Umpires’ focus of attention – or more particularly Darrell Hair’s atavistic bête noir – cynosure of controversy, statisticians’ delight, performance colossus, wicket-taking machine, sheer genius... call him what you will but July 22, 2010 will see the last of Muttiah Muralidharan should the first test between Indian and Sri Lanka last the five days. And considering the kind of pitches one associates with Sri Lanka there is strong likelihood that the hawk-eyed and spring-armed offie may be in operation on the last day, trying to plot one final victory for his team like he has done so often this decade. It is hard enough to imagine what world cricket will be with the third – and arguably the greatest – of the great spin trio gone, let alone wonder what sort of vacuum it would leave to Sri Lankan bowling. That Vaas, another stalwart though much underrated, is the second in the list of leading Sri Lankan wicket-takers in tests with 437 sticks less than Murali just gives an inkling of the epoch-making impact the wizard has had on Sri Lankan bowling. Behind and ahead of him in time steady performers seem like unseasoned dwarfs, such has been Murali’s influence.
Through the noughties, even as Kumble wheeled away with the accuracy of an engineering metronome and Shane Warne prolonged the legacy of leg-spin bowling he had made very much his own, Murali simultaneously remained Sri Lankan’s most important player and therefore the butt of racist sneers (from various quarters) and an inordinate load of accusations against his action even by such well respected names as Adam Gilchrist. While it is unfortunate that Muralidharan and ‘controversy’ will go into cricket history textbooks together, it will be unfair to reduce an incredible average of a shade above 22, 66 five-wicket hauls and 22 ten-wicket hauls, or for that matter the prodigious ability to turn the ball on any surface, to a fortuitous biological deformity. It is as much as saying that if more English kids just stayed in the subcontinent, they would bowl spin like the quartet in the seventies. Yet Murali has braved it all, ever with the strongest support from the board and teammates – a pattern that began when Arjuna Ranathunga took his team off the field when Darrell Hair repeatedly no-balled Murali Downunder in 1993 – and fellow giants like Warne and Kumble who both hold Murali in tremendously high regard and rightly so.
|One of those 43669 deliveries he has sent down|
Controversies, statistics and mastery aside, what Murali has brought to Sri Lankan bowling is not comparable even with the aggressive new face that Sanath Jayasuriya gave to their batting during and after the 1996 World Cup which the embattled Islanders won in convincing fashion. If modern fans adored their bowlers more than their batsmen and if Sri Lanka were the India of World Cricket, then it would not be unseemly to think of Muralitharan as a Sachin Tendulkar. Both little men have carried the support, passion and incantation of two cricket crazy peoples wherever they have gone and played. Both have been stoical and strong on the face of scathing castigation and emerged the stronger for their sincerity. And like all true champions, neither has allowed record book reams or their past glories to get to their head and remain humble to a fault. Undoubtedly, the last duel between Murali and Tendulkar will be well worth a cricket fan’s time as the two face off for the last time at Galle.
It is said about a lot of team sports, and by metaphorical extension about a lot of situations in life, that no individual is indispensable. Give Murali a hint that he might have become indispensable, he will grin like a school boy, those wide innocent eyes all focused on you, and say with that awkward Sri Lankan lilt in his English that it cannot be! But the thing is geniuses can hardly fathom what it is to be not them and look at them. One fact will not be denied, not even by Murali. As the veteran offie, eight wickets short of eight hundred, walks out for Sri Lanka for one last time in whites, an era will come to a close. That he may play the limited overs’ game till the 2011 World Cup gives cricket fans an opportunity to catch glimpses of the Muttiah magic. Yet for the purist cricket lover, Murali’s last ball in test cricket is likely to leave goose-skin if not a teardrop – for he is the last and by light-years the best of the greatest post-modern spinners. And world cricket will indubitably be poorer without him.
PS: The cricinfo player database still lists him as Muttiah Muralitharan - a spelling that is no more used on his jerseys or scoreboards.