x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

The modest spin master

Muttiah Muralitharan is still in love. His passion for cricket is as intense, at 37, as it was when he was a teenager.

Muttiah Muralitharan is still in love. His passion for cricket, a torrid affair that has helped his beloved Sri Lanka to rise from international also-rans to one of the world's most formidable teams, is as intense, at the age of 37, as it was when he had a teenage crush on the game and it dawned on him that he had a remarkable gift for playing it. It is an affair that has brought him fame, fortune, records galore and, despite some controversy along the way, acclaim as one of the greatest spin bowlers in cricket history. The records tell part of the story: the most Test match wickets, 778 and counting; the most one-day international wickets, 505 and more to come; and, most recently, the most maiden overs bowled in Test cricket. But there is more to Muralitharan than cold, dispassionate numbers can ever convey.

Muralitharan's date with Test cricket destiny began on August 28, 1992, against Alan Border's all-conquering Australians in Colombo. He snared Craig McDermott leg before in Australia's first innings for his first Test wicket, and claimed the prize scalps of Mark Waugh and Tom Moody in the second. Some 17 years later, Murali is still bowling strong, and is adding to his record tally in the on going second Test against New Zealand in Colombo.

Murali was born in Kandy to a Tamil family on April 17, 1972, and his father ran a small confectioner's business. He has come a long way from those humble origins, but fame and adulation have not changed him. Sitting down for a chat with the man who stands alongside the Australian Shane Warne as arguably the greatest spin bowlers to have played cricket is a pleasant experience. Murali is courteous, only too happy to discuss how he became one of the wonders of his sport - and how it has all come as a pleasant surprise to him.

"I never had the slightest thought that I would enjoy world-class status when I first entered the Test arena," said Murali. "Of course I felt it was an honour to represent Sri Lanka and it was such a proud moment for me. All I wanted to do at that time was perform to the best of my ability. "Time has passed and I am enjoying the status of being the world's leading wicket taker in both versions of the game. This is not something I yearned for when I first started playing at the international level. This is something I have inherited over the years.

"It is very difficult to describe how I have lasted for so long. Obviously my confidence grew after every game. But for the work, it was the same hard labour, day in and day out. I was able to add a few variations to my bowling and they have worked well for me to achieve what I have achieved today." Murali is also a realist, and knows that if he had not keep on taking wickets he would not have lasted in the Sri Lanka team for so long. "You have to deliver at every game to be in the starting XI," he said. "I believe it was hard and honest work that took me to the top of my playing career. And thank God, I was pretty fortunate not to suffer any career-threatening injuries.

"And most importantly I still enjoy what I do best. I certainly would not have achieved what I have achieved so far if I had not enjoyed playing. I look forward to every game as if it was my first Test." Murali came to prominence as a youngster. He was a big turner of the ball for his school team, St Anthony's, and, after he burst on to the international scene, his attacking bowling and seemingly endless stamina have been the undoing of countless seasoned batsmen.

The most famous of his big spinners is the doosra, a ball that turns in the opposite direction to his conventional off spinner. Like most of his spin repertoire, it is also hard to score runs off, and Murali's stinginess was rewarded with another record earlier this month, when he bowled seven maidens in the first Test against New Zealand to pass the most Test maidens record set by - you guessed it - Shane Warne.

Murali is proud of his records, but says his real joy comes from helping Sri Lanka to win matches. "At the end of the day, it is the matches we win that are most important. The records are good to have but there is no better feeling than when we win. The personal records are more meaningful when the team wins. When we win, it is for everyone, the entire team celebrates." Murali has said he plans to step down from Test cricket next year, and he does have one unfulfilled ambition: "I would like to have finished my Test career with 1,000 wickets, but that will take another four to five years. And that's an awful lot of time. I feel my body can't take that any more. I'll be happy to go out of Test cricket on a high.

"Cricket is well established in Sri Lanka and there is a huge following in the country with the success of our team. I have enjoyed my cricket from childhood and have had a very good time and success with it. But all the good things must come to an end one day and I feel my time is nearing. It has been a wonderful journey for me and I will have no regrets when I finally retire from the game." Murali feels retiring from the rigours of five-day Tests will give him more time to play in the limited-over versions of the game until the 2011 World Cup is jointly hosted by India, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. "I think I still can contribute in the limited-over format, particularly when I quit Test cricket."

Murali has had his share of controversy, but does not want to get involved in a debate about his bowling action. His reasoning is simple: his action has been examined and deemed legal by the International Cricket Council. Murali was called for throwing while touring Australia in 1995-96, first in the Boxing Day Test at Melbourne and later in the one-day series that followed. He was cleared by the ICC after biomechanical analysis at the University of Western Australia and at the University of Hong Kong in 1996. They examiners concluded his action created the "optical illusion of throwing".

But the controversy did not end there. He was called again on the 1998-99 tour of Australia and was sent for further tests in Perth and England where he was cleared again. However, the effectiveness of his doosra led to further suspicion and at the end of a prolific three-match home series against Australia in March, 2004 he was reported by the ICC match referee, Chris Broad. More high-tech tests followed, and ultimately the ICC a was forced to examine the entire issue of throwing in international cricket, which revealed that many bowlers bend their arms during delivery, and that Murali might have been made a scapegoat.

Meanwhile, Murali continued to pile on the wickets, overtaking Courtney Walsh's 519-wicket world record in May, 2004 to become the highest wicket-taker in Test history - a record he was to lose to Warne and then regain. Murali starred again in a home Test series against Bangladesh in 2007 when, with the last of his 26 wickets, he became the second player to 700 Test wickets. He duly passed Warne's Test record of 708 wickets against England in December, 2007, fittingly on his home ground in Kandy.

And he achieved the remarkable double of being the highest wicket-taker in one-day internationals as well when he went past Wasim Akram's record of 502 wickets earlier this year. He plans to step down from the Test arena after the series against the West Indies in November. He said: "I am beginning to feel the burden of playing Test cricket. I want to go out when I am still on top and the time has come to leave Test cricket for good.

"I don't want to stand ahead of the youngsters anymore. Ajantha Mendis and Rangana Herath have come through well and should carry on with the good work for the team. There are also some up and coming young spinners." True. But there are no Muralis. apassela@thenational.ae