On course for the world record

RANJIT FERNANDO

THE 15th of January 2002 was no doubt a memorable day for Sri Lankan cricket. No, not because Zimbabwe were routed for 79. Not even because Sri Lanka had clinched the series with another whitewash. But because Muttiah Muralitharan, the champion off-spinner had reached yet another milestone in his illustrious career. 400 Test wickets in the 60s and 70s was a bowler's dream. One recalls the England great Fred Trueman getting his 300th scalp in the late 60s. Lance Gibbs, the veteran West Indian off-spinner, had to play for some more years after that to break that record. Gibbs, in fact, was past 40 at that stage. That was how difficult it was in those times. Of course, one of the main causes for this was the very few Test matches a country used to play. And as a result, it was natural that these kinds of records were going to be far and few.

However, in modern days, cricket is played frequently. It is not just Tests but one-day Internationals too. Now I am a firm believer that too much of cricket is detrimental. One thing is you could be prone to injury. Secondly if you are to play both one-day and Tests then as a bowler the adjustment could be difficult. Above all that too much of cricket will lead to lack of interest. Now if that sets in, that is where trouble starts.

But in the midst of all this, if you could find somebody able to maintain the right balance and also succeed I would say he is made of champion's stuff.

Muttiah Muralitharan, the Sri Lankan spin wizard, is clearly of that category. It takes me back to 1999, where I think I understood this man well. Now Murali had been to Australia in 1995 and was subjected to a controversy regarding his action, with umpires Hair and Emerson calling the off-spinner for throwing. The 1998/99 tour was not going to be any different. As the Manager I was expecting the worst for Murali with the usual fuss about his action. I still recall that fateful day when Sri Lanka was playing England. Umpire Ross Emerson called Murali. The atmosphere was charged. Arjuna's reactions were understandable. And the game very nearly came to a standstill. Happily sanity prevailed and the game continued with Murali making the winning hit. But in the midst of all this, I did see Murali so calm and assured and concentrating on what he had to do. I felt that though it was all hell that had broken up outside with regard to his action, Murali went on undeterred. True he would have suffered inwardly but his powers of absorption were fantastic. Murali once again came out of the crisis fighting and since then nothing has stopped him in his forward march.

For people who know Murali it is no secret that if not for one of his early coaches Sunil Fernando, Sri Lanka would have lost a genius. He like all other youngsters commenced his cricket as a medium pacer. Now it was Sunil who got Murali interested in spin. And what he did with the ball thereafter is history. He has been the most novel product the world of spin bowling has ever witnessed. True there was Paul Adams with his most unusual action. But he couldn't sustain and is out of the National side. I am sure there were other instances too of bowlers with unusual action but none of them has come the distance the Sri Lankan maestro has travelled. Born with a deformity in his right hand Murali was initially put through his paces by the well known Australian off spinner Bruce Yardley. Now Yardley was in Sri Lanka on a stint to train the local spinners and relates an interesting story about Murali.

"Here was a young man bowling with the most unusual action for an off spinner." I did tutor him on the finer points of his art such as the right arm having to end up at the left thigh on the follow through, etc.

"He did listen to me carefully and proceeded to try what I had just taught him. Honestly I expected him to perfect this in 6 months. But boy oh boy it took him just 6 deliveries. It was amazing" I recommended him to the Board and at that time was convinced about the youngman's potential. I knew I had seen someone special." Bruce Yardley was not wrong at all when he felt he had seen something special. Murali after all is special. Every captain that captained him will swear that he is the key. He is the winner. He is the one who has given Sri Lanka countless openings in difficult times. His record of 404 wickets in 72 games in the longer version is phenomenal. The strike rate of 59 balls a wicket compares favourably with fast bowlers.

The five-wicket hauls he has got, 33 in all, and 10 ten-wicket hauls, speak about the quality of his bowling and the manner in which he has dominated the opposing batsmen. In short he is the most amazing thing Sri Lankan cricket has seen for a very long time.

I can recall two separate instances which were unforgettable for Murali. One instance was the Australian experience of 1998/99. The second was the Sri Lanka tour of England where Murali got 16 wickets at the Oval.

What a feat that was. The match seemed to be heading towards a draw with England scoring 400 plus and Sri Lanka 500 plus in their respective first innings.

Murali had grabbed 7 wickets in the England first innings which looked customary. Opponents making a big score and Murali wrapping up the wickets.

Now what happened in the second innings was unbelievable. The English batsmen just didn't seem to know what had struck them. James, Butcher, Crawley, Hick, Stewart, Hollioake and the rest were simply bamboozled by Murali and the result: 16 wickets to him and a win for the first time in England for Sri Lanka.

Murali is also the type who gives his best in the field. Be it bowling or fielding and even batting he at all times wants to perform. That is why one could see him reacting when a colleague misfields either of his bowling or off somebody else.

He is totally focussed on his job and does it with all honesty and dedication. It has been a pleasure and a privilege to have been associated with him, managed him or even commentated on his feats. Muralitharan has given the viewing public countless number of hours of pleasure. With 400 wickets already in his bag, it appears that Murali is hungry for that world record. It looks a matter of time before he surpasses Courtney Walsh. When one recalls the way Walsh sweated for this mark, toiling on with little support and finally just getting to the 500 mark, Murali by comparison has cruised past 400.

As I said before judging by the number of Test matches that a country plays today and not forgetting Murali's age which is only 29, I feel he seems to be setting his sights on a wicket-taking record that may not be conquered easily. If that happens it will not just be Murali, but it will be Sri Lankan cricket too that wins.