Muralitharan, the mystery bowler

Published : Jul 14, 2001 00:00 IST


A DESPERATE search for another Murali has begun. Sri Lanka's success in Test cricket to a great extent has relied on the performances of the freak off-spinner, so much so that all of Sri Lanka's Test victories have seen a major role played by him. Plans to deal with Muttiah Muralitharan are foremost on the opposition's minds whenever they play Sri Lanka.

While various theories have been propounded about Murali's areas of weakness, or more appropriately, lesser strength, by and large he has dominated all batsmen, except on rare occasions. It is generally felt that players in the sub-continent have played him better than others and Azharuddin, Sidhu and Tendulkar of India, Salim Malik and Anwar of Pakistan and the former South African captain Hansie Cronje have had very little difficulty in handling him and posed problems to the diminutive spinner, and their records against him have been impressive.

Different players and teams have approached Murali in different ways and some have succeeded and some have not. Navjot Sidhu's strategy of using his feet and also moving as late as possible to him was a ploy that worked very effectively for the Indian, and he was a thorn in Murali's flesh since it did not give the mystery man an opportunity of changing his delivery on his stride. Zimbabwean Andy Flower employed the reverse sweep and he is such a fine exponent of that shot that it upset the spinner's rhythm and plans more often than not. The South Africans, as a rule, played him outside the line of the off stump, be it off the front foot or back and this to some degree blunted his effectiveness. The lesser-known batsmen who could not spot his straighter delivery, of course, succumbed. This resulted in Murali having to adjust his line closer to the off stump and being such a prodigious turner, the ball tended to miss the stumps altogether and had very little response from the umpires when it rapped the pads.

The Englishmen, not as skillful when it came to playing spin, took the course of minimum risks against him by occupying the crease. Even when the ball was pitched up to them they took no chances and kept working the singles and wherever possible the twos on the on side. Their concentration and ability to resist the temptation of driving on the off side, paid off to the extent of minimising his strike rate. It was tedious stuff, but in the end worked for them, as they were able to pick up runs at the other end.

There is no doubt that he is a great bowler and has troubled most at some time or another. It has been reported recently that the great Sir Donald Bradman compared him to Bill O'Reilly and Shane Warne and it would have been worthwhile knowing how the great Don or Sir Gary Sobers would have handled him. Sir Don appears to have been an admirer of the spinner and had had no problems at all with his unusual action, although some others looked to harass the young man. We all know that Sir Don initiated the move to rid the game of throwers in the 50s and 60s, and the fact that he had seen Murali as someone special and one who has a fair action, now must be making those who thought otherwise and also others who were not prepared to recognise his performances, think again.

Sir Gary wrote that he never went down the pitch to hit slow bowlers. "If the bowler was dropping it short enough to entice the batsman to go out, why not wait for it and hit the ball off the back foot? That is what I used to do. It gave me longer to look at the ball to see what it was doing." So much for telling young batsmen to go down the pitch to slow bowlers to hit them off their length. Sir Gary was a genius and the lesser mortals will need to work out for themselves what works best for them when coping with classy spin.

Despite all efforts by opposition batsmen, Murali has had his share of wickets and continues to harbour the desire to bowl more and more. India's trump against him will no doubt be the master Sachin Tendulkar. He sees no terror in any bowler and plays every delivery on merit. This is the hallmark of some one great. There are no preconceived notions and he now, like the wise man, has developed the trait of milking bowlers rather than taking as many off them as quickly as possible and seeing that the bowler is out of the attack.

It is said that Murali has had lesser success against the left-handers and because of this India will be hoping that their skipper Ganguly will shed off his poor run and be amongst the runs. While Sri Lanka will be looking to hedge their chances on pace, they will certainly be banking on Murali as their main weapon to overhaul India in the forthcoming series. Even if the pitches are more pace-oriented and do not favour spin, Murali has the ability to turn the ball square even on glass or the highway.

Sri Lanka have committed themselves to a campaign to develop their spinners and the emphasis will be to search for the unusual, unorthodox types that are able to spin the ball on good batting surfaces. With the covered well-prepared pitches at International level, gone are the days that orthodox finger spinners with perfect actions will be able to dominate easily with rich crops of wickets. The perfect pitches give them little opportunity and the answer would be to invest more on the types like Murali, Paul Adams and Warne, who have something freakish about them.

With the over-reliance on Murali, the Sri Lankan selectors have hardly given the other spin bowlers a worthwhile run. While this to an extent is understandable, it has been one of the reasons why no other spinner has emerged. It would be foolish to expect anyone to make an impression in the sphere of spin in a short term, and a policy of persistence with long-term results being the objective should be pursued with those having potential.

After all, it is said that spinners get better with age like good wine. Left-arm spinners Niroshan Bandaratileke, Dinuk Hettiarachchi and Rangana Herath have been in and out of the Sri Lanka team. They have achieved some success, though limited, but their progress has been stalled due to lack of opportunities. To my mind what they lack is confidence and not skill. A drawback that they have is that they are all very orthodox and need to develop more variations. Also being short in stature they get very little bounce from the flat pitches. While Herath has developed a variation or two, the others need to do plenty of work and chances to gain confidence by trying their wares out in the middle. The recent tour by the Pakistan 'A' team has also brought to light a few more contenders, showing that the cupboard is certainly not bare. Tilan Samaraweera is certainly an off-spinner who has to be pursued with. He is a thinking cricketer and could turn out into a good all-rounder because he can also bat. Left-arm spinner S. Weerakoon has also impressed and so has leg-spinner Malinga Bandara. They must be kept in focus. Spinners in the domestic game have had life rather easy due to the sub-standard pitches, but as soon as they graduate into the International scene where the strips are better, they find themselves out of depth and fall a cropper. A need for better pitches and continued faith in the spinners of promise is an urgent necessity to reinforce Sri Lanka's campaign to search for support for Muralitharan.

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