A classic performance

Print edition : September 26, 1998

Muttiah Muralitharan's bowling feat in the Oval Test not only won a match for Sri Lanka but vindicated his much-criticised bowling credentials.

If I can't play anymore cricket then all the people will say that I have 'chucked' and taken 81 wickets in Tests. They will think that I have cheated in this game. I will fight for my rights because I know in my mind that I have done nothing wrong.

- Muttiah Muralitharan after being called for throwing by umpire Darrell Hair in the 1995 Melbourne Test.

IN the moment of deepest frustration, the meek lose hope and give up. But the brave go on, to conquer the odds and perform great deeds as Sri Lanka's champion off-spinner Muttiah Muralitharan did.

One day, Muralitha-ran's career, with its excruciating lows and astonishing highs, could become the script for a best-seller. The Sri Lankan Tamil of Indian origin, who once came close to being banished forever from the international arena, is now a national hero.

Beneath his rather calm exterior - he does have a friendly smile - lies the heart of a lion. His performance in the recent Test match at Oval was proof enough for this.

His 16-wicket haul in the one-off Test against England, which inspired Sri Lanka to a historic victory (the country's first on English soil), will be talked about for a long time. With Sri Lanka's acclaimed match-winner, Chaminda Vaas, unavailable for the match, Muralitharan had to deliver and he rose to the occasion.

The off-spinner cast a spell on the English batsmen. There was flight, there was deception, and most importantly, he extracted vicious turn. He put his top-spinner to good use in the second innings (he bowled a marathon 54.2 overs to pick up nine for 65 runs in the innings), compounding the problems of the home batsmen.

Rather sadly, England coach David Lloyd chose to raise the issue of Muralitharan's action during the Test in a television interview. But nothing could take away from Muralitharan's marvellous performance. Incidentally, Muralitharan subsequently began to play for the Lancashire county team, of which David Lloyd was the coach until recently.

Muralitharan's 16 for 220 in the Test, during the course of which he reached the cherished landmark of 200 Test wickets in his 42nd Test - he is the first Sri Lankan bowler to achieve this feat - earned him the rating along with Saqlain Mushtaq of Pakistan, as one of the two best off-spinners in world cricket today. Incidentally, Saqlain, playing for Surrey in the English county league, is causing a lot of devastation.

For Muralitharan, the wheel has turned a full circle. It had seemed curtains to his career as the year 1995 wound to a close. A debate had been on about his bowling action, and it became particularly noisy in December that year when the Australian umpire Darrel Hair no-balled him repeatedely in the Melbourne Test. Being called for "chucking'' is the worst blow to a bowler's ego, and not many bowlers have survived such situations.

Muttiah Muralitharan.-V.V. KRISHNAN

During those troubled times, his team-mates and the Sri Lankan Cricket Board stood by him. The incident hurt the pride of every Sri Lankan. Perhaps this fuelled Sri Lanka's sensational rise in world cricket, which culminated in its victory in the 1996 World Cup. Despite immense pressure, the Sri Lankans played Muralitharan in the World Cup, and subsequent events proved that they were not wrong.

Indeed, there is a quirkiness about Muralitharan's action. He releases the ball early and extracts plenty of turn, in fact so much turn that it often sows the seeds of doubt in some people. But he does have his supporters too. Former Australian off-spinner who later became the Sri Lankan team's coach, Bruce Yardley, is among them. A deformity of his right elbow was cited by a leading Melbourne surgeon as a reason for Muralitharan's jerky action.

It is interesting to note that Muralitharan has played a vital role in all of Sri Lanka's triumphs abroad. His teasing spell in the second innings of the Napier Test against New Zealand in 1995, enabled Sri Lanka to score their first Test victory on foreign soil. And, later in the year, in the away series against Pakistan, the islanders scored a remarkable victory. Muralitharan, with his off-spin, played a huge role in shaping the result. The triumph at the Oval is Sri Lanka's fourth in a Test abroad.

While talking about the Oval Test, it would be unfair to ignore the contributions of Sanath Jayasuriya, who cracked a brilliant 213, and of the gifted Aravinda de Silva, who compiled a typically immaculate 152.

England made 445 in the first innings, and it is not often that a side loses a match after doing so well. But Jayasuriya and De Silva not only made runs but made them quickly, providing Muralitharan enough time to weave his spell of magic.

Jayasuriya is often called the Asian Tiger, and his double century against the competent English pace attack of Darren Gough, Angus Fraser and Dominic Cork should settle all doubts whether he deserves the epithet.

Aravinda de Silva's rich form in 1997 - he scored seven Test centuries last year - has continued in 1998. Always dominant at the crease, he is surely among the top three batsmen in world cricket now.

Skipper Arjuna Ranatunga was unhappy, like most of his countrymen, that Sri Lanka was given just one Test in England. But he had a bright smile at the end of it all. Like on most occasions, the wily Ranatunga has proved his point.

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