Test cricket July 21, 2010

The Jimi Hendrix of offspin

Muttiah Muralitharan’s incredible Test career is almost at an end, and, as I write, he is in the process of attempting to become the first and last man to take 800 Test wickets.

Muttiah Muralitharan’s incredible Test career is almost at an end, and, as I write, he is in the process of attempting to become the first and last man to take 800 Test wickets.

Given the nature of modern international cricket, I think I can predict that no one else will reach 800 with a similar level of confidence as someone announcing that John Wilkes Booth will always retain the world record for Most Assassinations Of Abraham Lincoln, or that 1924 Olympic sprint champion Harold Abrahams will never again break his own personal best for the 100 metres. Murali’s mark will stand for all time. Unless Sajid Mahmood discovers both the elixir of eternal youth and the DNA of Freddie Trueman lurking in his garden shed behind a tin of creosote and a broken lawnmower.

Murali, the Jimi Hendrix of offspin, and surely Peter Such’s only serious rival as the greatest spin bowler of the late 20th century, has just two more days before he joins the ranks of former cricketers, alongside Grace, Bradman, Sobers, Warne, Capel, Igglesden and the rest. Seven more Indian scalps lie between him and a final statistical cherry on his cherry-laden multi-layered career cake. He already has Tendulkar in the bag for the eighth time, the Mumbai Master presumably weakened by spraying litres of his magic blood all over copies of his biography.

Disappointingly, Murali’s first innings of his final Test was brief and contained no sixes. One of the lesser-trumpeted stats emerging from his 18 years of Test cricket, but one worth a quick brassy toot nonetheless, is that he stands fifth on the all-time list of Sri Lankan Test match six-hitters, with 29, behind Jayasuriya, Aravinda de Silva, Jayawardene and Ranatunga, and some considerable way ahead of the likes of 83-Test interest void Hashan Tillakaratne, and 1980s teenage one-Test-wonder Sanjeewa Weerasinghe, who has hit the same number of Test sixes as I have.

Of all Murali’s Test runs, 13.8% have been scored with maximums (impressive, but some way behind surprise all-time leaders Shoaib Akhtar [24.3%] and Michael Holding [23.7%], both bowlers who could swing the bat with the confidence that only a certifiable lunatic would attempt to curb their mayhem with a bouncer). Murali also has the fifth-highest recorded batting strike rate (70.28) of those with over 1000 Test runs. He should be the role model for all tailenders. No blocking and nudging, no eating up valuable bowling overs scrimping the odd single and exasperating the watching world. See it, whack it, giggle when you hit it, giggle when you miss it.

Whether the fireworks that accompanied Murali out to bat were to mark his final Test, or in recognition of Abhimanyu Mithun having just become the 17th Indian to take four or more wickets in his debut Test innings, must remain open to question. I have not seen the relevant paperwork.

And the fireworks when Sri Lanka later took the field could easily have been a tribute to Herath and Malinga registering respectively the fourth and the equal fifth highest scores by Sri Lankan numbers 8 and 9, whilst jointly becoming only the first eighth-wicket partnership in all Test history to add exactly 115, and only the 40th combination of 8 and 9 to score half-centuries in the same innings. All of which are surely more worthy of fireworks than a man walking onto a bit of grass. Let History be the judge.

Murali made his debut in August 1992. It was a landmark year for bowling. Warne debuted on 2 January, Murali in August, and Kumble, after a solitary Test in 1990, was recalled by India in October. And, lest we forget, Ian Salisbury turned in the greatest debut by an England legspinner in over 60 years, taking five wickets, as many as Warne amassed in his first four-and-a-half Tests.

In one year, spin, perceived by many to be a dying art of decreasing value in top-level cricket, had simultaneously launched three of its greatest ever exponents on the unsuspecting batsmen of the world.

All cricket-worshipping parts of the world should be thankful for these titans of the game, and Sri Lanka most of all. Murali has taken 40% of all his country’s wickets in his Test career, and bowled a ludicrous 33% of all their overs, ratios unmatched in cricket history. He has also been their leading (or joint-leading) wicket-taker in 42 of the 53 Tests they have won with him in the team, including 37 of 41 from September 1996 to December 2007. They have won only seven of the 61 Tests they have played without Murali, compared with 53 of 131 with him. He has not merely held the key to Sri Lankan success, he has built the entire house.

One-man-New-Zealand-XI Sir Richard Hadlee is the only modern player who comes close to matching Murali on the Maradona Scale Of Absolutely Critical Importance To A Team. He took 35% of the Kiwis’ wickets, bowled a quarter of their overs, and was leading wicket-taker in 16 of the 22 wins New Zealand achieved in his 86 Tests. They won none of the 14 Tests he missed during his career, which suggests that Hadlee was as important to his country’s cricketing victories as Muhammad Ali was to Muhammad Ali’s triumphs in the boxing ring. New Zealand won only 14 of the 170 Tests they played without Hadlee up to 1997. He was, without question, a useful cricketer for his country.

So good luck, Murali, in your quest for those final seven wickets. Cricket will miss you, your whirling wizardry and your grinning competitiveness. I was fortunate enough to have been at The Oval on the final day of the famous 1998 Test when the full extent of Murali’s magnificence slapped England full in the chops like a 200lb haddock.

England, after generously deigning to play a piddling one-Test series against the now world champions for the first time since 1991, and fresh from brilliantly stealing a Test series from under the noses of a strong but fatally cautious South Africa, were delighted to be put in by the scheming Ranatunga on a flat pitch. The home team made a solid 445, as Murali twirled away defiantly to take 7 for lots. Ranatunga chuckled inside. The masterplan was in action. While the great spinner took the rest he needed in between bowling England out single-handedly twice, the batsmen would gorge themselves on a pristine surface − if Murali had had to work for his wickets on that pitch, then Ian Salisbury would have to get on his bended knees and pray for his. And pray hard. And probably sacrifice at least 100 head of oxen.

Jayasuriya, in his flamboyant pomp, treated England’s bowlers as a Victorian teacher would have treated the winners of the Top Five Naughtiest Boys competition. He whipped them mercilessly. After Murali had helped Suresh Perera add 59 quick and important runs for the last wicket, Sri Lanka had a lead of 146, and a day-and-a-half remaining.

Seamers Wickremasinghe and Perera fulfilled their contractual obligation of helping the batsmen hit the shine off the new ball, then Murali began to spin England into a paralysis of confusion. England, frankly, bricked it. The spell Murali cast over them is not entirely revealed by his own incredible figures − 9 for 65 in 54 overs of ceaseless mesmerism. Such was the strokeless rigor mortis that England contracted from him that, at the other end, Dharmasena, Jayasuriya and de Silva between them bowled 58 overs in support for just 58 runs. Had England been able to score at just two per over against these three less-than-demonic back-up tweakers, they would almost certainly have saved the game.

I was sitting near a large group of Sri Lankans who were, as Benaud said of the Edgbaston crowd in 1981, “going noisily berserk” as Murali carved himself into cricket immortality. It was a great day to be a cricket fan.

Well, it appears that, once again, I have stayed up past my bedtime truffling around for stats and writing this overlong blog, so the latest Q&A and more thoughts on Pakistan v Australia will have to wait a few days.

Instead, to conclude this spin-obsessed blog, here is a trivia question. Don’t look it up. That would be cheating. And besides, I’ll tell you the answer. So guess. Or telephone your friends and family to discuss the matter before settling on your final answer.

In the 1980s, only three spin bowlers took more than 50 Test wickets at an average of under 30. Who were they?

Think about it. Don’t look down the page yet.

Here comes the answer. If you get it right, you win today’s star prize, which is the right to jump around whatever office/train/bedroom/operating theatre you are reading this blog in, noisily celebrating your phenomenal rightness.

The answer is: Iqbal Qasim (131 at 24.99), Bruce Yardley (89 at 28.64), and Tauseef Ahmed (87 at 29.57).

If you answered correctly without being a close personal friend of at least two of Iqbal Qasim, Bruce Yardley and Tauseef Ahmed, you have my undying respect. Incidentally, thirteen spinners managed that feat in the 1950s, six in 1960s, five in the 70s, and eight in the 90s. Only three managed it in the 2000s – Warne, Murali and Swann − but with five more averaging below 31.3.

At ease.

Andy Zaltzman is a stand-up comedian, a regular on the BBC Radio 4, and a writer