Perhaps no country has challenged cricket’s orthodoxies more than Sri Lanka. In its relatively short life as a Test match nation, it has given the game some of its most exotic and original sights. When Lasith Malinga’s slingy thunderbolts, Sanath Jayasuriya’s explosive hitting, and Muttiah Muralitharan’s extraordinary style of off-spin bowling. Muralitharan was the first to make an impact and not only traditionalists were perplexed by what he did.
The legendary batsmen who faced him found that the normal clues as to whether he was bowling a leg-break, or an off-break wasn’t there. No one had ever bowled quite like him before and it was bound to take people time to fathom what he was up to and work out a method (most, of course, never really did). It is not surprising people were suspicious.
Muralitharan was born in Kandy. His father Muttiah Sinnasamy ran a successful confectionary business and, Muralitharan is the eldest of his four sons. When he was nine years old, he was sent to St. Anthony’s college. A private school run by Benedictine monks and styled upon Ampleforth College in England. because this game can be only enriched by the characters like Muttiah Muralitharan!
An enchanting bowler who carries an entire team forward on the strength of his spinning prowess, a probing off-spinner who commands respect in cricket fields all over the world. Murali’s rise as a bowler with the capacity to rout the opposition has been steady from the time he made his international debut. It has also been a journey laced with controversy when the chucking episode down under almost ruined my career. By rolling his wrist, he leaves the batsmen in a daze and comes off as a grand wicket-taker.
For this genial off-spinner, the strategy is child’s play, really and batsmen have discovered it the hard way as they have often been stranded, grouping for the ball. Murali has been the torchbearer of the Sri Lankan attack with an enthusiasm that is so infectious. Just watch the team converge on him, every time he claims a victim, that radiant smile glowing on his face and eyes, so wide, reflecting the joy each conquest brings to this most wonderful person.
He began his cricketing career as a medium pace bowler, but on the advice of his school coach Sunil Fernando, he took up off-spin when he was 14 years old. He was soon impressed and went on to play for four years in the School First XI. In those days he played as an all-rounder and batted in the middle order. In his final two seasons at St Anthony’s, he took over one hundred wickets and in 1990-91 was named as the Bata Schoolboy Cricketer of the Year.
He joined Tamil Union and was selected for the Sri Lankan A tour of England in 1991. He played in five games but failed to capture a single wicket. A 19 years old Murali was very much a novice with time to learn the skills of his trade. On his return to Sri Lanka, he impressed against Allan Border’s Australian team in a practice match and then went on to make his Test debut at the Premadesa International Stadium in the second Test match of the Series. During their early years, he rarely played one day cricket.
It took a while for the controversy to subside adequately for all the facts to emerge. The decision of Australia’s umpires (Daryll Hair) to call him for throwing during Sri Lanka’s tour there in 1995–96 – when he was only 23 years old. At that time, he was not yet the seasoned match-winner he later became – generated more heat than light. However, gradually the message got home that Murali’s bowling arm had possessed a deformity since birth and could never be fully straightened.
Opponents have studied and tackling with assurance bt Murali remained on the enigma. A mystery is difficult to unravel, despite the technical backup available these days. He defies them with a smile. Murali is just about beginning to discover new avenues of conquering the opposition.
We have heard that spinners mature late, but this bowler has been an acclaimed performance in his early days in international cricket. He said, I always wanted to be an off-spinner, unable to explain the precise reason for his love to be a slower bowler. The serene surroundings of Kandy are his hometown and once the capital of Sinhalese kings has had a lasting impression on Murali. Much is made of Murali being the lone Hindu in the team, a thought which has never occurred to him and neither to his colleagues.
This gentle Tamil has risen from this background to win the affections of his countrymen who look for solace in cricketing triumphs even as frequent gunfire and bomb blasts cruelly remind the society of a nation bleeding and gasping. The cricketing garden tended by Ranatunga and Sanath Jayasuriya has started to blossom, with Murali its most fragrant flower.
During the 1995-96 tour of Australia, he was no-balled twice for bowling with suspect action, first by Darrel Hair in MCG and then by Ross Emerson in Brisbane. The controversy threatened his career but analysis carried out by Darryl Foster, a renowned bio-mechanist, and by the University of Hong Kong proved sufficient for the ICC, and his action was cleared. However, it was not the end of his problems as Ross Emerson called him again in Adelaide during the Sri Lanka tour to Australia in 1999.
Muralitharan claims that the controversy was unfortunate as it was going ton to make him a stronger person and ultimately a better bowler. He grew in confidence after 1996 and started to unveil greater variations as a bowler. He also admits to be working on a mystery ball in the nest that is designed to hurry onto the batsman like a leg spinner flipper.
As testing methods became more thorough, it also transpired that almost all bowlers delivered the ball with a slightly bent arm: a tolerance level of 15 degrees was eventually set which effectively (and some critics said conveniently) allowed Muralitharan to bowl without being called again. It was a big debate that was never going to be resolved to everyone’s satisfaction.
What also had to be borne in mind was that irrespective of what his arm was doing. Because his wrist had a phenomenal flex of its own; to what extent this depended on movement lower down the arm was merely something else for observers and law-makers to ponder over. What is beyond argument is that he provided a great spectacle.
His abiding image of him is of that look of a wild-eyed, smiling assassin. You would love watching him bowl because he was so obviously loved it and wanted to bowl and bowl and bowl (he averaged 55 overs per Test, more than any other leading bowler). When you heard him talk, you could sense how excited he was about his art.
Murali was a tireless and joyous performer who did not ever want to give up. He played for Sri Lanka until almost his 40th year and in 2014 at the age of 42 was still turning out in the Indian Premier League, Twenty20 is another format in which he was highly effective. He rarely got slogged. His figures are unmatched and, in all probability, un-catchable.
At the age of 29 years 273 days, and having achieved the target in a mere 72 Tests, Sri Lanka’s spin wizard Murali became the youngest on January 15, 2002, and the quickest to claim 400 wickets in a Test Career. He dismissed Zimbabwe Henry Olonga at Galle off successive deliveries in the first innings. Hence Henry Olonga giving him the magical 400th. Muralitharan couldn’t hide his joy and delight whenever he reached the next milestone.
Murali 800 wickets in Test matches and 534 in one-day internationals are both records, as are his number of five-wicket hauls in a Test inning (67, almost double the 37 of his nearest rival Shane Warne) and ten-wicket hauls in a match (22, compared to Warne’s ten). A few months after his traumatic experience in Australia, Murali played an important role in Sri Lanka’s 1996 World Cup triumph, an event that formally sealed their arrival as a global force.
He only took seven wickets in the tournament but in six matches never conceded more than 42 runs in his ten overs (in the final against Australia his figures were 10-0-31-1). Two years later he singlehandedly destroyed England in a Test Match at The Oval with a mammoth match figure of 16 for 220 (the fifth-best of all time).
It was Sri Lanka’s first Test win on English soil and another marker in their rise. Muralitharan in partnership with Chaminda Vaas, a very fine left-arm swing bowler who himself claimed 355 Test wickets, gave Sri Lanka the means of winning matches on a regular basis, particularly at home. He did have to reinvent himself in mid-career, though.
He had always been slightly less effective against left-handers and as time went on the best of them found ways to counter him to a significant extent. In 2001, England went to Sri Lanka and won thanks in large part to the runs scored by the left-handed Marcus Trescothick and Graham Thorpe. The following year, England won again at home, with Trescothick, Thorpe, and Mark Butcher, another left-hander, all scoring hundreds.
Although Sri Lanka beat the visiting West Indians to three-nil in 2001. The great Brian Lara – the best left-hander in the world – tore into Murali as he racked up 688 runs in three games, in the last of which Murali took only three wickets for 231. When the sides next met two years later, Lara scored another double century 209. Murali’s response was to develop a “doosra,” an off-spinner googly and a delivery patented by Pakistan’s Saqlain Mushtaq in the 1990s. Saqlain Mushtaq invented this delivery in the domestic circuit and applied it to international cricket.
Muralitharan worked hard on the ball during a brief spell with Kent towards the end of the 2003 season and unleashed it on England later that year when they returned to Sri Lanka. In that series, Sri Lanka won 1–0, England’s left-handers were much less effective and Murali took 26 wickets in three games.
He was a massively successful bowler up to the point he added the “doosra” to his armory, but this weapon made him even more lethal. Previously he had taken 459 wickets in 82 Tests at an average of 23.55; in 51 subsequent Tests. He added another 341 wickets at the lower average of 21.61 while, the most eye-catching of all, his strike rate plunged from a wicket every 60 balls to one in every 48.
The doosra was a controversial delivery, not just when bowled by Murali but by most off-spinners who sought to emulate the success enjoyed by Saqlain and Murali himself. The forte of Murali’s talent has been the man’s unflinching loyalty and Self Belief. It requires the discipline of the highest grade and sheers hard work. You improve only when you bowl long spells.
The magical off-spin bowling has given him so much pleasure, that to me, it is the best thing in cricket wrote by Indian maestro Erapalli Prasanna in his autobiography. it probably is when you see the likes of Murali, luring the batsmen so softly so deftly. An eminent figure on the circuit now, this Sri Lankan has swept the oppositions with his gentle strikes, be it a Test match or a one-day contest.
Murali the conditions notwithstanding bowls only to take a wicket and not to contain. His bowling has everything that is needed to be hailed among the best. The variations are mind-boggling, the flight, the turn, and the angle of delivery constantly testing the skills of the batsmen. To survive I have to resort to variation. Prasanna had observed. This Sri Lankan has tried to remember this essential aspect of bowling.
Murali may not belong to the category of Prasanna or Lance Gibbs. They were bowlers of a different era. In that era when the batsmen would happily leave the crease to accept the challenge of the flighted ball. Murali too tempts them to come out but then his reputation of having magical control over his flight leaves the batsmen rooted to the crease. A batsman giving the charge to Murali is a rare happening. In contemporary cricket, where the trend has sadly been negative, Murali has come as a refreshingly attacking bowler.
His imagination, when given the ball, has shown him to be a man of tremendous will and resilience. He can take punishment with a big heart and to me, that has been the greatest asset of this off-spinner with a difference. If you are prepared to be punished, the rewards too can be handsome and this was drilled into his mind long ago by a most supportive said by his captain Arjuna Ranatunga.
Muttiah Muralitharan’s success story can never be narrated without the mention of Ranatunga, his mentor, guide, and trusted friend too. Sri Lankan cricket was a garden that needed passionate tending. With time it flowered and every dawn brought renewed hope as Ranatunga scripted a golden chapter in the history of the game on the strength of a reliable performer in Murali. The backing of Ranatunga was the greatest influence on Murli’s mind.
The former captain stood like a rock as the off-spinner was hounded by the Australian umpires and the media, not to forget the English. Murali was close to breaking down but held his nerves because he saw Ranatunga by his side, sharing his grief because only then he could have shared his joy.
The transformation in the Muralitharan approach was distinct after the chucking controversy. He was more determined to embarrass his detractors and Sri Lankans gained immensely from those dark days of the Australian tour. He is fiercely competitive as aggressive an opponent as any Australian a man with a mission really. But Murali is extremely down to earth, quite a lovable cricketer on the circuit.
The Aussies may have a different opinion but it does not matter. The entire cricketing world acknowledges Murali as a leading bowler of his era. Check with Lancashire where had had an outstanding performance, swelling the membership with his mesmerizing stuff. It would not be fair to compare Murali with Saqlain Mushtaq, the Pakistani off-spinner with a similar drive to baffle the opposition.
Saqlain bowls with a cushion of a battery of skillful bowlers of Wasim Akram, Waqar Younis, Shoaib Akhtar, and Mushtaq Ahmad. But Murali is not so privileged and often has to plow the field alone. Then they are bowlers with different skills too.
Many experts thought that no one could bowl this ball without flexing their arm beyond acceptable limits. It brought Murali under fresh scrutiny, but tests established that even with this delivery he stayed within 15 degrees. The ICC has recently sought to clamp down on suspect actions, with an array of off-spinners reported, including Saeed Ajmal of Pakistan, the leading bowler of this type since Murali’s retirement from Tests in 2010.
It is understandable that Muralitharan was going to inspire imitators and a good thing that he does, even if it is unlikely there will ever be anyone quite like him again. But it is also very important that the rules and regulations, into which so much effort has gone, are observed. It is always intriguing to see someone of his ilk weave his magic and equally important that finger spinners can develop their skills to the acceptable limit to maintain a viable and essential role in international cricket.
Long spells! Murali has indeed produced many long and invariably matching winning spells bemusing the batsman with his fair bowling. He has been a tremendous challenge to the authority of the batsmen and what sets him apart is his quality to extract amazing turns even on placid wickets. Murli has used the deformity in his bowling arm to his great advantage.
Muttiah Muralitharan also spent two successful seasons with Lancashire in 1999 after the world cup when he took an astonishing 66 wickets in just six games and in 2001 when he took 50 wickets in just seven matches. In 2001, he took 80 wickets in 12 Test matches with equaled Alland Donald records in 1998. At that time, he was more confident of doing so better because of the greater support he gets from other bowlers.