A winner all the way

Published : Aug 05, 2010 00:00 IST

Muttiah Muralitharan …making his exit-AP
Muttiah Muralitharan …making his exit-AP

Muttiah Muralitharan …making his exit-AP

Muttiah Muralitharan will be remembered as the greatest destroyer of batting line-ups. In several respects he was a pioneer. He changed the dynamics of spin bowling, writes S. Dinakar.

The ground was suffused with emotions. Muttiah Muralitharan, the greatest scalp hunter of all time, was being carried around the arena by his jubilant team-mates. Fans screamed out in joy. The images of Muralitharan in the stands appeared even larger. The mood was one of celebration at the Galle Cricket ground.

The 38-year-old off-spinner's farewell Test will now be a part of Sri Lanka's cricketing folklore. In his final Test, Muralitharan reached the incredible 800-wicket mark. And his eight-wicket haul in the first Test against India played a prominent part in Sri Lanka's 10-wicket victory. His victims included the maestro, Sachin Tendulkar, dismissed attempting to sweep a fuller-length ball in the first innings.

Tendulkar later spoke to Sportstar about Muralitharan's greatness. “What stands out is how he reads the minds of the batsmen. He's very good at that. A lot of bowlers have various attributes, but Murali's mental ability sets him apart,” he said.

The batting legend added: “He can read situations quickly and adapt swiftly to the conditions. And he is persistent. He could send down long spells in Test cricket without tiring. He has great concentration power.”

Indeed, Muralitharan was resilient. His mental toughness complemented his unique qualities as a bowler. His influence travelled beyond cricket. In Sri Lanka, he was a great unifying force.

Is Muralitharan, a Sri Lankan Tamil from Kandy, the greatest spinner ever?

The deformity in his elbow meant he always bowled with a bent arm. He propelled the ball with his strong shoulder, dexterous wrist and supple fingers. He could impart vicious spin to the ball, making it dip, turn and bounce.

Muralitharan's bowling action did not convince everyone, a couple of Australian umpires in particular. But then, he had his supporters as well. Australia's wicket-keeping great Ian Healy once said of Muralitharan, “He is someone who can bowl with a bent arm because of his extremely flexible wrist. I don't think he bends and then straightens his arm. My belief is, he bowls with a bent arm.”

It is the bending and straightening of the elbow that constitutes chucking. There have also been other opinions, though not always favourable, on Muralitharan's action. His bowling action has, perhaps, been tested the most.

“If you go through all that Muralitharan has undergone and still come back hard, you are going to be a winner,” said India captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni.

Tendulkar said, “I think we should not talk about his action and things like that at this stage. He's a fantastic bowler. We should all celebrate his achievement. Picking up 800 Test wickets is a tremendous feat. I also think we should not indulge in comparisons.”

The maestro is right. It is impossible to compare different eras. What is certain though is that Muralitharan, with 800 victims in 133 Tests and a strike-rate of 55.00, is the most destructive spinner of all time. His 67 five-wicket hauls in Tests underline his ability to cut through line-ups.

If we go back in time, there were several spinners of great ability who did not get to play as many Tests. The legendary Australian leg-spinner, Clarrie Grimmett, for instance, claimed 216 wickets in only 37 Tests at 24.21 with 21 five-wicket hauls. He was someone who could perform magic with the ball. But then, he bowled in an era — between the mid-1920s and 1930s — when the pitches were uncovered. Did he benefit from the conditions?

And England's Sydney Barnes — 189 wickets in 27 Tests at a stunning 16.43 (strike rate: 41.06) — sent down both pace and spin with great creativity and precision between 1901 and 1914. He was a match-winner in every sense of the term.

Another Australian leg-spinner of more recent times was a gifted bowler too. With 708 wickets in 145 Tests at a strike rate of 57.4, Shane Warne is way behind Muralitharan in numbers. However, he was a part of an Australian attack that had another bowling icon, Glenn McGrath, and a few other good pacemen. So the wickets had to be shared. Warne too was someone who could strike with his flight, drift, turn and clever variations.

The famous Indian spin quartet also had to share its wickets. Had Bhagwat Chandrasekhar been the lone strike bowler, he might have taken far, far more wickets than the 242 (58 Tests) he had. Later on, another leg-spinner from Karnataka, Anil Kumble, took his place among the pantheon of greats with 619 wickets in 132 Tests at 29.65.

Muralitharan was more difficult to pick and play than any other spinner in the modern era. From someone who essentially turned his off-spinners big, he evolved into a bowler with a bagful of tricks. He sent down deliveries spinning away from the right-hander, could bowl the arm-ball, the top-spinner and the flipper. Muralitharan was also a Test bowler who used the crease wonderfully and harnessed the angles. Later on in his career, his bowling from round the wicket to the right-hander was captivating. Some deliveries would spin away, while a few would straighten.

Flight and guile remained an integral aspect of Muralitharan's bowling. He was masterly while giving the ball air and could control the extent of his turn. He constantly probed the batsmen's footwork. If he did not consume the batsmen with his turn, he would prise them out with bounce.

Muralitharan would also set the batsmen up on the drive; done in by the loop, the batsmen would be snaffled up at short cover or short mid-wicket. In his pomp, it was well nigh impossible to essay the cut against Muralitharan.

The Sri Lankan had a big heart. He once said, “I like it more when they come after me. Then, I have a chance too.”

Muralitharan was the spearhead of the Sri Lanka attack in all conditions. He had to shoulder enormous burden and soak up the kind of pressure that might have overwhelmed a lesser man.

With 493 wickets in 73 Tests at 19.56 (strike rate: 50.8), Muralitharan was a bigger threat at home. However, his away record of 307 scalps in 60 Tests at 27.79 (strike rate: 61.8) is still a formidable one. He was not dependent on the conditions or the nature of the surface. Muralitharan was capable of running through line-ups even on a green top on day one of a Test.

Brian Lara, perhaps, played Muralitharan the best in Sri Lanka. The left-handed genius either used his feet to get to the ball or played the delivery late with extremely soft hands. The West Indian picked the length in a jiffy, was decisive with his footwork.

Muralitharan is an off-spinner more comfortable bowling to the right-handers. He will be remembered as the greatest terminator of line-ups of all time. In several respects he was a pioneer. He changed the dynamics of spin bowling.

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