From mere underdogs to being feared, Sri Lanka’s journey to the top has been a tumultuous one, but a fruitful one nevertheless. Many key characters have played a key role not only in putting Sri Lanka on the cricketing map but also cementing their legacy. The likes of Arjuna Ranatunga, Aravinda de Silva, Sanath Jayasuriya, Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene are just a few lynchpins of Sri Lanka’s rise over the last 25 years or so. It would be criminal if one did not mention Muttiah Muralitharan in the same breath. Despite a controversial career in the initial stages, the Sri Lankan spinner went on to forge the most successful career among all bowlers to have ever graced the game. His 800 Test wickets and 534 One-Day International (ODI) wickets are certainly records which are beyond anyone’s reach for a long, long time.
His 800th and final Test wicket came on this day in 2010 and fittingly off the last delivery he bowled in Test cricket. An apt reward form someone who has tirelessly served Sri Lankan cricket for close to two decades and even today his irresistible smile, his hunger for the game continues to rub off and inspire future generations.
It wasn’t all smooth sailing for him though. He was drafted into the Sri Lankan side after bamboozling none other than Allan Border in a practice match ahead of the Test series in 1992. He tasted little success in the game, coming away with just three scalps, which included that of Tom Moody and Mark Waugh. The world got a glimpse of the young off-spinner’s potential when he bowled Moody after the ball spun back into the batsman from two feet outside off and crashed into leg stump.
By the time he visited Australia in 1995-96, Murali was already an up and coming bowler, who had picked up 78 wickets from 21 Tests at 30.73.
However, Murali had the advantage of being backed to the hilt by his captain Arjuna Ranatunga, who a few years later threatened to walk out from a game after the umpire called no-ball for chucking (in 1999). In 1996, it was initially umpire Darrell Hair, who called out Murali for chucking as many as seven times in three overs. Ranatunga then smartly switched Murali’s end and umpire Steve Dunne found no problems with his action. What irked the Sri Lankans was the fact that umpire Hair threatened to call a no-ball from square leg. 10 days later, in a World Series match umpire Ross Emerson too called Murali for throwing.
Luckily for Murali, his board, team-mates and captain stood by him, which was an indication of the talent he possessed and it was evident that they did not want it to go waste. To figure out what Murali was doing so wrong with his bowling, he underwent a biochemical analysis at the University of Western Australia and at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. He was cleared to bowl after the test – first in 1996 and then in 1999 – when it was revealed that his action gives an ‘optical illusion of throwing’ more so when he uses his ‘doosra’.
Had he not received the backing, we would have perhaps been deprived of Murali’s greatness. We perhaps would be living in a world where Shane Warne was the greatest spinner to grace the game and Wasim Akram would still be sitting on the throne when it came to one-day cricket wickets. But in what we could only describe as minor hiccups. Muralitharan went on to forge a career which is not just enviable by past, current and future generations but a career which is near-impossible to replicate.
While getting a wicket off the final ball in Test is a terrific achievement in itself, it ended with the most successful Sri Lankan bowler-fielder combination c Jayawardene b Muralitharan – which is still among the top combinations in Test cricket. This combination however has seen the most wickets picked up which does not involve a wicketkeeper. In the 96 Tests Jayawardene and Murali played together, the former has pouched a catch off the off-spinner on 77 occasions. Other iconic partnerships like Anil Kumble-Rahul Dravid (55), Shane Warne-Mark Waugh (51), Harbhajan Singh-Mark Waugh (51) are well below the iconic duo.
Another remarkable statistic Muralitharan holds is his wickets per match ratio. Among cricketers who have played at least 30 Tests, Murali’s 6.02 wickets per match is the highest. Incidentally, the next four on the list too happen to be fellow spinners.
Murali’s consistency was never in question. It was a given that he would take at least 20 wickets in a three-match Test series and he seldom disappointed. In fact, there are only two three-match series in which he has failed to hit the 20-wicket mark – narrowly missing out with just 19 scalps during New Zealand and England’s visits to the island nation in 1998 and 2007-08 respectively.
The fact that Murali dismissed Pragyan Ojha – a No. 11 batsman – as his final Test wicket does not take the shine off a remarkable career. Barring Rangana Herath, no spinner has come even close to being prolific for Sri Lanka, and 10 years since Murali’s final day in Test, they have not found much success. In fact, Sri Lanka have won just 31 out of their 96 matches since that day. Only West Indies (23), Bangladesh (11) and Zimbabwe (4) won lesser games.
While the more recent series wins in UAE against Pakistan and in South Africa are slow signs of their resurgence, consistency is something that has not been a kind friend to them. With the likes of Sangakkara, Jayawardene and more recently Herath walking away from the game, it gives an opportunity for someone else to make a name for themselves, and serve the nation like Murali and his colleagues did for decades. Who will that be? Who will be the next Muralitharan to emerge out of Sri Lanka? It still remains a mystery.