His hunger remains undiminished

From the viewpoint of history, Warne’s legacy will always be appended to Murali’s, at the very least exist alongside, for the Sri Lankan’s is a story that is representative of post-colonial politics and transcends cricket, writes Vijay Parthasarathy.

There is a lot about Muttiah Muralitharan that reminds you of the man of the moment, Harry Potter; the fact that both are wizards who overcame great odds to kill self-doubt and emerge triumphant at the finish, their obstinate nature that relentlessly reminds them of their place in history.

The Sri Lankan is a man left with very little to prove, although it will be of some interest to see how history judges him. Our generation witnessed a polarised battle drawn along geographical lines: it was us versus them, indignant Asians versus the patronising coalition of the English and the Aussies. He stood, at first supported only by Arjuna Ranatunga, his great and uncompromising captain, but slowly the issue took on the nature of a politicised debate.

It is probably safe to say that we have won. The arguments of the opposing camp are ironically seen to have been weakened by advancements in science, the subject that evokes pride in the illumined West. How much politics interfered with science is difficult to infer; irrespective of all that, it is politically incorrect to accuse Murali of chucking. And, fact is, nobody wants to be called politically incorrect.

Now that Muralitharan has surmounted the hillock that was 700 — once a mountain that was considered unscaleable, now an opinion shown to reflect a lack of perspective — 1000 wickets seems, if not probable, then definitely possible. For a brief period Murali and Shane Warne were in competition to overhaul the other’s record for the highest number of Test wickets on a weekly basis; then Muralitharan got injured and the Australian took the opportunity to break away and make up for the time he’d lost while serving a ban for the use of a diuretic pill.

Warne set a barrier of 708 before retiring, but it was evident that the younger Muralitharan (who is still 35 — which by a spinner’s standards is two years short of ‘elder statesman’) would most likely get the opportunity to have the last word on the matter. The piper’s appearance at the gates of dawn implies a long spell as the world’s highest wicket-taker; among active players, Kumble (a few over 550) is on the verge of retirement, while Shaun Pollock (416), Chaminda Vaas (319) and Makhaya Ntini (308) are too far behind. Barring injury, Muralitharan will pass this point with ease and carry on for at least three more years. Indeed, Murali’s anticipated record could stand for entire generations. That would be something, because in this modern era of professionalism, records have been devalued. Five years and Sampras’s haul of 14 Slams is already under threat; Federer himself is facing a severe challenge at Wimbledon. Notwithstanding Nadal’s mental edge, who would have expected Nadal to put up a better fight on grass than Federer had, on clay? Murali, on the other hand, will be harder to displace.

The Sri Lankan wizard has given up on the one-day form but is playing for Lancashire to keep himself occupied in the international off-season. He is a dynamic bowler, always looking to innovate, steal, borrow from the best. His hunger for a challenge remains undiminished, his eyes will pop out and drill into batsmen as hard as always.

The controversy surrounding his bowling action has dogged him for most of his career, and even now has not fully blown over although of late, the compelling evidence offered by his statistics has rendered such debate as secondary. Cleared after extensive biomechanical tests, Murali’s reputation has been resuscitated. He has even earned the grudging respect of some of his former antagonists: Michael Holding, for one, who once echoed Bishan Singh Bedi’s opinion that Murali’s delivery was like a javelin throw and who accepts the biomechanical findings as evidence of a final exoneration.

Murali has never experienced a prolonged bad patch in his 113-match Test career; currently he averages nearly six wickets per match and one is inclined to bet on his nabbing a 1000. What is most impressive about Muralitharan is, through the entire traumatic period of having his ability questioned, despite having his prodigious results scoffed at, despite being labelled as a freak of nature, the man has put his head down and performed. It was the only way to silence naysayers, if not immediately, then eventually; and he managed to do it match after match, season after season. He stood on the shore and willed the waves to retreat.

No amount of video analysis has helped opposition teammates figure out his action; in real time few can distinguish between the top-spinner that goes straight on and the doosra that spins away; lesser batsmen and tail-enders cannot even tell apart the topspinner from the sharp off-break. A constant jibe Murali faces is that his wickets have come in buckets against lesser teams like Bangladesh and Zimbabwe. Yet this is ignoring the minor detail that Murali is the only man to have registered five-wicket hauls against every Test-playing nation; he has got 60 of them and 20 ten-wicket match hauls to go with that. He has reserved some of his most lion-hearted performances for Australia and England.

Warne will always appeal to the purist as the finest spinner of this generation and perhaps of all time, the one who revived the art of legspin bowling when it was dying. But from the viewpoint of history, his legacy will always be appended to Murali’s, at the very least exist alongside, for the Sri Lankan’s is a story that is representative of post-colonial politics and transcends cricket.

Compiled by V.V. Rajasekhara Rao-