made ambushing line-ups a habit, often wearing a smile, a deceptive one at that, as he goes about his business with absolute control over his craft.

The batsmen are often left rubbing their eyes in sheer disbelief at Muralitharan's bag of tricks, his versatility. And the Lankan's big, bold eyes gleam with pride after every 'kill.'

In contemporary cricket, there is no single bowler as destructive, as lethal as this unassuming person, who interestingly began his career as a medium pacer before a shrewd coach at school realised his ward's future lay in spin. The rest is history.

Muralitharan now joins Shane Warne as only the second spinner in the elite 400 club. And the fact that Australian leggie took 20 Tests more puts the Lankan's sensational deed in the right perspective.

The last few months have also witnessed this extraordinary off-spinner notch up a world record 80 Test wickets in a calendar year, and become the only bowler to claim ten 10-wicket match hauls in Tests.

Not surprisingly, Sri Lanka has won nine out of the ten Tests at home this season, overcoming the Indians 2-1, blowing away Bangladesh in the one-off Test, and then whipping the West Indians and the Zimbabweans 3-0 each.

The off-spin genius with a unique wrist action might have missed out on a ten-wicket innings haul by a whisker in the Kandy Test against the Zimbabweans, yet the season, in several respects, has been a 'perfect ten' for the Lankan.

Well, it would not be inappropriate here to glimpse at the ten glittering qualities of Muralitharan, the sword arm of the Lankan attack.

1: Can extract prodigious turn on any surface: A factor that provides him with a definite edge over his contemporaries. He is not dependent on the pitch to spin the ball sharply into the right-hander. And if the surface is conducive, he turns doubly dangerous.

It would be worth taking a look at Sri Lanka's first Test of 2001 home season, against India at Galle, the turning point in the nation's cricketing fortunes in this phase.

Sanath Jayasuriya's men were clearly under pressure, after going down to Pakistan and England in a three-Test series at home, and the heat was on the host as it began another campaign.

Surprise of surprises, curator J. Warnaweera produced a green-top for the Test, and the pace trio of Chaminda Vaas, Dilhara Fernando, and Ruchira Perera was expected to strike for the home team.

It's a tribute to Muralitharan's exceptional ability that he got the ball to spin alarmingly on this pitch, nailing eight batsmen in the game. In conditions where most spinners would have stayed in the periphery, Muralitharan bowled his team to victory. Green-top or not, you can trust this off-spinner to deliver.

2: Bag of tricks: When he started his Test career against Australia in the early 90s, Muralitharan was a rather one-dimensional bowler with a huge off-break being his principal weapon.

Now, he is a very different customer, someone who can send down six different deliveries in an over. Being the first to arrive at the nets and often the last to leave, Muralitharan has tirelessly worked on his bowling over the years, and the results are there for all to see.

Perhaps the arrival of Pakistan's Saqlain Mushtaq with his dangerous 'doosra' stoked Muralitharan's combative instincts. The present Muralitharan makes the batsmen sweat with an amalgam of spin and guile.

To start with, he uses the crease intelligently which only enhances the quality of his deliveries. Then, there is the enchanting flight and the deceptive loop, and the batsmen jumping out is often sold the dummy.

Variations in flight and speed, and command over the extent of turn he achieves, have played key roles in his rise to the acme. He might well be having the ball on a string, such is his exceptional control.

Muralitharan's away going delivery, difficult to pick, has added a deadly dimension to his bowling, so has the one that goes through straight. Not to forget the fizzy top-spinner, and the surprise leg-break. The fielders in the bat-pad positions can seldom afford to relax when Muralitharan is on...and shouts of 'catch it' abound when the off-spin wizard is buzzing.

"One never stops learning in bowling," he says and is constantly adding weapons to his repertoire, like the flipper that tends to skid through - "When I get that right, the batsmen will find it difficult to pad me."

3: Loves the sniff of battle: Like most great bowlers, Muralitharan actually likes it when the batsmen go after him. His response is typical of the man's attitude, the Lankan gives the ball even more air, opening up opportunities in the process.

Unlike the conventional off-spinner, Muralitharan as he readily admits, is happier operating to the right handers, for they find it virtually impossible to cut him against the spin or cover-drive the offie - there is always the danger of being castled through the gate. And then all his other variations come into play wonderfully well against the right-handers.

The southpaws are at an advantage here due to the fact that Muralitharan's away going delivery to the right-handers is going to slide down the leg-side for them, while the straighter one would have to be extremely accurate for the bowler to win a leg-before verdict. And, the left-handers have an opportunity to strike him on the off-side with the turn, a luxury the right-handers just do not possess.

Yet, Muralitharan represents a clear danger to all batsmen. He is adept at shifting his line, and it is not uncommon to see him slant the ball across the southpaws from over the wicket, inviting the drive, and setting up the dismissal, with a short mid-off, for the miscued drive, and a slip, to pouch the edge, in place.

A brilliant Brian Lara may have won the duel against Muralitharan this season - a rare defeat for the Lankan in an otherwise glorious year - but Muralitharan would be itching to have a bowl at the Caribbean maestro again. And sparks could well fly.

4: Can bowl long spells: He seldom tires, can keep the pressure on the batsmen, unrelentingly, over after over. Muralitharan's marathon 80.5 overs in the decisive Test against the Indians at the Sinhalese Sports Club ground in 2001 - he picked up 11 wickets in the Test - being a case in point.

It was a flat track and the Indians are adept in countering spin, yet the Lankan picked up eight scalps on the opening day in an unchanged 34.1 over spell. Just a hint of bounce due to the first day freshness in the wicket was enough for Muralitharan to cause devastation in the Indian ranks. He doesn't rely on the natural wear and tear in the pitch to strike.

It is true that being the lynchpin in the Lankan attack, he gets to bowl more - left-arm seamer Chaminda Vaas is the only other long standing bowler of significance in the team - when compared to Warne, who has to share his overs in a much stronger bowling pack, but Muralitharan has also made the most of the opportunity, not wilting under the burden of expectations.

5: Ability to come back: This is the quality that the canny Lankan coach Dav Whatmore admires most in Muralitharan. It's hard to keep him out of a game.

The off-spinner can get punished early on, go through barren, luckless periods, but still has it in him to come back to haunt the batsmen, picking up wickets in buckets during later spells. He is patient, like a vulture, and swoops down on his prey, at the opportune moment. This also reflects his amazing confidence levels.

6: Strength of mind: Muralitharan is resilient. Many wrote him off after umpire Darrell Hair 'called' him for chucking in 1995-96, but the offie, who went through an agonising period on a traumatic tour, only emerged stronger.

Mentally he is as tough as they come, and cricket at the highest level is as much a duel of the mind as skill. Apart from his astonishing skills with the ball, he has the heart of a champion. A winning combination.

7: Fitness: Muralitharan is a wonderful fielder, blessed with lightning reflexes and speed. According to Lankan physio Alex Kountouri, he is the swiftest mover in the side.

His fitness levels provide the cutting edge to his bowling, and this is precisely the reason, why - if he continues for five more years - the Tamil from Kandy could turn out to be the first bowler to cross the 600 Test-wicket mark. With Muralitharan, this is not an unrealistic dream.

8: Ability to adapt: He is awesome in overs-limit cricket as well, and this is due to an inherent discipline in his bowling. Muralitharan is extremely accurate, keeps the pressure on the batsmen, forces them to take the risks, and invariably comes up trumps.

His attacking off-stump line is ideally suited for both forms of cricket, and he can both contain and strike. In the 2003 World Cup, Muralitharan is likely to present a severe test of temperament and ability to the batsmen. Surely, Sri Lanka's trump-card.

9: Team-man: Absolutely committed, and totally unselfish, Muralitharan is every captain's dream. Sanath Jayasuriya respects Muralitharan for his ability and spirit, and the off-spinner responds to every demand made by his captain.

This was precisely the reason why former captain Arjuna Ranatunga, the 'grandmaster', backed Muralitharan to the hilt during the chucking controversy. Apart from being a match-winning bowler, Muralitharan is a complete team-man.

Indeed, the bond between Ranatunga and Muralitharan is a very strong one. For Muralitharan, Ranatunga, an influential figure during his formative years, is the equivalent of a 'cricketing god.'

10: Simplicity: Despite his enormous achievements, there are no trappings of a celebrity with Muralitharan. He has his feet firmly on the ground, is friendly, and his simplicity is striking.

He cuts across barriers off the field too, and genuinely cares for less fortunate cricketers. Muralitharan wants the first class players in his own country to receive a better deal and isn't afraid to speak his mind.

Well, Muttiah Muralitharan is indeed a 'perfect ten.'