Murali, the matchwinner

MY admiration for Muttiah Muralitharan has grown manifold in the last one year. I have no doubt that in contemporary cricket there is no bowler as committed as this Tamil from Kandy. And no cricketer as humble as this affable Sri Lankan.

I do not intend to make any comparisons between Murali and the rest. He has a job to do and he does it with aplomb. He has a job to carry the team on his shoulders and he accomplishes his mission regularly. No wonder, he has a special place in the hearts of his countrymen.

I cannot recall my first meeting with Murali, but it must have been pleasant for I cannot imagine this Lankan not making an impression. He is such a wonderful competitor and my experience in dealing with Murali has been most pleasant.

We had our battles on the field. He got me a few times and I managed to dominate him on a few occasions, but believe me it was always highly competitive because you had to be at your best when facing him. There was no question of relaxing when Murali came on to bowl and the close-in fielders breathing down your neck reminded you of the class of the off-spinner.

Bowlers like Murali take the game to a very high level. The fact that he does not really bother about the playing surface makes him a difficult opponent. I have known few bowlers with the kind of attitude that Murali possesses. I know every spinner loves to have some help from the pitch, but Murali is an amazing character. He would have a smile on his face even if his captain was to ask him to bowl on a glass surface.

In his country, Murali is a legend and I am not exaggerating at all. He is held in very high esteem by the fans in the cricket-crazy island and the man has not allowed the admiration to go to his head. I have always wondered how Murali manages to keep such a low profile despite being such a highly successful cricketer.

Have you heard of Murali being involved in any controversy? Forget those times when he was being hounded for his action, but also look at how he fought back. Any other individual would have been shattered by the kind of vicious attack some people had launched against Murali, but he gathered strength from his mates and well-wishers to make a place for himself.

His success in the year 2001 was an extension of his good work of the earlier year. In the true spinner's tradition he has grown with time and improved vastly. The craft at his disposal makes him such a mean bowler on the circuit and I must say not many batsmen, even the best in the business, would be glad to face him when he is at his best.

I think Murali should rank the key figure in Sri Lanka's rise in international cricket. He has scalped batsmen in all conditions, both at home and overseas, which makes him a very special bowler.

In these times batsmen tend to read the bowlers better because of the television camera exploring all angles to expose the tricks of the bowlers, but Murali continues to defy all such observations. He continues to baffle the batsmen with his traditional spin and the great straighter one which he uses so craftily. The variety and range of Murali's bowling have to be experienced to be believed.

Murali can be lethal in a five-day match because he is such a master of plotting the batsmen's downfall. He knows his strengths very well and can read the batsman's mind in a close situation. Often I have seen him lay a trap for the batsman and succeed. That is when he shows his emotions. He is a master hunter of batsmen and does not allow himself to be influenced by the reputation and form of the opponent.

Having a bowler like Murali can be such a huge motivation for any team. He is a positive, aggressive bowler who will never bowl a defensive line. Whatever be the situation, you can see Murali working at ways to get the batsman out and not contain him. Even in one-day matches you can watch Murali go after the batsmen. He has proved quite often in the shorter version of the game that to win matches you have to get wickets and not just try and contain the opposition.

Thanks to Murali, the rest of the Sri Lankan bowlers too have developed themselves to contribute at the right time. Sri Lanka's collective strength no doubt is its asset, but Murali is at the helm of the winning streak that the team has embarked upon.

It is true that winning is a habit and Sri Lanka has developed it on very professional lines. The team has identified its strong areas and relies on those points to get the best out of the players. With Murali's hunger for wickets growing with time the team has gained immensely.

I rate Murali very high. He has served Sri Lankan cricket with distinction and brought pride to the fraternity of spinners. He sits at the top in the company of Shane Warne and Anil Kumble and I know that his best is yet to come. Bowlers like Murali are a rare breed for another reason. He is one competitor who readily shares his secrets with anyone who approaches him and that is quite a quality in my opinion.

Every time Murali takes a wicket, his mates flock around him. They seem to rejoice more than this humble being who knows only one job and that is to get rid of the batsman in front. Off the field, he is such a wonderful character, always full of enthusiasm and always coming off as a friendly person. Murali is a great ambassador for the game indeed. I salute this great matchwinner and wish his conquests grow this year!