Muttiah Muralitharan’s controversial bowling style has redefined our understanding of cricket forever, says Dileep Premachandran
TO PUT the miracle of Muttiah Muralitharan into perspective, not one bowler currently playing has more than 400 wickets. And then there’s Muralitharan, whose eight-wicket haul in Galle last week took his tally to a scarcely believable 800. Bishan Singh Bedi and Bhagwat Chandrasekhar, the most prolific of India’s legendary spin quartet of the 1960s and 1970s, averaged around four wickets a Test. So did Jim Laker, whose 19 wickets at Old Trafford in 1956, remains an unprecedented feat. Anil Kumble did even better, taking 619 wickets in 132 games. Shane Warne was the best of them all, managing nearly five a game despite having to share wicket-taking duties with Glenn Mc Grath. Incredibly, Murali played just one more Test than Kumble, 12 fewer than Warne, and finished with a record that’s unlikely to be broken.
There’s a perception about Murali that he took a lot of wickets because he bowled a lot. But while he sent down a mindboggling 44,039 deliveries in his 18-year-long Test career, his strike-rate of a wicket every 55 balls puts every other slow bowler in the shade. Australia’s famed leg-spin duo of Clarrie Grimmett and ‘Tiger’ Bill O’Reilly, took more than five wickets a Test, but needed at least 10 balls more per wicket.
The story of Murali’s career is not just a tale of unparallelled individual achievement. His career perfectly describes the ascent of Sri Lankan cricket. Before Murali came along, an off-spinner who Allan Border mistook for a wristy leggie, Sri Lanka had lost 20 of 38 Tests, winning only two. Of the 59 victories the islanders have managed since 1992, Murali was part of 54. And in those successes, he took more than eight wickets a game (438), at the ridiculous average of 16.18.
For someone who played nearly two decades, what was remarkable was how few batsmen mastered him. Brian Lara batted brilliantly for 688 runs in a series in 2001, picking his doosra better than anyone ever had, but Murali still finished with 24 wickets from three Tests.
‘The wiser ones learnt to guess which ball he was sending down, but even they could be flummoxed by the extent of the turn’
There’s a wonderful story of Ramnaresh Sarwan walking down the pitch to ask Lara how he managed to pick Murali’s doosra. “Just watch how I do it” was Lara’s advice. In Murali’s next over, he came down the pitch and smashed a straight six. As Sarwan stared wide-eyed, Lara walked up to him and said, “That is the doosra.”
It was the ‘other one’ that took Murali’s career to another level and generated relentless controversy. Before he perfected the doosra, Murali was a prodigious turner of the off-break, but against batsmen such as Navjot Singh Sidhu who were especially adept at playing it, he soon ran out of options. The doosra, along with one that went straight on, made him far less predictable, especially with batsmen unable to read him from the hand.
In a sense, Murali was a pioneer. For more than a century, batting technique against spin has revolved around picking the ball from the hand. As a result of the deformed elbow and the wrist action he put on the ball, all you got to see with Murali was the back of his hand. The wiser ones learnt to guess which ball he was sending down, on the basis of his position at the bowling crease and the line he bowled, but even they could be flummoxed by the extent of turn he managed to get.
It is a myth that Murali and Saqlain Mushtaq developed the doosra. Most batsmen of past generations will tell you of the odd surprise that off-spinners came up with. “I played a lot against Indian spinners,” says Tony Greig, “and there’s no doubt that they sometimes bowled a quicker one that went the other way.”
Murali took a lot of wickets before he perfected the doosra, but having it in his armoury made him nearly unplayable for some. It wasn’t long before a school of thought pronounced it impossible to bowl the doosra without straightening the arm excessively. Chucking, to put not too fine a point on it.
IN THAT regard, cricket will be indebted to Murali for helping it understand the mechanics of bowling better. It was only with the furore over his action that serious research was done on the subject. And while the sceptics love to believe that the rules were changed to accommodate him, the facts state otherwise. Investigating Murali’s action forced scientists to look at others, and thereby discover that it was impossible to bowl without some degree of straightening.
The 15-degree limit, which was finally arrived at, wasn’t to make Murali’s bowling legitimate, as much as to ensure that any kink in the action would be visible to the naked eye. Below that, figuring out whether someone’s action was legitimate became a matter of conjecture. Darrell Hair and Ross Emerson may have believed that they were doing the right thing by no-balling Murali, but a multitude of tests conducted on him since suggest otherwise.
Several sceptics like Alec Stewart and Nasser Hussain changed their views after watching them. In 2004, for Channel Four in the UK, he went through his entire repertoire of deliveries while wearing a cast that made it impossible for him to straighten the arm much. Afterwards he told me: “So many of the people who talk about this issue don’t even know what a bowling action is. There are cricketers who haven’t gone deeper into the subject. They don’t know what research has been done in the field.”
You can look back at Muralitharan’s career in two ways. Some will say that the wicket tally should come with an asterisk to indicate the controversies. Others, like Greig, acknowledge that he revived a dying art. “Off-spinners were running out of options,” he says. “They were becoming predictable. Murali changed that. With the doosra and the top-spinner, they can be as potent as any leggie.”
His place in the pantheon and the awesome numbers aside, we should remember Murali most for embodying the essence of sport. Win or lose, sun or gloom, he twirled away with a twinkle in the eye and a smile on the lips, a man with an unusual and precious
gift who played as hard as he could without losing the sense of joy that draws us all to the game in the first place.