His zest is intact

K.R. DEEPAK

The only bowler with 800 Test scalps, Muralitharan may be 40 now but has not lost his appetite for the game. S. Dinakar caught up with him in Colombo recently.

Those fast and furious pacemen and the powerful stroke-makers from the Caribbean, the marauding, all-conquering Australians have left behind memories that will never fade.

But then, Muttiah Muralitharan believes the days of one team dominating the game are now over. The battle for the top slot in Test cricket has become a lot tighter these days and would remain so for some more years, felt the off-spinning wizard.

“I think the West Indies team under Clive Lloyd and the Australian sides under Steve Waugh and Ricky Ponting, for most part, won in all conditions. They were way ahead of the rest of the cricketing nations. That is missing now,” the legendary bowler said.

Asked about the shifts in the balance of power in the cricketing world — the World No. 1 in Tests has changed hands from India to England to South Africa within a year — Muralitharan replied: “Those sides had several match-winners in the eleven. I do not think that is the case with any side now. They were legendary teams.”

Muralitharan elaborated: “Now we might see a team winning an odd series away from home but to do that consistently has become harder.”

The only bowler with 800 Test scalps, Muralitharan may be 40 now but has not lost his zest for the game. Turning up for Uthura Rudras in the Sri Lankan Premier League (SLPL) he continues to show great commitment.

His coach at Indian-owned franchise Uthura Rudras, Tom Moody, talks about how Muralitharan even after retirement from international cricket, is still the first man on the team bus even for optional practice sessions.

Indeed, Muralitharan’s eyes reflect his intensity. He revealed Sri Lanka captain Mahela Jayawardene had requested him, during the IPL, to come out of retirement for the ICC World Twenty20 in the Emerald Isle.

The match-winning bowler said “no” because it would not be fair on the other bowlers. He is a tad disappointed with the crowds for the SLPL but is confident that spectators would fill the arenas for World Twenty20. Muralitharan has his own reasons. “I think the people of Sri Lanka are not so rich that they can afford to go for two competitions, SLPL and Twenty20 World Cup, within a short span. I think this time they are saving money for the Twenty20 World Cup. Next year, the crowds for SLPL would be different,” he said.

Sri Lanka, predictably, has not been the same force with spin, following the departure of Muralitharan. The game-changing spinner, however, jumped to the defence of the younger crop and said: “Suraj Randiv is a promising off-spinner. You have to give him time. I think left-arm spinner Ranagana Herath is doing well for Sri Lanka. He might not be a big spinner of the ball but has the variations.”

Ajantha Mendis might have lost much of his mystery, at least against the major Test playing nations, but Muralithatran had words of comfort for his former spin partner. “He did not bowl for most of the last one and a half years because of a back injury. He has now come back.”

Asked if batsmen had sorted out Mendis’ variations, Muralitharan replied: “This is the age of technology and video analysis. Batsmen and teams will figure you out. This is where you have to keep evolving. Keep developing new tricks. Every new season is a challenge. I am sure Ajantha will come out stronger.”

There are some such as Moody who are convinced that the nature of the tracks in Sri Lanka has changed over the years. “Now we are seeing more and more seamer-friendly wickets. There is bounce and movement off the seam, particularly in wickets as at Pallekele,” he said.

This is precisely why — we return to the subject of World Twenty20 — Moody opined the competition would be an open one with the non-sub-continental teams, too, having a fair chance. Muralitharan, however, said the Sri Lankan pitches have always offered bounce and deviation off the surface for the pace-men. “But as a spinner I did not mind it. I could spin the ball and the bounce actually helped me. Coming to Sri Lanka’s bowling in the Twenty20 World Cup, I feel the side has a good blend of pacers and spinners.” He is delighted that giants Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara continue to contribute to Sri Lankan cricket. “Their guidance is important to the younger members of the team.”

Muralitharan said that Angelo Mathews, who will be the next Sri Lankan captain, will be ready for the job as and when the time comes. “Angelo is a fine cricketer. He also has a matured head and thinks about the game,” said Muralitharan. The challenge before the Sri Lankan side, according to him, is to rebuild for the 2015 ODI World Cup. “Sri Lanka has the talent,” he concluded.