Lanka's adored son

“Muralitharan is strong in his basics and he can turn the ball on any surface. He is like a tiger preying on his victim," says E.A.S. Prasanna, former ace Indian spinner.-THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY

The influence Muttiah Muralitharan wielded on Sri Lanka's fortunes was a reflection of the man's talent and the obvious dollops of faith that successive captains invested in him. By K. C. Vijaya Kumar.

A bagful of wickets, a fairytale finish and with enormous goodwill, Muttiah Muralitharan could not have asked for a better end to his Test career. But surely the man from Kandy will cherish one statistic more than the 800 Test scalps that he had taken in an illustrious career lasting 18 years. He has reaped a harvest of 438 wickets in the 54 Tests that Sri Lanka won during his playing days. This is one nugget that the man with the bright eyes and easy laughter, would recount with mirth and joy during his years on a rocking chair with awe-struck grandchildren close by.

Ask any top cricketer what he cherishes the most and he would speak about the high of being part of a winning team. Yes individual milestones offer pride and accentuate a player's self-esteem but he would rather win more matches and soak himself in champagne. Muralitharan is no different from the others. Before he stepped on the big stage with his bag of tricks, Sri Lanka had just won two of its 38 Tests and was looked at condescendingly by the big brothers who played a lone Test against the minnow.

All that changed once the magician waved his wand and also survived that stormy phase of being no-balled for an alleged chink in his action by Australian umpires Darrell Hair and Ross Emerson in 1995 and 1998.

Bio-mechanics cleared the air over Muralitharan's whirring shoulder and rubber wrists and he continued to play his part in scripting Sri Lankan victories almost single-handedly though his partner-in-arms Chaminda Vaas (355 wickets) played a crucial part, gaining 166 wickets in matches that Sri Lanka won.

The influence that Muralitharan wielded on Sri Lanka's fortunes was a reflection of the man's talent and the obvious dollops of faith that successive captains invested in him. Arjuna Ranatunga, who backed Muralitharan to the hilt, even went on record recently that Muralitharan could have bagged 1000 Test wickets.

A spinner peddles an art that is slow but inevitably hastens the batsman to his doom and you need a captain who has patience and belief. Muralitharan was fortunate to have a string of captains who backed his talent and were also secure in their jobs and never felt that their lead spinner would nudge them away from the hot seat.

Sri Lankan cricketers are intrinsically aware of their larger role in their nation's consciousness. Some time back, Mahela Jayawardene told The Hindu: “Ours is a small country with its share of problems and we as cricketers want to provide some joy to our people but I am sure every country has a problem in its backyard.” Kumar Sangakkara recently said: “We are also sons, fathers, husbands and brothers and we have a role to play in society.”

Muralitharan too drew his strength from being the biggest metaphor for unity in an island torn between two ethnic identities until peace was secured last year. He himself was a witness to the horrors of a mob that demolished his father's biscuit factory at Kandy in 1983.

The trauma toughened him up. And seen in that perspective, being called by an umpire for ‘chucking' was a mere affront to a prodigious talent. That he was a Tamilian was just a footnote of fate and he was solely focussed on winning matches for Sri Lanka and heal hearts in the Emerald Isle.

It also helped that the skill sets that distinguished him lasted right through his career though he was on the wane in the last few months. Muralitharan did show that he had a few cricketing summers left in him during that final flourish at Galle.

Off-spin legend E.A.S. Prasanna, who has kept a close watch on the genial Sri Lankan, said: “Muralitharan is strong in his basics and he can turn the ball on any surface. He is like a tiger preying on his victim. Batsmen never really figured how to play him and Muralitharan had already won 60 per cent of his battle. You can do video analysis and watch how he bowls the doosra but you still got to play him. When you play spin there is that extra time for the ball to land and in those seconds you tend to think more and that adds to the confusion. A bowler like Muralitharan is always difficult to play and people like him and Shane Warne are rare and it is going to be easier for the batsmen henceforth.”

Warne may have had a larger share of wickets in Tests that Australia won — 510 from 92 matches — but in casting a larger-than-life shadow that provided warmth, hope and shaped an island's identity, ‘Muralitharan the legend' will never go out of fashion.