Jul 11, 2010

Farewell to Muralitharan

Aakar Patel

Sri Lanka's Muttiah Muralitharan will retire from test cricket this month after the Lankans play India on July 18 in Galle. Murali's performance in his last appearance will be anticipated for a second reason. He has taken 792 test wickets and another eight in the match against India will mean he will be the first bowler in history to get 800 wickets.

I am hoping he gets there, because it is a record that is unlikely to be surpassed. And it's always better to have these things happen before you, than wonder how great someone might have been whom you've never seen play, like Don Bradman.

We can tell generations after us that Sachin was better than current batsman XYZ or that bowler ABC couldn't swing it like Akram. We might be right, but it doesn't matter if we're not because we saw Sachin and Akram play and the other person didn't.

Murali's record will remain even as if he doesn't get to 800, of course, because nations don't play as much test cricket as they used to.

With the popularity of Twenty20, whose matches have been added to the calendar, and the addition of several international and local tournaments, this fading of test match cricket is unlikely to change. The days when many players on a team had 100 tests behind them are surely behind us.

The busiest national teams play about a dozen tests a year. The very best bowlers, like Murali, average between five and six wickets in a test. This means that a bowler must be around for a dozen years performing at his peak in tests to equal Murali and I don't think that will happen.

Murali is an attacking bowler, which is strange because he's an off-spinner, the most basic kind of bowler in cricket.

His menace comes from two things. The first is his (naturally) bent elbow, and the other is his wrist action, which snaps the ball out during release rather than rotating it with fingers in the manner of other off-spinners.

Of the men on the list of top wicket-takers, he's the only off-spinner, though it could be argued that Anil Kumble is also an off-spinner who bowls with a leg-spinner's wrist action.

The man whose record Murali broke to become the leader is the great Shane Warne, a genuine leg-spinner with over 700 wickets.

Spinners dominate the list of wicket-takers because the quicks don't last as long. Shins, knees, backs and rotator cuffs are all worn out with the pounding that the fast bowler's body takes, and develop stress fractures over time. I once saw in super slow-motion what Shoaib Akhtar's body went through during a delivery (ball, not baby) and it was frightening.

The spinners also come under strain, but not as much. Warne said it wasn't the bowling itself, but the running up to bowl that tired him out most. At some point after tea, the legs just gave up, he said. This could be because he's a fatty.

But the point is that because they're less worn out after every year, spinners last longer and thus dominate our list.

Murali is in fact the only cricketer from his side still around from the dazzling Lankan team that won the World Cup in 1996.

Murali is also the only Tamilian on the Lankan team, and the only Hindu. Such things might not mean much in other parts of the world but for us inclusion is important. It makes us feel better if national teams are inclusive in their representation.

Murali's name is a synonym for the god Krishna, who plays the flute, or Murali, and hence Muralitharan (or Muralidharan) is he-who-holds-the-flute.

Most Sri Lankans are Buddhist, though there are also Christians in the team, like Dilhara Fernando, and Muslims, like Ferveez Maharoof.

The end of Muralitharan's career has come after he has beaten off questions of the legitimacy of his action. For many years in the 1990s, he was accused of being a chucker. His action was then checked or corrected through a scientific process which found that the straightening of his elbow during his delivery was due to a deformity in his arm.

But this has not satisfied everyone.

Bishan Bedi, who bowled left arms slow in the 60s and 70s, said Murali had the action of a javelin thrower. "If Murali doesn't chuck, show me how to bowl", he said.

I think it was Australia's Darrell Hair who used the word 'diabolical' to describe Murali's action. Diabolical means Satanic, and so that was slightly off. Hair was one of the two umpires to no-ball Murali, saying that the action was suspect. There were also questions about how the ball could do the sort of things Murali made it do, if his action was clean.

It is true that all three bowlers who have the ability to bowl the doosra -- Muralitharan, Saqlain Mushtaq and Harbhajan -- bend their elbow in delivery.

The doosra is the ball that is spun away from the right-hander, and the South Asian bowlers invented it.

Bedi says that if the doosra was legitimate, first-rate spinners like Prasanna would have learnt how to bowl it decades earlier, and it is difficult to argue against that.

Australia's cricket board has apparently banned the doosra from domestic cricket, though it's unclear what will happen when a foreigner bowls it at Sydney.

The man Murali thinks has a chance of overtaking him is India's Harbhajan.

Harbhajan has 355 wickets (exactly as many as Dennis Lillee) in 83 tests, and he is only 30. Though he's likely to play for another seven years or so, it's unlikely that he will approach Murali's record. That is because India's cricket board is focussed on limited overs cricket since much more money may be made here from the gate and from sponsors than in tests.

Harbhajan debuted in 1998 so he's played an average of only seven tests a year. He will have to double that rate now to get close, and that's not about to happen.

So will Murali be seen as the greatest bowler in history? There is a good case for that. He also holds the record for most wickets in one-day internationals, taking 515 in 337 matches. Akram is second with 502 in 356.

I saw a link on the cricket website, cricinfo.com, asking people for their opinion on whether Akram was the best left-arm fast bowler of all time. Bradman had said earlier that he was, though I think Akram was easily the greatest bowler of his era, left or right, fast or slow, and I don't know if a better bowler ever played cricket.

Had he played longer, and I think he should have because he's still so fit, he could have had a crack at the record. Uniquely among fast bowlers, Akram bowls with a bent front knee. This is unorthodox, because the body needs the straight leg on which to pivot and accelerate the arm, but Akram generated his power from his shoulders and a quick action.

He could have lasted longer for this reason, since most fast bowlers usually end their careers when their knees pack up.

With him gone, no fast bowler is likely to come close to Murali.

Another reason I think Murali's record will last is that spinners aren't as important a part of teams any more. I am fine with that. Spinners are enjoyable to watch only on hard wickets, where the ball bounces and spin may be seen. On the subcontinent, spin is boring to watch because hardly anything is visible up close because it's dusty and the ball doesn't rise.

Jim Laker once described heaven as Bishan Bedi bowling at one end and Ray Lindwall at the other. These two men because they had exemplary actions. Murali's action is quite ugly, but I wouldn't mind watching it for a very long time, though not perhaps for eternity.

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