Sri Lanka v Australia, 3rd Test, Colombo, 2nd day March 25, 2004

The key to overcoming Murali - overcome yourself

The Wisden Verdict by Paul Coupar in Colombo



Darren Lehmann: mastered Murali © Getty Images

Darren Lehmann has shown over the past two days that cricket is played as much in the head as on the pitch. Time after time on his way to an unbeaten 153 he shimmied down the pitch against Muttiah Muralitharan, to defend gently, thump rustically, drive through the covers, or nudge delicately. There were few false shots, and seemingly fewer cares in the world.

Murali was made to look like just another bowler, rather than the conjuror who terrified England during their series in December. Then, he took 26 wickets at an average just over 12. England, convinced leaden-footed pad-play was the only strategy and scared by Murali's new doosra that kicks the other way, were reduced to strokeless anxiety.

They occupied the crease for long enough but scored against Murali at only 1.3 an over - here Australia have milked him for more than three. The spectre of Murali haunted the English. The ultimate sign that he had them rattled came when Nasser Hussain, in a premeditated confrontation, resorted to calling him a cheat and a chucker in the vain hope that it would put him off.

Australia have used their feet, not their mouths. Getting out of your crease seems to bring obvious rewards. It helps defuse the doosra: if you get to the pitch of the ball it doesn't matter so much which way it spins. It keeps the scoreboard moving, which Murali hates, because batsmen can actually begin to impose themselves rather than just try to survive. Attacking shots also mean fewer men crowding the bat. And that means less chance of edges or bat-pad chances going to hand.

But using your feet is more difficult than it looks. It starts with the brain, not the legs, and it takes courage as well as twinkling toes. Lehmann summed it up when he said, "You have to back yourself." England's batsmen in December were dogged by fear: fear of failure, fear of being made to look daft if they were beaten when they got down the wicket.

Lehmann has always been a good player of spin. And some of his colleagues, Ricky Ponting in particular, have had also made sorties down the pitch. But Lehmann, in the first series after his close friend David Hookes, the Victorian coach, was senselessly killed, has played better than anyone else. Probably he has played better than at any time in his life, scoring 374 runs in five innings on spinning tracks.

Fear is one of the keys to it all. "I am playing the game," he said after reaching his century here, "for what it is - a game." Terrible events can do that - change your perspective on the importance of cricket. Adam Hollioake of Surrey and England had a superb season with the bat in 2002, having just lost his brother Ben in a road accident. "I realised happiness was more important [than cricket]," he said. "I had no fear of failure."

Batting is a peculiarly stressful art - any moment could bring your downfall, with no chance to redeem a mistake. It seems natural to try to avoid risks. And dancing down the pitch seems risky. But Lehmann has helped show that that strategy is profitable in the long run, if you dare to take the plunge. Perhaps the key to overcoming Murali is overcoming yourself.

Paul Coupar is assistant editor of Wisden Cricketers' Almanack.