x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Muralitharan: 800 and out

The Sri Lankan spin wizard was one of a kind and played the game of cricket differently and on his own terms.

Prodigious spin propelled by an abnormally strong wrist and an iron resolve forged in acrimony over his unique action took Muttiah Muralitharan to unprecedented heights in world cricket. Muralitharan, 38, took his 800th Test wicket with his final ball in 133 games yesterday. With Twenty20 cutting increasingly into the Test programme it is a mark that is unlikely to be exceeded.

Muralitharan, son of a confectioner from Kandy and a member of Sri Lanka's embattled Tamil minority, believes his best Test figures, 16 for 220 at the Oval in 1999, remain his career highlight. The one-off Test against an England side who had just beaten South Africa in a series was an unforgettable snapshot of his wondrous powers of flight and spin and the parallel emergence of Sri Lanka as a world force.

An hour before play began on a sunlit final morning, Muralitharan warmed up in the middle under the guidance of Arjuna Ranatunga. By late afternoon, Ranatunga, Muralitharan and their teammates were celebrating a 10-wicket victory. Only a run out denied Muralitharan all the England second-innings wickets. "It was a mental trial beyond comparison," Steven James, one of the England openers, wrote recently. "There was no physical threat, just an umremitting battle against a bowler of supreme accuracy and stamina, with pace and degrees of turn being varied almost imperceptibly."

Muralitharan's triumph followed an oblique but unmistakable message from David Lloyd, the England coach, on the previous evening. "I have my opinions that I have made known to the authorities," Lloyd said. Lloyd's remarks were triggered by Muralitharan's standard delivery, which, at first glance, appears to break the fundamental rule of bowling, namely the obligation to deliver the ball without bending and then straightening the arm.

Darrell Hair, the Australian umpire, no-balled the Sri Lankan seven times for throwing in the 1995 Melbourne Test. Ten days later, Muralitharan was no-balled repeatedly by Roy Emerson in a one-day international (ODI). In January 1999, Emerson called him again in Adelaide. Muralitharan, taunted by the Australian crowds whenever he took the ball, announced he would never tour Australia again and contemplated retirement.

He decided instead to fight back with the support of the Sri Lankan board and his career was rescued by the International Cricket Board (ICC). Extensive tests concluded that Muralitharan's action "created the optical illusion of throwing". Because of an elbow deformity, Muralitharan's arm remains bent in delivery; it does not straighten. Muralitharan made his debut against Australia in 1992, immediately bringing a cutting edge to a side who abounded in attractive, prolific batsmen but struggled to dismiss sides twice.

He played an essential role in Sri Lanka's exhilarating run to the 1996 ODI World Cup and enjoyed consistent success in both forms of the game before his body finally rebelled against a heavy workload. Muralitharan's 16 wickets at the 1999 Oval Test gave him 200 wickets in 42 Tests, the same figure as Shane Warne, his great contemporary and rival who went on to become the first man to amass 700 wickets.

The pair were to dominate world cricket for the best part of a decade and, although the extrovert Australian was to become one of the Wisden almanac's five cricketers of the 20th century, Muralitharan's fiercely devoted supporters believe he was the superior bowler. A convincing case can be mounted for either man but the essential difference is style rather than effect. Warne was a classicist, the best in a continuing line of Australian leg-spinners.

Muralitharan is a romantic, a man who brought something completely new to his sport by bowling fierce off-spin with his wrist rather than the standard gentler version flicked off the index finger. He became a complete bowler by adding the "doosra", the delivery which spins away from the right-hander, allied to a top-spinner, which both bounced and hurried on to the batsman. At his peak, he was close to unplayable.

In a country split by sectarian strife, he has also been an exemplary representative of the Tamil people. "He has taken much from the game of cricket, but he has given back so much to our society," said Kumar Sangakkara, his captain. "More than any other public figure in Sri Lanka, he stands apart." * Reuters