From the outset, Muttiah Muralitharan’s career looks to be a smooth and pleasant journey – 800 Test wickets, 534 ODI wickets – both world records and a World Cup winner. But what these statistics do not tell you is the sweat, hard work, skills and determination that were required to eventually become one of the finest of his generation. There are very few cricketers that have absolutely zero haters around the world and Murali is certainly on that list.
Often the subject of many chucking allegations, Muralitharan never let that deter his confidence or the love for bowling and always came back even better. Of course, he had the backing of his captain Arjuna Ranatunga, who once threatened to take his team off the field when the on-field umpire called a no-ball for chucking on the tour of Australia in 1998-99. It reached its tipping point when Murali was also accused of chucking by the umpires on his previous tours of Australia.
Other than Shane Warne, Murali was the only bowler who could get the ball to rip on any surface in the world. A subcontinental bowler dominating in places like South Africa, England, Australia and New Zealand was more or less unheard of. Hence, his marathon 16-wicket haul at The Oval in 1998 – a performance he considers his best, 8 for 70 at Trent Bridge or 6 for 39 at Durban, Muralitharan always set the bar high. At times, he even did one better than his rival at that point – Shane Keith Warne.
In a tour game, it was Allan Border, who failed to pick him in the ’92-93 season after which Murali made his debut against Australia in the second Test of the series. However, over the years, Murali developed the doosra which made him more of a threat and only after that, he could rival the greatness of Warne, so much so that it was a given that he would pick up at least 20 wickets in a three-match series.
When one thought no bowler will ever come close to Warne’s staggering 96 wickets in a calendar year in 2005, Murali, the very next year picked up 90, but he did so having played four matches lesser and with a significantly better average (16.90) and strike-rate (39.2). It was a similar case even in ODIs , when Murali almost came close to doing one better than Warne’s 62 wickets in 1999, when the Sri Lankan spinner fell short by six wickets, playing four matches lesser than the Australian great.
Murali had great success especially against left-handers, dismissing the likes of Sourav Ganguly (9), Grant Flower (10) and Marcus Trescothick (8) on many occasions in Tests, but in the 50-over format it was the left-handers who he struggled against the most with the likes of Adam Gilchrist, Nick Knight, Gautam Gambhir and Ganguly, who averaged well over 90 against the offspinner. Nevertheless, Murali went on to average six wickets per Test, which is an incredible feat, considering that he went on to play 133 matches.
Murali faced a lot of criticism as it was believed that he picked a lot of ‘cheap’ wickets against the weak Bangladesh and Zimbabwe teams. However, even after discounting performances against those teams, he had 624 Test wickets at 24.87, which was still better than Warne or Anil Kumble.
No doubt, having the most Test and ODI wickets is something every bowler strives to achieve, but when pitted against winning the World Cup, those are mere feathers in a cap. Just about four years into international cricket, Muralitharan won the World Cup with Sri Lanka – who were underdogs. Muralitharan finished as his nation’s joint-highest wicket-taker with seven scalps at a miserly economy rate of 3.77.
Even otherwise, Muralitharan did well in ODIs, spinning a web around batsmen around the world. He formed a decent partnership with the likes of Sanath Jayasuriya, when they bowled in tandem. They played together in 307 matches, picking up 702 wickets between them and contributed significantly to Sri Lanka’s growing success right from the mid-90s.
It is always not about the stats Muralitharan contributed, but the way he played the game – always with a smile on his face – amidst all the controversy surrounding his bowling action. Murali took the blow on his chin, recovered and went on to put on one stellar performance after another be it for Sri Lanka or any other team.
He was bestowed with the ICC Hall of Fame in 2017 – the first from his country to achieve this honour, and perhaps none more deserving.