STUPENDOUS

Muttiah Muralitharan has become the first bowler to pick 1000 wickets in international cricket (Tests and ODIs). An appreciation by S. DINAKAR.

The cricketer with eyes that laugh and a spirit that often soars, is at an acme. Muttiah Muralitharan has become the first bowler to pick 1000 wickets in international cricket.

The off-spinner's six wickets in the Bangladesh second innings of the recent Chittagong Test meant he had 593 Test and 411 ODI scalps. A stunning piece of statistics that reflected, apart from his destructive trait with the ball and endurance, the Lankan's ability to adapt to two very different forms of the game.

The recent times have been hard on Murali; this blithe spirit was heckled by sections of the Australian crowd, had his bowling action frequently questioned, and the shadow of injuries constantly lurked. He has come through the test. Over the years, he has been Sri Lanka's strike and stock bowler, often shouldering an enormous load, and has remained a source of much inspiration to a proud island nation as it evolved into a major force in the mid-90s.

Here is a man who has battled against enormous odds from the very beginning. A deformity in his bowling hand meant Muralitharan could never straighten his arm completely. Far from being demoralised, the Lankan learnt to operate with a combination of a bent arm and a highly dexterous wrist, getting the ball to do extraordinary things.

For someone who made his Test debut in 1992, Muralitharan has been extremely consistent. Beginning as a rather one-dimensional bowler with a big off-break and little else, the Lankan has, over the years, developed plenty of tricks with his trajectory, extent of spin, and the use of the crease.

Apart from the controversial doosra, he has other options such as the top-spinner, the flipper, the wrong 'un, and the leg-break. He can spin the ball on any surface and is at his meanest when there is a degree of bounce in the surface. As former Lankan coach, the wily Dav Whatmore constantly reminds you, Muralitharan can bowl for long periods, without letting the pressure ease on the batsmen.

Pressure creates wickets and this explains why he is able to run through sides even in the later stages of his spell. The Lankan's fitness levels and exuberance are such that it is virtually impossible to keep him out of a game.

Muralitharan's methods will continue to evoke mixed response, but his skills will never be doubted. The tantalising flight, the deceptive loop, the vicious spin and the rhythm in the whole process... he is such a joy to watch.

He has displayed the resilience to recover from a serious shoulder injury. "You should not allow negative thoughts to creep in," he said once.

Unlike many off-spinners, he is more comfortable bowling to the right-handers — given that he spins the ball prodigiously both ways. Says Sri Lankan wicket-keeper Kumara Sangakkara: "He's a fantastic bowler. The variety that he bowls is immense. He has spin, bounce, bowls deliveries that turn away, and balls that go through straight.

"He varies his turn. It's also a great contest. If I go into a Test match and keep to Murali, I know it is going to be a test for me. A lot of personal pride and a lot of personal enjoyment comes in."

Muralitharan has an essential quality in abundance — mental toughness. He has survived career crises such as being `called' during Sri Lanka's tours of Australia in '95, and '99. It must be said here that the 15-degree flexion rule did offer him a lifeline.

But then, he has his backers. Australia's former ace wicket-keeper Ian Healy says, "what really confuses the whole issue is the fact that if you watch his hand, he can really flick the ball out of it with an exceptional range of moving his wrist like no other bowler in the world and he has a freakish ability to spin the ball on a bent arm. But he doesn't throw."

Muralitharan could conquer several more peaks. Those eyes... they might carry with them several more tales.