The prince of off-spin

Print edition : September 26, 1998

Apart from enhancing the reputation of Sri Lankan cricket, Muralitharan has revolutionised the flagging art of off-spin bowling.

BY taking 16 wickets for 220 runs in Sri Lanka's emphatic first Test victory in England, Muttiah Muralitharan has not only enhanced Sri Lanka's reputation as a Test-playing nation, but also single-handedly revolutionised the flagging art of off-spin bowling. The last 20 years have seen off-spin bowling relegated to the role of a defensive technique. Flighted off-spin became an anachronism - a throwback to an earlier time in cricket's development. Unresponsive pitches, heavy bats, and the modern habit of batsman using the pad as the first line of defence all took its toll.

Since the exit of India's Erapalli Prasanna and Srinivasa Venkatraghavan, off-spin at Test level was the preserve of the likes of John Emburey, John Bracewell and Bruce Yardley, bowlers who seldom played match-winning roles. The recent rise of leg-spin as a potent force at Test level reinforced the belief that off-spin was innocuous. Murali's uncanny spin, delivered with his unique wrist action, has laid to rest that notion.

Muralitharan's sheer talent was never in doubt. Ever since the confectioner's son rose to national prominence by breaking the Sri Lankan school cricket record by taking 127 wickets in the 1990-91 season, his prodigious off-breaks have been compared to that of the legendary Jim Laker. Muralitharan, a member of Sri Lanka's Indian Tamil minority, was a rarity among Sri Lanka's emerging cricketers. His school, St. Anthony's College, Katugasthota was not an institution which boasted the cricketing heritage and facilities of the established Colombo schools.

Nevertheless, cricket was very much on the rise in Kandy and other places in Sri Lanka's hinterland. St. Anthony's was making a name for itself. An alumnus of the school, Marlon Von Haught had played one-day internationals in the mid-1980s. An older contemporary of Muralitharan, the all-rounder Ruwan Kalpage, had played at the highest level. In fact, Murali's spin partner, the left-arm spinner Piyal Wijetunga, had already been identified as a potential Test player.

Fortunately for Murali, his emergence coincided with a period when Sri Lanka's cricketing isolation was drawing to a close. Terrorist violence in Sri Lanka had frightened international teams from touring the island since 1987. A match haul of eight wickets against the Australian Cricket Academy and 6 for 65 against England A earned him a place in the side that toured England in 1991 for Sri Lanka's token single-Test match at Lords.

Muralitharan's first foreign tour was an unqualified disappointment. He failed to take a first-class wicket in his three appearances. According to some accounts, a baseless whispering campaign about his bowling action prompted the cautious tour management to keep the 19-year-old out of most of the tour.

IT took a year for Muralitharan to return to the national side, a year he spent establishing himself with his club, Tamil Union. His Test debut could not have been in a more emotionally charged atmosphere. Allan Border's Australians were making a three -Test tour - the first Test tour in five years. The hosts had taken the glorious uncertainties of cricket to new heights by losing the first Test by 16 runs after squandering a 250-run first innings lead. Another unheralded spinner called Shane Warne had bowled Australia to victory when Sri Lanka were chasing a paltry 160 in the second innings for victory. The cricket-starved Sri Lankan public was furious. The selectors were anxious that the team avoided another humiliating defeat.

Muralitharan's Test debut in the second Test in the Khettarama (now Premadasa) Stadium was impressive if not sensational. His freakish action and his angular run-up showed that this was no run-of-the-mill spinner. Allan Border recalls that he mistook Murali for a leg-spinner, on account of his double-jointed wrist. There was one dismissal which convinced many of Murali's special powers. Tom Moody's leg-stump was dislodged when he shouldered arms to a delivery that pitched at least two feet outside the off-stump.

The youthful Murali went from strength to strength, playing a major part in Sri Lanka's back-to-back Test victories against England and New Zealand in 1992-93. It was at this point in his career that he struck a close bond with his leader, mentor and now business partner, the authoritative captain Arjuna Ranatunga. This relationship formed the bedrock of his success and meant that there were few doubts about his status as the team's sole wicket-taker. Ranatunga was thoroughly convinced that Murali's precocious talent would signal a new era in Sri Lanka's short Test history.

In spite of his heady success, there were many in the cricketing fraternity who doubted his ability to excel overseas. He was seen as a bowler without a full bag of tricks, who relied excessively on his more than 45-degree turn. Commentators such as Gamini Goonesena, the former Nottinghamshire leg-spinner, lamented his obstinate aversion to bowling round the wicket and his lack of an arm ball.

However, Muralitharan has continued to baffle batsman outside the shores of Sri Lanka, irrespective of the team's performance. In Sri Lanka's humiliating drubbing at the hands of India in 1993-94, where all three Tests were innings defeats, Muralitharan was the sole success, with 12 wickets in the rubber. His perseverance in the face of some astronomical scores by the fearsome quartet of Mohammed Azharuddin, Sachin Tendulkar, Navjot Singh Sidhu and Vinod Kambli was in sharp contrast to the submission with which his team-mates played the series.

It was in New Zealand in March 1995 that Murali displayed his qualities as a match-winner on any surface. In Sri Lanka's first triumph on foreign soil, Murali confused the crease-bound New Zealanders on a grassy pitch in Dunedin. The Sri Lankan manager Duleep Mendis' claim that Murali can turn the ball on concrete was confirmed.

On the eve of his tour of Pakistan later that year, doubts were cast on his ability to trouble subcontinental batsmen. By taking 19 wickets in the series and delivering a historic 2-1 victory, the off-spinner silenced the doubters. The Pakistanis, who had negotiated Warne's leg-breaks in the previous home series, were never at ease against him.

Since then, Murali has gone from strength to strength, bearing the brunt of an otherwise innocuous attack, willingly trundling along, bowling over after over, and taking wicket after wicket. In the merry-go-round of Test cricket, he is the only bowler to have taken five or more wickets against seven of the eight Test-playing nations. Aptly, Arjuna Ranatunga has compared him to a bowling machine, with his unwavering enthusiasm to bowl more than 35 overs in a day's play.

THE reasons for the dramatic improvement in Murali's strike rate must be appreciated in order to understand him as a bowler. His first 100 wickets took 28 Tests, his second took just 14. His ability to turn the ball square has long been his trump card. By pitching the ball wide outside the off-stump and by inviting the batsman to drive, Murali confronts the batsmen relentlessly in the danger zone. He does not allow him to play from under his chin. The bounce that he is able to extract from even the tamest of pitches (as in the Oval Test) plays a major part in the bat-pad catches he claims. However, the reasons for his improved strike rate lie elsewhere. In the last 18 months, he has added a top-spinner and a leg-break, and has begun to vary the speed and flight more often.

It is the combination of degree of turn and the new-found variation that makes Murali an off-spinner of the exalted class. Saqlain Mushtaq's sophistication and outstanding strike rate in one-day cricket is laudable. But with just 55 wickets in 14 Tests at 33 apiece, he will be hard pressed to match Murali's Test record.

No discussion of Murali's career is complete without mention of his status as a symbol of national unity in a time of trouble. He has unwittingly become a metaphor for the pluralistic nature of Sri Lanka's bitterly divided society. The game of cricket is not immune from the prejudices and tensions of the world at large. Cricket in Sri Lanka is no exception.

When India toured Sri Lanka in 1985, in the aftermath of the 1983 progrom, the two Tamil members of the Indian side were vilified. Laxman Sivaramakrishnan was jeered by the crowd and Krishnamachari Srikkanth was at the receiving end of dubious umpiring decisions almost every time he went out to bat. As in India and England, the allegiance of minority players has been doubted by bigots. In an under-23 match between Pakistan and Sri Lanka in Colombo in 1985, one was appalled when a raucous crowd questioned the loyalty of Uvaisul Karnain, the sole Muslim member of the Sri Lankan side.

Happily, Muralitharan's phenomenal success has made him a hugely popular figure among the Sinhalese majority. When he was called for throwing in Australia, the Sinhalese public saw it as a national affront. His generosity of spirit in offering the stumps, at the moment of triumph in the Sri Lanka-New Zealand series, to his spin partner Niroshan Bandaratilleke was praised as a magnanimous gesture in the Sinhala language press. Senior politicians have taken the opportunity to share the limelight in his glittering achievements. Furthermore, he has encouraged the Ceylon Tamils, Indian Tamils, Muslims and other minorities to support passionately the national side. News of his recent 16-wicket haul was ecstatically received by the Tamils of the island, who took out large newspaper advertisements to hail him.

With 203 wickets in 42 Tests, the 26-year-old Murali is at the height of his powers. At the present strike rate there is no reason why he should not surpass Kapil Dev as the highest wicket-taker in the game's history. Sri Lanka's lack of Test match exposure, the incompetence of Sri Lankan cricket administrators and the bitterness of the likes of David Lloyd, who was the coach of the English team that lost to Sri Lanka, may prove impediments. But even if he does not reach the statistical summit, he has done enough to revolutionise the declining art of off-spin and secure his place in the pantheon of off-spinners.

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