The sky is the limit

Muttiah Muralitharan is held aloft by team-mates (above), who also give him a guard of honour (facing page) after he beat Courtney Walsh's Test wickets record in the first Test against Zimbabwe in Harare. - Pics. HAMISH BLAIR/ GETTY IMAGES-Muttiah Muralitharan is held aloft by team-mates (above), who also give him a guard of honour (facing page) after he beat Courtney Walsh's Test wickets record in the first Test against Zimbabwe in Harare. - Pics. HAMISH BLAIR/ GETTY IMAGES

Muttiah Muralitharan has a healthy strike rate of over 50 wickets each year in recent times and if he continues in this manner he certainly can make the impossible happen (1000 wickets), for he has the heart to do it, writes REX CLEMENTINE.

WHEN Allan Border first saw Muttiah Muralitharan he thought he was going to face a leg-spinner. But the World's highest run-getter was fooled when he realised that the 20-year-old rookie who made his Test debut against his Australian side in 1992 was an off-spinner. The first time Border saw Muralitharan, the Sri Lankan left a mark on the former Australian captain who realised that this bloke was special. He was right.

Twelve years ago Muttiah Muralitharan was the rookie, Allan Border was the master. Today in cricket terms they stand together. Border is the master of all batsmen and Murali is the master of all bowlers, the Australian is the highest run-getter and the Sri Lankan the highest wicket-taker in Test cricket.

The moment that crowned Muralitharan above Jamaica's Courtney Walsh at the top of the list of highest wicket- takers came when Mluleki Nkala hit straight into the hands of Mahela Jayawardene at silly mid off. A huge burden had been taken off from Muralitharan and the celebrations began. The expectations were so high. He bowled eight overs without getting that all-important wicket and finally in the last ball of his ninth over he realised his dream. "What happens is you get so anxious and want to get there as quickly as possible. You try too hard rather than do your best and allow the rest to happen. The boys were continuously telling me just to put the ball in the right area and the wicket would come and it finally came," he said.

"I never thought I would come so far. When I was in school (St. Anthony's College, Kandy) I just wanted to play one Test match. I never thought I would get 500 or 400. I felt I'd be content with 150 or 200 wickets," Murali, who switched to off-spin from medium-pace during his school days to overcome the shortage of spin bowlers in the team, said.

As soon as Muralitharan got the 520th wicket, Walsh phoned his former teammate Phil Simmons who was in Zimbabwe and requested him to pass the phone on to Muralitharan, "He congratulated me. Not only on this occasion, but even when I reached 500 he sent me a fax to Colombo. Records are there to be broken and one day someone will break my record too."

Australia are due to arrive in Zimbabwe next and Murali knows that his record might not stand for that long as Warne could set new heights, "Shane might get the record here. We might go past each other on a number of occasions in the years to come. But I think everyone was keenly looking at who was going to get to Walsh's record first," Muralitharan, the only Tamil in the Sri Lankan side, said and admitted that he was fortunate to get to the record before Warne, "If Shane hadn't received that ban he would have passed the record before me as he was on 491 when the ban came. It's destiny, I think."

Muralitharan thanked a host of people who had supported him throughout his career from his parents to cricket board officials. The name of Arjuna Ranatunga was mentioned several times and he admitted that all achievements would have been impossible if not for the former Sri Lankan captain. "Arjuna took over the captaincy from Aravinda when I started the career. He guided me throughout. He stood by me when I was in trouble on two occasions. At times he got into trouble because of me and he is the key person behind my success. There have been a lot of people who have helped me, but I respect Arjuna and all that he did for me," cricket's highest wicket-taker said about Sri Lanka's famous cricket captain.

Ranatunga stood firmly behind Muralitharan when the latter was called for chucking for a second time in his career in Adelaide in 1999 and threatened to boycott the match if the nonsense from umpire Ross Emerson didn't end after briefly stopping play. Muralitharan considers Ranatunga as an elder brother and has a cordial relationship with his mentor although the latter has nothing to do with cricket right now.

Although he cherishes the World Record, Muralitharan believes that Sri Lanka's World Cup triumph in 1996 was bigger than anything else. The off-spinner, as a 24-year-old played a crucial role in Sri Lanka's triumph on the tournament in the helpful subcontinent wickets along with Sanath Jayasuriya, Aravinda de Silva and Ranatunga, beating Australia in the final in Lahore. "The World Cup is the greatest achievement of all. You can't forget that. It's a tremendous achievement. For me it's the main thing rather than any other individual performance," he said before adding he wants to have another go at the coveted trophy in the West Indies, "My next big aim is try and help the team to win a World Cup."

The off-spinner who has played three seasons of county cricket with Lancashire and Kent also counted his 16-wicket haul, which helped Sri Lanka beat England in England for the first and only time, as his best performance ever. "The performance against England where I took 16 for 221 at the Oval to help the team win our first Test in England remains my most memorable performance." Muralitharan bowled a mesmerising spell in 1998 claiming seven English wickets in the first innings and nine more in the second with the other wicket falling to a run out. His performance, winning him the Man of the Match award, helped Sri Lanka beat Alec Stewart's side after they had scored a huge 450 plus in the first innings and England couldn't limit Sri Lanka for one-off Test matches anymore.

Murali also feels that the record will have a huge impact on the kids who are following the game back at home, something similar to the World Cup success eight years ago. "More than for me I think it'll mean a lot for the country. If you are coming from an influential country like Australia or England or wherever it doesn't matter that much. I am sure the younger generation will be moved by this and would want to do the same one day. This I think will encourage the kids to take up the game. It will do a lot to younger cricketers. They probably want to follow me or whatever. That'll motivate them," he added.

Murali has been plagued by chucking controversies. While the bowler was called in Australia on three separate occasions, in March this year ICC Match Referee Chris Broad cast suspicions about the bowler's doosra, the ball that turns away from the right-hand batsman. "That's something in the back of my mind always. People always speak of that and do questioning and all that."

He also bowled the doosra in the Test and ODI series against Zimbabwe and created confusion among the batsmen, "But I feel the necessary tests have been done and the ICC has gone through a procedure and it's up to them. What matters is what the ICC and what the experts think."

Not so long ago people considered getting 500 Test wickets as a great achievement. So far only three bowlers are members of the exclusive 500-wicket club and no one else is in the close range to get there, with Glenn McGrath on 430 wickets and Anil Kumble on 397 being the nearest. Now Sri Lanka's master spinner thinks the unthinkable, probably ending his Test career with 1000 Test wickets.

The day after Murali's feat, a young Sri Lankan cricket fan reads all about it. - Pic. AFP-

"I am just 32 and if I play till the next World Cup I'll be only 35 and some players go on till 39. I don't know how fit I'll be, but if I can last till 39 to 40 playing cricket, I might get 1000 wickets," he said.

The best backing for Muralitharan to go where possibly no other bowler will be able to go comes from his arch-rival, Warne, who recently predicted in Colombo that the off-spinner might end his cricket career with 1000 Test wickets to his name.

Muralitharan's 300th Test wicket came in Durban, South Africa, in the year 2000 and it took him eight years to get there since his debut. But the next 200 wickets have come in double quick time as he claimed the 500th wicket in Colombo in early 2004.

New deliveries to his repertoire such as the straight ball and the controversial doosra have helped Muralitharan become a better bowler with the passage of time and he now practices a "back spinner" in the nets.

He has a healthy strike rate of over 50 wickets each year in recent times and if he continues in this manner he certainly can make the impossible happen, for he has the heart to do it. If he continues this way, the sky is the limit for the Spin Magician.

Born: April 17, 1972; Kandy, Sri Lanka. 1992: Makes Test debut against Australia.

1993: Plays in his first one-day international against India.

1995: Called for throwing by Australian umpire Darrell Hair, prompting continuing debate about the legality of his action.

1997: Takes 100th Test wicket against New Zealand.

1998: Takes 200th Test wicket against England.

1999: Called again for throwing during one-day international in Adelaide, prompting the Sri Lanka team to leave the field in protest. Subsequent tests show that Muralitharan bowls with a bent elbow due to a congenital deformity but he conforms to the rules because he does not straighten his arm during delivery.

Named as one of Wisden's five Cricketers of the Year. First county cricket appearance for Lancashire.

2000: Takes 300th Test wicket against South Africa.

2002: Becomes the youngest and quickest player to take 400 Test wickets, reaching the mark in Sri Lanka's third Test against Zimbabwe, only the 72nd Test of his career.

2003: Joins county side Kent.

2004: Becomes only the third man after Courtney Walsh and Shane Warne to take 500 Test wickets in Sri Lanka's second Test against Australia in Kandy.

April: Reported for a suspect action by match referee Chris Broad after home Test series v Australia. Broad says he is only worried about legality of the special Muralitharan delivery, the doosra, which turns away from right-handed batsmen.

May 6: Takes six for 45 off 24.2 overs on first day of first Test v Zimbabwe, bowling Douglas Hondo for his sixth wicket to match former West Indies pace bowler Courtney Walsh's world mark of 519 Test victims.

May 8: Captures his 520th wicket by claiming the scalp of Zimbabwe's Mluleki Nkala.

MUTTIAH MURALITHARAN is the highest wicket taker in the 127-year history of Test cricket with a fabulous record against all countries, but he has given away the highest number of runs for each Indian wicket he has captured.

For each of the 51 wickets he has taken against India in 12 matches, Muralitharan has given away 32.94 runs compared to 10.45 for each Bangladeshi wicket or 16.41 for each Zimbabwean batsman snared by him. Each wicket against Australia has cost him 31.42 runs while against Pakistan he has an average of 23.85. His average against other Test playing nations are: England (20.73), New Zealand (23.69), South Africa (22.68) and West Indies (19.60). Muralitharan became the highest wicket taker in Test history when he took two for 37 in the second innings of the first Test against Zimbabwe at Harare surpassing West Indies' fast bowler Courtney Walsh's record of 519 wickets.

The off-spinner achieved the milestone in just 89 matches while Walsh had taken 132 Tests for his tally. Australian leg- spinner Shane Warne has 517 scalps to his credit from 110 matches so far.

Although statistically the spin wizards have much in common, the off-spinner has a better wicket-taking record per Test — Murali averages 5.8 wickets per Test and Warne 4.7. The similarities — both have bowled over 30,000 balls in Test cricket and their strike-rates is almost same — one wicket in every 58 balls for Murali and one in every 59 for Warne.

Muralitharan, who turned 32 last month, was the youngest and fastest (87 Tests) to reach the 500-mark in a home series against Australia in March. The Sri Lankan had held twin world records of 44 hauls of five or more wickets in a Test innings and 13 of 10 or more in a match. Muralitharan, who made his Test debut in 1992-93 against Australia at Colombo, recorded his best bowling figures of nine for 51 against Zimbabwe at Kandy two years back. His best against India is eight for 87 at Colombo in 2001.

Muralitharan's country-wise break-up of wickets (as on May 8, 2004):

Team Matches Wkts. Best Bowling Ave. Australia 10 50 6-59 31.42 Bangladesh 2 20 5-13 10.45 England 10 69 9-65 20.73 India 12 51 8-87 32.94 New Zealand 10 52 5-30 23.69 Pakistan 12 68 6-71 23.85 S. Africa 12 77 7-84 22.68 West Indies 8 53 6-81 19.60 Zimbabwe 13 81 9-51 16.41