In history of cricket, there have been only a handful of cricketers who, can be called as all time greats. We are thinking of cricketers who, could captivate the imagination of the paying public with their cricketing skills and fill the stadiums. In Murali, we are looking at a cricketer who, can be known as a smiling assassin as he consistently bamboozled the best of batsman with his bowling, but always had a smile on his face which made me think of him as a smiling assassin.
If we look at his stats, it can be said that he has broken most of the records in international cricket, let it be the highest number of wickets taken in test and one-day cricket, most number of five and ten wicket hauls and many more. However, I never really like to dwell too much on stats as for me, it can get boring.
Murali's early career
So, if we think of Murali's early career, we have to go as far back as 1992 when he made his debut against the formidable Aussies. In the opposition ranks, there was another spinner called Warne who too was a novice and in his debut test against India, Shastri made him look like a club level spinner. It is always interesting to note that during that time both were no hopers and no one expected them to succeed.
Anyway, in his debut test there is an interesting story of Border thinking of him as a leg spinner as it can be said that he is a wrist spinning off spinner. It was Mark Waugh at the other end who, signalled to Border that he indeed was facing an off spinner and that took Border by surprise which is on expected lines as to the best of my knowledge, Murali is the only wrist spinning off spinner to have played the game.
If we think about his early career, it can be said that he looked short on confidence and tended to bowl a negative line as he bowled a middle and leg stump line. I vaguely remember Murali bowling quickish off cutters and being hammered by the Indian team in 1993/94. During those days, Indian opener Sidhu was in great form and he was a fantastic player of spinners. So, when he saw a bowler who perhaps lacked the self belief, he just took the chance and made a mincemeat of Murali as he was hit all over the park. I also remember the former Indian captain Azharuddin being critical of Ranatunga and co. for using Murali in a negative fashion.
The coming of age of Srilanka and Murali
As the years went by, the Srilankan team started to become a competitive unit as can be seen by them beating the Kiwis away from home as well as Pakistan away from home. The team under the able leadership of Ranatunga, suddenly had a transformed look to it as they were beating other teams on a regular basis. Yes, they went through tough times on their tour of Australia, especially Murali had to endure the ignominy of being called for chucking in Australia in 95/96, but that tour seemed to have made them tougher as they went onto to win the coveted prize in one-day cricket, the world cup in 96 by defeating Australia which made the victory even more sweeter for Srilanka!
The success of Srilankan team was because younger cricketers under the able leadership of Ranatunga and their coach Whatmore started believing in themselves and as a result they were able to beat most of the teams. It was also the time when Murali started to come of age. I vividly remember in a cricket magazine Murali saying that just like Saqlain, he also wanted to develop a doosra and would like to perform better for the team. The tour of Australia surely seemed to have made Murali stronger as a person.
The improvement in his bowling could be seen by the fact that he took his 150th wicket in his 36th test and since then I can hardly remember Murali taking more than ten tests to reach every milestone. Actually, he took just five tests to move from 150 wickets to 200 wickets! He was no doubt devastating in the one off test Srilanka played at Oval. During that time, England's batsmen were never prepared to come out of their crease as most of them were leaden footed. In fact, in that match at Oval, I can remember only Crawley and Hick being prepared to be aggressive against Murali. As a result, on a dry pitch Murali took 16 wickets and completely bamboozled the batsmen as Srilanka made history by winning their first test in England.
Murali at his peak
As the entire world stepped into the new millennium, facing Murali became even more of a daunting task. It can be seen by the fact that even the gifted players of spin, the India batsmen, found it hard to tackle the menace of Murali. In 2001, Murali took as many as 23 wickets at just 19.9 against India. It included a couple of five wicket hauls as Lanka defeated India 2-1.
England team did well to comeback from behind to defeat Lanka 2-1 in 01, but Murali was waiting for them and when England came to the shores of Lanka in 03/04, he was ready for them as at that time he had fully developed the doosra. Now, let me frankly say that England team that played in Lanka in 03/04 had some fine players of spin like Thorpe, Tres and Vaughan, but all the batsmen were just bamboozled by Murali's ability to bowl doosra. He took 26 wickets at just 12.3 in that series as Lanka won the series 1-0. I do remember only Vaughan coming good in that series as he scored one of the better hundreds I have seen against Murali at Kandy, but as expected, most journalists only think about the knocks that Vaughan played in the Ashes and this knock at Kandy rarely gets mentioned!
The world champion team Australia whitewashed Lanka 3-0 in 04, but even they couldn't handle Murali's threat as he took 28 wickets in that series! He even went to India and took a seven wicket haul in 05, but couldn't get much support from the other end as Lanka lost that series.
Murali was a prolific wicket taker for Lancashire in county cricket as well as he helped the team to almost win their first title for more than 50 years. I do remember the former Warwickshire and Scotland all rounder Dougie Brown once saying that when he played against Murali, he saw the ball being delivered, but the next thing he knew was he was bowled! He just was too good for county batsmen as they were all at sixes and sevens against Murali.
It was also the time when Murali started to come around the wicket as most of the opposition batsmen were taking the off stump guard and blocking most of the deliveries that Murali would bowl by playing him with their pads. It would mean that batsmen can't be given out as he would have played that delivery outside the line of off stump. Murali coming around the wicket made him even more potent as batsmen couldn't block him and with the amount of turn Murali could impart along with that deadly doosra meant that batsmen were all at sea against him.
The decline of Murali
I once thought that Murali may even reach 1000 test wickets, but sadly for Murali it wasn't to be as this week he announced his retirement from test cricket. The amount of overs he bowled just took a heavy toll on his body as he started to get injured lots of times and as expected, he announced he would retire after the test series against India as it isn't a child's play to bowl 30, or 40 overs in a test match at the age of 37. As it is said that all good things have come to an end and sadly we aren't going to see Murali in 2011 in test cricket, but thankfully, we would see him for one last time against India and he may also play the world cup in subcontinent in 2011. One thing is for sure that batsmen would be happy Murali is going to retire!
Murali's wickets against weak teams and his struggles in Australia
One criticism leveled against Murali is that 176 of his wickets came against weak teams like Zimbabwe and Bangladesh, but the fact is, leaving Australia, he has succeeded against most other teams. It can also be said that players like Goodwin and Whittall were decent players of spin and of course, I have to talk about the underrated Andy Flower who, developed into one of the best players of spin. People who support Murali can even say that Zimb batsmen were perhaps better than England's batsmen in the 90's as most of England's batsmen were afraid of leaving their crease.
People also talk about his struggles against Australia, but it has be said that it isn't easy for any bowler if crowd starts chanting no ball every time a bowler bowls and even the Prime Minister of the land calls him a chucker.
Murali and his batting
I would also like to talk a bit about his batting. He was a natural number 11, but there was never a dull moment when he was batting. He would make room and either look to slog the bowler over the cow corner, or through the long off region. He surely annoyed a few teams with his batting as I can remember him scoring a crucial half century against India in 01, he also was able to consistently annoy England’s bowlers in 03/04 and recently he won a game against Zimbabwe by coming up with some big hits. The simple fact is, there was never a dull moment when Murali was batting!
Batsmen who played well against Murali
The first batsman that comes to my mind would be Lara as he was just amazing against Murali in 01. Other Windies batsmen were at sixes and sevens against Murali, but Lara got huge scores against Murali on turning tracks. Even now Murali rates Lara as the best batsman he has bowled to.
Early in his career, Andy Flower struggled big time against Murali, but once he got the hang of playing spin, he became a nightmare for every spinner going around. At his peak, from 97 to 01 he was outstanding against Murali both at home and in Lanka. I still rate his knock of 129 at Harare in 99/00 against Murali and co. as one of the best knocks I have seen against spin. Infact, after that series ended, Ranatunga jokingly said the only way to get Flower out was through a run out!
Haq too was very good against Murali and was rarely troubled by Murali. In fact, other Pakistan's batsmen like Yousuf and Younis Khan too were good against him.
Thorpe and Fleming too had success against Murali. Thorpe was at his best against Murali in 01 and Fleming was at his best in 03 when he made a double century at Galle.
Of course, I can't leave out the Indian maestro Tendulkar, but I always thought that he was at his best against the other great spinner of modern times Warne.
Among others, KP played a devastating knock on a slow pitch at Edgbaston, but struggled on slow pitches of Lanka. He still has the time on his hands to correct it. Cronje had some success against Murali in 98 as he used his reach to good effect to come down the wicket and play that slog sweep. Vaughan played one glorious knock against Murali in 03/04, but one knock doesn't make anyone a very good player. Sidhu had lots of success against Murali, but that was the time when Murali seemed to be lacking in self belief though, it has to be said that Sidhu was no doubt one of the best players of spin.
Murali and controversy
Of course, I can't write an article on Murali without discussing about the controversy surrounding his action. He was first called for chucking in 95/96 at Melbourne by Hair. Interestingly, Hair had already stood in few series in which Murali had bowled like the Sharjah champions trophy and didn't find anything wrong with his action, but at Melbourne he called him for chucking. He was cleared by the ICC, but in 04, question marks were again raised over his doosra which made ICC take up the help of bio-mechanists who, after an extensive research came up with some startling revelations.
At that time, the limit for spinners was five degrees, but based on studies of bowling actions it revealed that leaving Sarwan, 99% of the bowlers exceeded the elbow flexion limits. As a result, ICC revised the limits applying to all bowlers and Murali's doosra falls within those limits.
I have to admit that in the past I had my doubts over Murali's action, but now I think his action is legitimate.
Albondiga who surely knows a thing or two about cricket on Murali's action,
"Muralitharan will always bring out opinions regarding bowling actions . Me ?? I simply believe that it is impossible to effectively throw when the ball follows the hand on its path. To throw it is necessary to have the hand and the fingers behind the ball otherwise there is nothing to be gained from any straightening of the arm"
I also remember even the great Sir Donald Bradman saying that there is nothing wrong with his action.People may always have question marks over his action as it is unique and looking at it for the first time, it seems like he is throwing. I don't mind anyone questioning his action as they have the right to do so, but the kind of abuse he received in Australia was very unfortunate.
Murali is also a gentleman on and off the field and when the tragic natural disaster tsunami befell on Sri Lanka, Murali did a lot of charity work.
Anyway, I would always be grateful that I was able to see two of the greatest spinners of all time Warne and Murali bamboozle the best of batsmen. I would end it by saying that Murali may not have been a purists delight like Warne, but in my humble opinion, he is the most effective spinner of all time and if I pick an all time world team, he would be in the team.